Shakespeare and the English language


Even if you’ve never seen a Shakespeare play, you’ll have used one of his words or phrases.

Famous phrases

If you’ve ever been ‘in a pickle’, waited ‘with bated breath’, or gone on ‘a wild goose chase’, you’ve been quoting from The Tempest, The Merchant of Venice and Romeo and Juliet respectively.

Next time you refer to jealousy as « the green-eyed monster, » know that you’re quoting Othello’s arch villain, Iago. (Shakespeare was almost self-quoting here, having first touched on green as the colour of envy in The Merchant of Venice, where Portia alludes to “green-eyed jealousy.”)

Allow yourself to “gossip” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), and you’re quoting him. « The be-all and end-all » is uttered by Macbeth as he murderously contemplates King Duncan, and « fair play » falls from Miranda’s lips in The Tempest.

Some phrases have become so well used that they’re now regarded as clichés – . « A heart of gold »? You’ll find it in Henry V, while “the world’s mine oyster” crops up in The Merry Wives of Windsor.

To be in a pickle

Sarah was in a pickle when she realized that she had missed the last bus home

To be in a difficult situation  – The Tempest

To go on a wild goose chase

I went on a wild goose chase around the supermarket trying to find my favourite cheese. No luck!

To search for something unsuccessfully  – Romeo and Juliet

To have someone in stitches

Sue always has me in stitches. She’s just so funny!

To make someone laugh uncontrollably  -Twelfth Night

To set someone’s teeth on edge

I hate the sound of someone sharpening a knife. It sets my teeth on edge.

To make someone feel annoyed or uncomfortable  – Henry IV Part 1

To eat someone out of house and home

When my brother comes to visit me, he eats me out of house and home but I still love him!

To consume so much food that there is very little left.  – Henry IV Part 2

To be as dead as a doornail

Although my hometown is as dead as a doornail, I still enjoy going back in the holidays.

dead, no life, quiet  – Henry IV Part 2

To vanish into thin air

I don’t know where my keys are. They’ve vanished into thin air.

To disappear  – Othello

To wear your heart on your sleeve

I always know if Jack is feeling sad because he wears his heart on his sleeve.

To show your emotions  – Othello

To have a heart of gold

Robert’s got a heart of gold because he always does his elderly neighbour’s shopping.

To be a very kind person  – Henry V

To do something all in one fell swoop

I like to do my homework all in one fell swoop and relax afterwards.

To do everything at the same time, or in one go – Macbeth

If the mark of a great writer is that they’re still read, then perhaps the mark of a genius is that they’re still spoken, too.