Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Popular Phrases Penned by Shakespeare

It's All Greek to Me! Common Phrases
to Thank Shakespeare For
It always baffles me when someone claims that Shakespeare is boring and has no relevance to modern life. I think the themes of Shakespeare's plays have huge relevance - more on that here, but it's also Shakespeare's words that linger, whether we're aware of it or not.

For, example, here are just a few of the everyday phrases that were coined by William Shakespeare:

“A foregone conclusion.” (Othello)

Found in Act III, Scene iii of Othello and spoken by the eponymous hero, “But this denoted a foregone conclusion: ’Tis a shrewd doubt, though it be but a dream.”(III.iii) The phrase ‘foregone conclusion’ is used to denote anything that is deemed as an obvious outcome without the requirement of further proof or evidence.

“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” (Romeo and Juliet)

One of the most famous lines in all of Shakespeare’s work, this phrase is found in Act II, Scene ii of Romeo and Juliet. It is spoken by Juliet during her great ‘balcony scene’ “What’s in a name? that which we call a rose/By any other name would smell as sweet;”(II.ii) In other words, it doesn’t matter what something is called; the title or label that we give things is not as important as what the thing actually ‘is’.

“All that glitters is not gold.” (The Merchant of Venice)

The Prince of Morocco Discovers That 'All That
Glitters is Not Gold'
Sometimes said, “All that glisters is not gold,” comes from Act II, Scene vii of The Merchant of Venice and is said by the Prince of Morocco (one of Portia’s suitors), who is reading aloud the text from a scroll, “All that glitters is not gold;/Often have you heard that told:”(II.vii)

The phrase, which means not everything that looks valuable truly has value, is possibly more relevant in today’s materialistic society than it was in Shakespeare’s lifetime. However, he was by no means the first to espouse this notion. In fact, Alain de Lille, a French theologian wrote “Do not hold everything gold that shines like gold,” in the 12th century.

“It’s all Greek to me.” (Julius Caesar)

Meaning that something is unintelligible, the phrase was coined in Act I, Scene ii of Julius Caesar. It is spoken during a conversation between Cassius and Casca, “…those that understood him smiled at one another and shook their heads; but, for mine own part, it was Greek to me.”(I.ii)

“Fight fire with fire”

Shakespeare's King John Must Learn to
'Fight Fire With Fire'
Technically, Shakespeare did not invent this exact phrase. The version that we now know came much later. However, he undoubtedly used a precursor to the modern phrase in Act V, Scene i of King John.

The line is said by Philip Faulconbridge, who is known throughout the play as ‘Bastard’. “Be stirring as the time; be fire with fire;/Threaten the threatener and outface the brow/Of bragging horror.”(V.i) In other words, retaliate using the same, or similar, methods as the ones used by your attacker.

Of course, these are just a handful of the phrases which are used in modern English and were coined by William Shakespeare. They do, however, help demonstrate the huge influence Shakespeare’s work has had, and continues to have, on the English language.

If you’d like to learn more about how Shakespeare has influenced contemporary English language, check out What’s It All About, Shakespeare? An Introduction to The Bard of Avon.

This post was originally published on, by the author.

As mentioned, there are plenty more popular phrases that were penned by Shakespeare. So, if I haven't mentioned your favourite 'Shakespearean' phrase that's still commonly used today, why not mention it in the comments below?

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