Just the mention of William Shakespeare makes some people cringe. Even I’ll admit his writing seems daunting at times.
Whether a fan or not though, you probably use many of Shakespeare’s phrases on a regular basis.
Here’s a list of 13 popular, albeit strange, sayings The Bard coined. In fact, we say or write some of these so often, they’ve become clichés.
1. “Green-eyed monster”
In “Othello,” Iago uses describes jealousy as a monster which devours its source.
“Oh, beware, my lord, of jealousy!
It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock
The meat it feeds on” (Act 3, Scene 3).
In this case, Iago uses romance as an example. He thinks a man would rather know his wife is cheating than suspect her without proof.
2. “In a pickle”
Meaning: a difficult or uncomfortable situation.
In “The Tempest,” King Alonso asks his jester, Trinculo, “How camest thou in this pickle?” (In modern language, “how did you get so drunk?”)
The drunk Trinculo responds, “I have been in such a pickle since I saw you last …” (Act 5, Scene 1).
Trinculo’s drinking does cause trouble for him, the way we use the phrase today. Shakespeare’s original intent makes sense though. Many pickling processes use alcohol.
3. “The world is your oyster.”
Meaning: being in a position to take advantage of life’s opportunities.
In “The Merry Wives Of Windsor,” Falstaff refuses to lend Pistol any money. Pistol retorts, “Why, then the world’s mine oyster, which I with sword will open” (Act 2, Scene 2).
Since Falstaff won’t help him financially, Pistol vows to obtain his fortune using violent means.
We’ve dropped the angry undertones for modern use.
4. “Catch a cold”
Meaning: to get sick.
In “Cymbeline,” one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known plays, Iachimo says to Posthumus Leonatus, “We will have these things set down by lawful counsel, and straight away for Britain, lest the bargain should catch cold and starve …” (Act 1, Scene 4).
In other words, if the deal takes too long, it will fall apart. Shakespeare created the idea of “cold” causing illness for the first time.
5. “It’s all Greek to me.”
Meaning: that something is indistinguishable or incomprehensible.
In “Julius Caesar,” when Cassius asks Casca what Cicero said, Casca responds, “But, for mine own part, it was Greek to me” (Act 1, Scene 2).
Cassius didn’t understand because he doesn’t speak Greek. The phrase has obviously morphed and expanded its meaning.
6. “Love is blind”
Meaning: an inability to see shortcomings in a lover; doing crazy things when in love.
In the “The Merchant Of Venice,” Jessica disguises herself as a boy just to see her beloved, Lorenzo. Needless to say, she feels a little silly but simply has to see him.
“But love is blind, and lovers cannot see
The pretty follies that themselves commit …” (Act 2, Scene 6)
7. “Wild goose chase”
Meaning: a hopeless and never-ending pursuit.
In “Romeo and Juliet,” Romeo makes a play on words comparing his shoe to his penis, and Mercutio can’t compete with Romeo’s wit. He tells Romeo to stop joking, but Romeo implores his friend to continue — an impossible feat in Mercutio’s mind.
Mercutio says, “Nay, if our wits run the wild-goose chase, I am done, for thou hast more of the wild-goose in one of thy wits than, I am sure, I have in my whole five” (Act 2, Scene 4).
8. “A heart Of gold”
Meaning: a very kind or honorable person.
In “Henry V,” King Henry disguises himself as a commoner, and Pistol, unaware of the King’s true identity, speaks to him. When the King asks if he considers himself a better man than the king, Pistol says, “The king’s a bawcock, and a heart of gold, a lad of life, an imp of fame …” (Act 4, Scene 1).
9. “Break the ice”
Meaning: to start conversation.
“And if you break the ice, and do this feat,
Achieve the elder, set the younger free …” (Act 1, Scene 2).
In the “The Taming Of The Shrew,” Baptista Minola has two daughters: a sassy one and a modest, beautiful one — the younger daughter. He refuses to let any suitors even speak to his younger daughter until his older daughter marries. Tranio (as Lucentio) suggests that another man marry the older daughter, so he can try to win the younger one’s affection.
10. “Laughing stock”
Meaning: a person subjected to ridicule.
In “The Merry Wives Of Windsor,” Doctor Caius says to Sir Hugh Evans:
“Pray you let us not be laughing-stocks to other men’s humours;
I desire you in friendship, and I will one way or other make you amends” (Act 3, Scene 1).
Here, Doctor Caius thinks the two will make fools of themselves if they fight — exactly what people want and expect. They should end the conflict and save their reputations instead.
11. “Wear your heart on your sleeve”
Meaning: to express your emotions openly, especially when others notice without much effort.
In “Othello,” Iago says he’ll “wear my heart upon my sleeve. For daws to peck at: I am not what I am” (Act 1, Scene 1).
The phrase most likely stemmed from jousting matches in the Middle Ages. Knights would wear tokens (such as scarfs) from their ladies tucked into the sleeves of their armour. But the first recorded use appears in Shakespeare’s play.
12. “Dogs of war”
Meaning: soldiers; the brutalities that accompany war.
In “Julius Caesar,” Mark Antony says to Brutus and Cassius, “Cry “Havoc!” and let slip the dogs of war …” (Act 3, Scene 1) shortly after Caesar’s assassination.
Here, Mark Antony predicts that Caesar’s ghost will come back, with help from the goddess of vengeance, to start a massive war in Italy.
He continues, “This foul deed will stink up to the sky with men’s corpses, which will beg to be buried” (Act 3, Scene 1).
Thus, the phrase today carries a serious connotation.
13. “Method to his madness”
Meaning: Someone’s strange behaviour has a purpose.
In “Hamlet” Polonius says as an aside, “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t” (Act 2, Scene 2).
In the previous scene, Hamlet just read a letter and criticised its author for being rude. But Polonius knows something that Hamlet doesn’t and understands the “method” behind the author’s “madness.”
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.