If I were King, we’d celebrate the 23rd of April as a National Holiday, the birthdate of the greatest writer of Western Literature. And even though he wrote his plays and poetry four centuries ago in the earliest form of modern English–‘Elizabethan English’–his ideas and phrases and characters and themes still resonate with us today. They have, in fact, settled deep into our daily lives. To celebrate his birthday this year, allow me to share just a few of the many dozens of popular phrases Shakespeare coined, with an example here or there of their uses in our modern day world. Enjoy!
‘All our yesterdays’ from Macbeth
Though not used in every day speech as a tossed off quip, it’s often used in art, including pop art. One of the most favorite episodes of the Original Star Trek’s third season was called ‘All Our Yesterdays,’ a time-travel yarn. And Shakespeare was obsessed with time.
‘Bated breath’ from The Merchant of Venice
Such a common phrase, coined by Shylock.
‘Brave new world’ from The Tempest
Made famous again by Aldous Huxley in the 20th century with his landmark science fiction classic about dystopian society. Both Huxley and the Bard used this phrase ironically.
‘Break the ice’ from The Taming of the Shrew
You’ll be doing this with cocktails soon enough this evening; who knew that this oft-used quip came from the Bard?
‘Brevity is the soul of wit’ from Hamlet
Ironically, this comes from Hamlet, Shakespeare’s longest play.
‘Cold comfort’ from The Taming of the Shrew and King John
Shakespeare so loved this, he used it twice.
‘Crack of doom’ from Macbeth
No, Tolkien didn’t create this. The three weird sisters in Macbeth did, when predicting Macbeth’s….doom.
‘Dead as a doornail’ from 2 Henry VI
I use this phrase every night after work, just before my first cocktail.
‘Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war’ from Julius Caesar
Most recently used by Kevin Spacey in House of Cards.
‘Eaten me out of house and home’ from 2 Henry IV
What my hosts say to me every time I visit.
‘Foregone conclusion’ from Othello
Othello speaks this, but it’s the evil Iago who prompts it. A powerful phrase, be careful when you use it–it’s so often untrue.
‘The game is afoot’ from I Henry IV
Conan Doyle borrowed this for Sherlock Holmes.
‘Good riddance’ from Troilus and Cressida
One of our favorite modern phrases, don’t you think?
‘It was Greek to me’ from Julius Caesar
Many people feel this about Shakespeare when they first try to read him. Give him a chance!
‘In a pickle’ from The Tempest
Such a silly aphorism, from one of the most sublime plays ever written.
‘In my heart of hearts’ from Hamlet
Spoken by lovers till this very day, first used in one of the most grim tragedies ever written.
‘Killing frost’ from Henry VIII
We have one of these every year, yet no one used the phrase till The Bard.
‘Knock knock! Who’s there?’ from Macbeth
Yes, Macbeth is one of the bloodiest tragedies ever written, but here you go. Something every child learns. In the play, this is one of the few instances of humor, though even the humor here is pretty dark.
‘Something wicked this way comes’ from Macbeth
Ray Bradbury titled his classic novel of dark fantasy after this evocative phrase.
‘Sound and fury’ from Macbeth
Faulkner used this for his famous classic, The Sound and the Fury.
‘Too much of a good thing’ from As You Like It
Yes, even in the squalor of Elizabethan life, it was possible to have too much of a good thing.
‘Wear my heart upon my sleeve’ from Othello
However, the villain of Othello famously did not wear his heart on his sleeve, but kept his evil designs guarded till the very end.
‘What the dickens?’ from The Merry Wives of Windsor
No, this did not come from Charles Dickens.
‘What’s in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet’ from Romeo and Juliet
Yes, even Romeo and Juliet could inspire the writers of the original Star Trek.