To Mark His 450th Birthday, Here Are 26 Shakespeare Phrases We Still Use Today

Gemma Arterton and Brendan O’Hea perform at Shakespeare’s Globe in London. Photo: Getty

Happy birthday Bill the Bard, who is 450 years young today, yet timeless.

Despite the enormous amount of scholarly energy expended on William Shakespeare’s life, when he was born remains a mystery, but he was baptised on April 26, 1564 in Stratford-Upon-Avon. He died, 38 plays, 154 sonnets and several poems later, serendipitously on his 52nd birthday, April 23, 1616.

That’s St George’s Day, but some point to the confusion arising from the fact that Britain was still using the Julian calendar (they switched to the Gregorian calendar in 1752, dropping 11 days).

Shakespeare’s remarkable legacy would probably not exist today were it not for the efforts of two colleagues and friends, John Heminges and Henry Condell, members of the theatrical group Lord Chamberlain’s Men, who Shakespeare wrote for. They produced a First Folio of 18 plays, seven years after his death.

To understand how important that was, by the time Pericles appeared in the Third Folio, 40 years on, six non-Shakespeare plays were also included, perhaps adding fuel to the subsequent debate over whether he was the true author of his actual plays.

Nonetheless, Shakespeare is second only to The Bible in his influence on modern English. And four centuries after he put pen to paper, his phrases are woven so seamlessly into our modern idiom, few realise how rich he made the way we express ourselves.

Here are 26 phrases, of hundreds, from Pomp and circumstance to Break the ice, Play fast and loose, Kill with kindness, Seen better days, Neither rhyme nor reason, The Milk of human kindness, The jaws of death, Making a virtue of necessity, Good riddance and My heart of hearts, William Shakespeare bequeathed us.

This engraving of Shakespeare, by Martin Droeshout, appeared in the First Folio of his collected works.

1. It’s all Greek to me
Perhaps Shakespeare was riffing on a Latin phrase used by Monks struggling to translate Greek texts, but in Julius Caesar, after Cicero speaks, Cassius asks Casca what he said, to which Casca, mystified, replies “…those that understood him smiled at one another and shook their heads; but, for mine own part, it was Greek to me.”
And the Greeks have got all the credit for being incomprehensible ever since.

2. The world is my oyster
“Why, then the world’s mine oyster, which I with sword will open,” says Pistol to Falstaff in The Merry Wives Of Windsor, seeking money and prepared to use a weapon to get it. Nowadays the first half has a more benevolent meaning, promising opportunity.

3. The be-all and the end-all
“That but this blow, might be the be-all and the end-all here,” says the Kingslayer of 400 years ago, Macbeth, pondering the murder of Duncan. As it turned out in the Scottish play, it was far from it.

4. Method to his madness
“Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t” says Polonius of Hamlet. It has since morphed into the current saying meaning someone knows what they’re doing, even when it’s not obvious. We’ve modernised it slightly and turned it into a popular phrase as a Board seeks to understand the CEO’s actions.

5. Make a short shrift [of things]
Says Ratcliffe to Hastings in Richard III: “Come, come, dispatch: the Duke would be at dinner; Make a short shrift: he longs to see your head.”
Shrift actually means confession, so Ratcliffe is saying make a brief confession. We’ve since modified it to phrases such as giving short shrift, meaning paying brief attention.

6. What the dickens
It has nothing to do with Charles Dickens.
“I cannot tell what the dickens his name is” says Mistress Page in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Dickens is a euphemism for the devil.

7. A sorry sight
“This is a sorry sight,” says Macbeth, looking at his hands, having just murdered King Duncan.
“A foolish thought, to say a sorry sight,” replies his wife.
No, Lady Macbeth, he was right.

8. With bated breath
Please note, not “baited”. It’s a shortened ‘abated’, meaning stopped as Shylock says to money-seeking Antonio “Shall I bend low and in a bondman’s key with bated breath and whispering humbleness say this…” He’s breathless, not smelling of sardines.

9. A wild-goose chase
The etymology of the phrase is believed to have derived from a follow-the-leader horse race, which saw them racing in a V formation, like wild geese, but Shakespeare gave the term to Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, telling Romeo “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.”
It’s gone on to mean a futile pursuit.

10. Such stuff as dreams are made on
No, it’s not from Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon, who says “The stuff that dreams are made of,” but rather Prospero, in The Tempest, in one of the most beautifully philosophical contemplations of mortality, saying “We are such stuff as dreams are made on; and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”

11. Spotless reputation
A man’s reputation was a regular Shakespeare theme, from Iago’s musings on the theft of “my good name” in Othello to Mowbray in Richard II, riffing on the King’s line “Lions make leopards tame” and Jeremiah 13:23 in The Bible (the leopard can’t change its spots bit), when he says “The purest treasure mortal times afford is spotless reputation.”

