Much like Geoffrey Chaucer, who introduced around 2000 words to the English Language, William Shakespeare was responsible for coining many common phrases that we still use to this day. Whilst some of these phrases are a testament to Shakespeare’s incredible linguistic agility and imagination, others are so much a part of everyday speech that we probably don’t even know that he made them popular.
So, let’s take a look at five of the Bard’s most influential phrases – and the plays that made them famous.
At this point in the play, several suitors are attempting to court Portia – the beautiful, wealthy, and accomplished protagonist of The Merchant of Venice. To win Portia’s heart, her suitors must undergo a test. Of the three caskets presented to them, they must pick the casket containing Portia’s portrait. One suitor, the Prince of Morocco, chooses the gold casket, which contains a skull and letter of rejection, including the line: ‘All that glitters is not gold.’ This aphorism signifies how even a commodity as desirable and beautiful as gold can be illusory. Through this quote, Shakespeare shows us that even: ‘gilded tombs do worms unfold.’ Gold, despite its enduring nature, cannot protect us from the decay that characterises human existence.
One of Shakespeare’s most tragic plays, Othello, tells the tale of a Moorish General and his beautiful young wife, the ill-fated Desdemona. Iago, the play’s villain, utilises the characteristics that make Othello so unique – his sensitivity and wild imagination – to convince him that Desdemona is having an affair with the young soldier, Cassio. Iago, through a series of soliloquies, has already disclosed his plans to incite extreme jealousy in Othello through manipulative behaviour. As Othello becomes increasingly jealous, Iago tells him to ‘beware’ of jealousy, as: ‘It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on.’ This warning signifies the insidious and self-fulfilling nature of jealousy, which, carefully crafted by Iago the puppet-master, ultimately destroys Othello and Desdemona’s love, before leading to Desdemona’s untimely murder.
Miranda, the innocent and compassionate daughter of the magician Prospero, utters this line when she first lays eyes on several seemingly courtly gentlemen. She has grown up with only the company of her father and their slave, Caliban, and now expresses her astonishment at the beauty and variety of humankind. As one of Shakespeare’s most famous quotes, it captures Miranda’s incredible innocence and naivety, as the creatures before her are ultimately revealed to be anything but ‘goodly.’
Miranda’s blind trust in the strangers, and her ability to see goodness and beauty in them, should perhaps not be dismissed as a simplistic worldview. In her innocence, perhaps she ultimately demonstrates a nuanced understanding of humankind and the shades of good and evil that exist in all of us.
Author Aldous Huxley liked this quote so much he named his famed dystopian novel, Brave New World, after it. Huxley’s novel, like Shakespeare’s quote, gestures towards the dualistic nature of the world. In Brave New World, human progress is achieved through the inception of technology, yet the existence of these same great technologies also results in devastating consequences for the individuals they impact.
Of all the well-known phrases of Shakespeare, there is perhaps no phrase used as much in everyday speech as this one. Used to describe the follies – and the metaphorical blindness – of couples in love, it perfectly captures the attitude of the love-sick. Jessica, the daughter of the Jew Shylock, speaks this phrase to her Christian lover. In a bid to prevent her father from finding out about their elopement, Jessica dresses as a boy and joins her lover in a boat at nightfall. Though she is concerned that he will be put off by her more masculine attire, as they are in the dark, her appearance is obscured. Once inside the boat, Jessica says: ‘…love is blind, and lovers cannot see / The pretty follies that themselves commit.’
The ‘Love’ Jessica speaks of here is an allusion to Cupid, the Roman God of Love, who was said to shoot individuals with his crossbow whilst blindfolded, resulting in those struck by its arrow instantly falling irrevocably in love.
One of the simplest yet most inventive of phrases first coined by Shakespeare comes in The Taming of the Shrew (a scene is depicted above), which tells the story of two sisters: Bianca and Katherine. Lucentio wishes to marry Bianca, but they cannot become engaged until Bianca’s older sister Kate, ‘the shrew’ of the title, is married. The line is uttered by Biondello, a servant of Lucentio’s, to Lucentio, as he warns him that he must make immediate plans to marry Bianca, otherwise he must anticipate bidding ‘….Bianca farewell forever and a day.’
On the one hand, the phrase is self-explanatory: it implies an indefinite amount of time. Yet it also suggests an impossibility: a day cannot exist alongside infinity. Despite presenting us with a contradiction, this quote combines Shakespeare’s incomparable imagination, with simplicity, creating the perfect paradox.
Jessica is a freelance copywriter and content writer based in Richmond-Upon-Thames. With a degree in English Literature from University College London, she has experience as a private tutor for 14-18 years olds and adult learners. She has also worked in Widening Participation as a Mentor, Student Ambassador, and Student Leader. As someone who achieved A-Levels through distance-learning, Jessica has first-hand experience of the unique challenges and rewards that distance-learning offers. She regularly contributes content to educational websites including eNotes and Tutorful.