Sir Tom Stoppard wrote in his play, The Real Thing, “I don’t think writers are sacred, but words are. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones in the right order, you can nudge the world a little or make a poem which children will speak for you when you’re dead.”
Well, if a contemporary writer ever knew the importance of a turn of phrase it is Sir Tom, having employed Shakespeare’s rhyme, rhythm and raconteuring prowess as he exploded onto the scene more than 50 years ago with his breakout play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.
One of the reasons that play was so successful (and will continue to be for many years to come) is that, despite what some modern students and teenagers across the world might tell you, Shakespeare’s language is still so accessible. We use his turns of phrase every day, centuries after his words ‘nudged the world a little’, with them constantly being employed by 8-year-olds and 80-year-olds alike.
So to celebrate National Shakespeare Day, Curtain Call are bringing you our favourite phrases from England’s most famous playwright that we tend to use in everyday life, even though we don’t know we are quoting The Bard himself.
1. KNOCK, KNOCK! WHO’S THERE? - Macbeth, Act II, Scene III
“Knock, Knock! Who’s there” – Porter
Although there are three knocks “(“Knock, knock, knock! Who’s there”) in two out of the three instances the phrase is uttered by the Porter, it’s the shorter phrase that kicked off a joke frenzy over 300 years later. In the Scottish play, however, we never do get to know “who’s there.”
2. WILD-GOOSE CHASE - Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene IV
“Nay, if our wits run the wild-goose chase, I am done, for thou hast more of the wild-goose in one of they wits than, I am sure, I have in my whole five.” – Mercutio
The meaning of this phrase has shifted over the years from what we know it now as a fruitless task. A ‘wild-goose chase’ was a type of horse race wherein a pack of horses would follow a lead horse from a set distance, with the effect of the trailing horses looking like a pack of geese.
3. ELBOW ROOM - King John, Act V, Scene VII
“Ay, marry, now my soul hath elbow-room;” - King John
This phrase can be taken both figuratively and literally. Obviously, King John is not talking about his soul literally having elbows, but that his guilty conscience has finally caught up with him. He has room for his soul to breathe and the King finally has some time to reflect.
4. OFF WITH HIS HEAD - Richard III, Act III, Scene IV
“Thou art a traitor – Off with his head.” - Richard III
The Queen of Hearts may have immortalised these famous lines, but she ripped them off from Shakespeare’s hunchbacked King leading to many imagined headless courtiers in children’s birthday parties across the world.
5. GOOD RIDDANCE - Troilus and Cressida, Act II, Scene I
“A good riddance” – Patroclus
Interestingly, a ‘good’ riddance is not something that Shakespeare coined, with the word being used for many centuries to mean ‘a deliverance from’ or a ‘getting rid of’. Shakespeare toyed around with different ‘riddances’ before ‘good’ stuck - with Portia wishing the Prince of Morocco ‘“a gentle riddance” in Merchant of Venice.
6. BRAVE NEW WORLD - The Tempest, Act V, Scene I
“How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, That has such people in't!” - Miranda
Many literary arguments have been put to paper over the years, hypothesising just what Miranda meant by these words. Was it the fact that she had just seen a ‘bold’ man (using the world bold to mean finely dressed) for the first time, thus awakening her sexuality,? Or was it using the word ‘brave’ to mean ‘bold’ having just witnessed the storm her father conjured and seeing what power could do? In any case, Aldous Huxley used the phrase for the title of his novel which highlights the enthusiasm the human race has for technology while displaying a naivety towards the challenges and control it brings.
7. THE DEVIL INCARNATE - Henry V, Act II, Scene III & Titus Andronicus Act V, Scene I
“Yes, that he did, and said they were devils incarnate.” - Boy
There’s not much hidden meaning behind this little phrase. It means what it says on the tin, the worst person possible. Shakespeare considered this insult so effective that he re-hashed it ten years after writing Henry V when Lucius speaks the line, “O worthy Goth, this is the incarnate devil, That robb'd Andronicus of his good hand;” in Titus Andronicus.
8. THE WORLD IS YOUR OYSTER - The Merry Wives of Windsor, Act II, Scene II
"Why, then the world's mine oyster, which I with sword will open" – Pistol
Pistol’s response to Falstaff’s refusal to lend him money sounds like a classic throwaway line, with Falstaff not even listening to him carrying on with a soliloquy, “Not a penny”. But the phrase has been spouted in modern times by countless businessmen - or at least adorning the walls of their boardrooms on inspirational posters. Admit it...we’ve all seen it.
9. IN A PICKLE - The Tempest, Act V, Scene I
“How camest thou in this pickle? – Alonso
“I have been in such a pickle since I saw you last” – Trinculo
The term as originally coined by Shakespeare meant to be a little worse for wear...In the scene above, the jester Trinculo is just letting King Alonso know that he has been drunk since they last saw each other, but it was the situation that they found themselves in - brought before Prospero by Ariel in their stolen clothes - that stuck to eventually mean “in a tight spot.”
10. LOVE IS BLIND - The Merchant of Venice, Act II, Scene VI
"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." – Jessica
“Love is Blind” is a wonderfully apt verbal shrug of the shoulders when words fail to explain an unlikely pairing between two people who are together despite their perceived faults. Chaucer was the first literary figure to use the phrase “For loue is blynd alday, and may nat see” in the Merchant’s Tale from Canterbury Tales - a classic example of Shakespeare modernising a text and bringing into the popular vernacular.
See Also: Top 10 Shakespeare Phrases
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