10 Phrases Invented by Shakespeare

When most think of William Shakespeare, they are likely to think of the timeless tale of star-crossed lovers, Romeo and Juliet. Maybe you've also read Macbeth or Hamlet, perhaps A Midsummer Night's Dream. Beyond the parameters of our GCSE English lessons, however, many of us have not engaged with much of the Bard's extensive and brilliant portfolio of works. Yet Shakespeare's popularity and timelessness is rather impressive: he is widely regarded to be the greatest dramatist of the English language and his works have been translated into every major language and performed more times than those of any other playwright.  

Perhaps, being a graduate of English Literature, I am slightly biased, but the facts do speak for themselves. Clearly, Billy Shakes is quite the guy.

What many do not know about Shakespeare is the extent to which his work ​continues to impact the modern day: it is estimated that he popularised in excess of 1500 words and phrases now common to the English language.

 

As well as inventing entirely new language, Shakespeare also created new words by connecting existing ones together ('bloodstained; in Henry IV Part I) or adding prefixes and suffixes to words ('unaware' in Venus and Adonis).

This article explores a (very) small selection of words and phrases popularised by William Shakespeare.

 

'Salad days' Anthony and Cleopatra, Act I Scene V

When reminiscing on her youth and inexperience regarding passion, Cleopatra speaks of her 'salad days', when she 'was green in judgement: cold in blood'. The phrase has now taken on the extra meaning of a person's heyday or peak. The phrase has also been used for the titles of a longrunning 1950s musical by Julian Slade, a studio album by Mac DeMarco (highly recommend) and a Monty Python sketch!

 

'More fool you' The Taming of the Shrew, Act V Scene II

Bianca is the sister of Katherine, the stubborn 'shrew' who is 'tamed'. By the end of the play, Bianca herself has become headstrong, and directs the mocking phrase 'the more fool you for laying on my duty' at her admirer Lucentio when he laments that her loyalty to him is not absolute.

If reading Shakespeare doesn't float your boat, this play has also been adapted (albeit with very liberal artistic license) into a 1999 rom-com called 10 Things I Hate About Youstarring Heath Ledger and Julia Stiles.

 

'Green-eyed monster' - Othello, Act III Scene IV

Perhaps one of the most widely used on this list, the 'green-eyed monster' is a well-known metaphor for jealousy. Othello's duplicitous companion, Iago, torments him with speculation of his wife's infidelity, warning that envy will make a mockery of him if he is not careful, because jealousy is the 'green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on'. 

 

'Eaten out of house and home'Henry IV, Part II, Act II Scene I

Let's imagine a familiar scene: you return from university after months living off of meal deals and very basic dinners to the luxury of home cooking. Your mum looks in the fridge which you have all but devoured and shouts 'My god, you're going to eat me out of house and home!', likely oblivious that she is quoting Shakespeare himself.

The idiom comes from one of his history plays, Henry IV, Part II, and is used by the inn-keeper Mistress Quickly. She shouts that Sir John Falstaff, companion to the future king, 'hath eaten me out of house and home. He hath put all my substance into that fat belly of his'.

 

'Wild-goose chase' Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene IV

Synonymous with impossibility, hopelessness and general chaos, the term 'wild goose chase' was first coined by Romeo and Juliet fan-favourite Mercutio when he, Benvolio and Romeo engage in some classic Renaissance lad banter.

In Baz Luhrmann's wonderful 1996 adaptation of the play, Mercutio is played by Harold Perrineau. Click here to watch one of his best scenes, which displays Luhrmann's brilliant mix of the original text with modern culture.

 

'The be-all and end-all' Macbeth, Act I Scene VII

The be-all and end-all is a goal of far greater importance than all others. Macbeth hopes that the swift assassination of King Duncan will serve to remove any blame or consequences he might incur, with the murder acting as 'the be-all and the end-all' which will easily allow Macbeth to assume the title of King of Scotland. (Spoiler: it doesn't)

 

'All that glitters is not gold'Merchant of Venice, Act II Scene VII

Shakespeare dished out his fair share of wisdom in his time. One famous proverb is 'all that glitters is not gold', meaning that not everything that looks beautiful or flawless is truly so. In the play, the Prince of Morocco opens a golden casket to reveal a scroll inscribed with a poem which criticises his superficial greed.

While Shakespeare popularised this phrase, its sentiment can be traced back to Chaucer's 1380 Middle English poem, The House of Famewhich reads 'Hit is not al gold, that glareth', or even further to the 12th century French poet and theologian, Alain de Lille, who wrote 'Do not hold everything gold that shines like gold'

 

'There's method in the madness' Hamlet, Act II Scene II

This phrase has changed slightly since it was first used by Shakespeare. When responding to Hamlet's glaring insanity, Polonius notices an underlying significance in his words, which he says are 'pregnant' with meaning: he remarks 'Though this is madness, yet there is method in it'.

The modern English language has shortened this to 'there's method in the madness', meaning that there is purpose in something that may appear crazy or delusional to someone else.

 

'Eyeball'The Tempest, Act I Scene II

This is an example of where Shakespeare has simply combined two separate words to create another. There is some disagreement as to whether he actually invented the word, but he certainly popularised it. It is used when Prospero tells Ariel to disguise herself so that no one but the two of them will recognise her: 'To no sight but thine and mine, invisible to every eyeball else'. It is also used in A Midsummer Night's Dream and As You Like It.

 

'Swagger' -  A Midsummer Night's Dream, Act III Scene I and Henry V, Act II Scene IV

Who would have thought it? The words 'swagger', 'swaggering' and 'swaggerer' come from Shakespeare plays.

Its first mention comes in A Midsummer Night's Dream, when Puck stumbles upon an acting troupe who have found their way into the fairy-ruled forest, and wonders how these 'hempen homespuns' (modern translation: country bumpkins) have found themselves 'swaggering so near the cradle of the fairy queen'. It is also used in Henry IV, Part II, again by Mistress Quickly, who uses four variations of the word within one speech.

 

 

If you are interested in reading more Shakespeare, his works are almost entirely available to read online. If you prefer a print version (who doesn't?) then you can access a wide range of his works here or at any other bookstore. Alternatively, the Globe Theatre puts on productions all year round, as do many other local theatres. At the Exeter University, ShakeSoc also put on termly productions.