12. A heart of gold
No, it’s not from Neil Young, but rather a punter, Pistol, luckily, saying nice things about King Henry when the man himself wanders incognito among the plebs, asking what they think of him.
“The King’s a bawcock, and a heart of gold, a lad of life, an imp of fame, of parents good, of fist most valiant,” Pistol says, Phew. Good answer.

13. The green-eyed monster
Iago offers wise advice in Othello when he says “Oh, beware, my lord, of jealousy! It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on.”

14. In such a pickle
The Bard loved a good drunk scene and in The Tempest, King Alonso asks the jester Trinculo “How camest thou in this pickle?” to which he replies “I have been in such a pickle since I saw you last.”
He’s asking why are you so hammered, which is why we still describe someone getting drunk as getting pickled, but of course drinking leads to a shambles and difficulty, the modern meaning.

15. Too much of a good thing
From As You Like It, the play that also gave us “All the world’s a stage” comes Rosalind’s response to Orlando’s pleading for love and affection.
“Why then, can one desire too much of a good thing?”
It’s a double entendre, since thing was also a slang term for genitalia. How very Benny Hill, Bill.

16. Love is blind
Jessica has the hots for Lorenzo in The Merchant Of Venice and is prepared to dress as a boy to go see him. No wonder she says “But love is blind, and lovers cannot see the pretty follies that themselves commit, for if they could Cupid himself would blush.”

17. Set my teeth on edge
Next time New Zealanders complain that Australians are mean about Kiwi accents, point to Henry IV, Part I, where Hotspur, leader of the rebellion, doesn’t do a particularly good job of keeping Glendower on side when he gets stuck into his Welsh accent, and also has a dig at the arts and perhaps even the play’s author, saying “I had rather hear a brazen canstick turn’d, or a dry wheel grate on the axle-tree; And that would set my teeth nothing on edge, nothing so much as mincing poetry.”

18. The long and the short of it
Shakespeare uses “the short and the long” in The Merry Wives of Windsor (including ‘Marry, this is the short and the long of it’), A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Merchant of Venice. It was already in use, according to etymologists, but the Bard’s repeated use ultimately stuck and its since been flicked around.

19. I won’t budge an inch
“I’ll not budge an inch,” says the drunk tinker, Christopher Sly, before passing out in The Taming of the Shrew. It’s an act of defiance that normally denotes stubbornness, yet it’s born of alcoholic paralysis.

20. Wear your heart on your sleeve
In a Promethean declaration of love in Othello, Iago says “For when my outward action doth demonstrate the native act and figure of my heart in compliment extern, ’tis not long after but I will wear my heart upon my sleeve for daws to peck at: I am not what I am.” Bless.

21. Laid on with a trowel
Don’t mess with Celia in As You Like It, or she’ll call you out, saying “Well said. That was laid on with a trowel.” So next time you think you’re speaking Aussie slang, just remember Shakespeare said it first, you literary type, you.

22. For goodness sake
It appears twice in Henry VIII, first in the prologue, then when Wolsey says “For goodness sake, consider what you do, How you may hurt yourself—ay, utterly,” however some scholars argue that since this play was a collaboration with John Fletcher, the term may have come from him.

23. Dead as a doornail
The rebellious Jack Cade of Henry VI, Part II, is warming to his task by Act IV when he breaks into the grounds of his nemesis, Alexander Iden, to steal food, and during their confrontation, says “Look on me well: I have eat no meat these five days; yet, come thou and thy five men, and if I do not leave you all as dead as a doornail, I pray God I may never eat grass more.” After he died, authorities ensure he was even deader – by quartering his body and sending the parts to rebel strongholds.

24. The game is up
Cymbeline, the play about another British king, which also gave us the phrase “I have not slept one wink” also gave us this acknowledgement of impropriety uncovered when Belarius, a banished courtier, accused of being a traitor, who stole the King’s two sons, realises the deception is over, saying “Myself, Belarius, that am Morgan call’d, they take for natural father. The game is up.”

25.Give the devil his due
It’s Henry IV, part 1, and Prince Henry is up to no good, hanging out with Falstaff and Poins, when he says “The devil shall have his bargain, for he was never yet a breaker of proverbs. He will give the devil his due.”
Says Poins to Falstaff: “Then art thou damned for keeping thy word with the devil.”

26. Eaten me out of house and home
The widow Mistress Quickly has dragged Falstaff before the court, seeking compensation, and in making her plea, says “He hath eaten me out of house and home. He hath put all my substance into that fat belly of his.”
She obviously didn’t have teenage boys.