Although we may not realize it, many common phrases we use today were written by Shakespeare hundreds of years ago. When was the last time you were so tired you felt as “dead as a doornail”? Or when you experienced a “wild goose chase”? Although these sayings may not have been coined by Shakespeare himself, they were certainly present in his written works and were popularized by him.
Here are some Shakespearean phrases in their literary context to boost your knowledge of The Bard.
1. Dish fit for the gods
“And, gentle friends,
Let’s kill him boldly but not wrathfully.
Let’s carve him as a dish fit for the gods,
Not hew him as a carcass fit for hounds.”
Shakespeare did not use this phrase to describe your standard Thanksgiving or Lunar New Year’s dinner. Instead, Brutus uses it when planning the murder of Emperor Julius Caesar with his co-conspirators. Rather than murdering Caesar with brutality and hatred, Brutus asks that they all see the killing in a noble light. He likens the act to a ceremonial sacrifice worthy of the gods, an offering or cleansing instead of murder.
2. Wear your heart on your sleeve
“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.”
Nowadays, we say that wearing one’s heart on their sleeve signifies vulnerability and honesty with your feelings. Ironically enough, the phrase is used by Iago, who is arguably the most dishonest and trickery-inducing characters of the whole play. He explains that if he were to portray his inner motivations outwardly, he would be endangering himself, allowing others to attack his exposed intentions.
3. Break the ice
“And if you break the ice and do this feat,
Achieve the elder, set the younger free
For our access, whose hap shall be to have her
Will not so graceless be to be ingrate.”
In The Taming of the Shrew, Baptista Minola’s younger daughter Bianca is highly sought after by suitors. However, Baptista refuses to allow Bianca to marry until his elder daughter Katherine is wed. This leads to a scheme where Bianca’s suitors try to marry Katherine off to other men so that they can later claim Bianca for themselves. In the process, the character Tranio attempts to convince Petruchio to marry Katherine and “break the ice” with her to make Bianca available. The phrase is used similarly to how it is used today, which is to engage with someone socially, and may also refer to breaking or taming Katherine’s shrewish nature.
4. Love is blind
“But love is blind, and lovers cannot see
The pretty follies that themselves commit,
For if they could Cupid himself would blush
To see me thus transformèd to a boy.”
Chaucer first wrote this phrase in 1504 in The Merchant’s Tale, claiming that “Love is blynd alday, and may nat see”, or that “Love is always blind, and may not see”. The character Jessica from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice says something similar when she meets with her lover Lorenzo while disguised as a boy. Though she first expresses shame for her boyish appearance, she then claims that since love is blind, lovers cannot see the silly acts they themselves commit.
5. Heart of Gold
“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.
I kiss his dirty shoe, and from heartstring
I love the lovely bully.”
When the soldier Pistol is prompted to compare himself to the king in Henry V, he describes the king in flattering terms, including having a heart of gold. The phrase has very much stayed true to its original meaning: that one with a heart of gold is rare and generous.
Kristine is an English Literature and Psychology double major at UBC. She is passionate about science journalism, mental health, all kinds of art, and diverse representation in media. When she’s not glasses-deep in projects, Kristine enjoys listening to falling rain, inventing bad puns for unlikely scenarios, and cultivating her coffee snobbery.