19 Shakespeare phrases you probably don't realise you're using today

Members of the public wear William Shakespeare masks during the parade marking 400 years since the death of the playwright in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire.

Members of the public wear William Shakespeare masks during the parade marking 400 years since the death of the playwright in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire.

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Britain has been celebrating the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare this weekend.

The Bard's legacy can still be found in the English language in the dozens of sayings and phrases he left behind in his many works.

Re-enactor John Evans looks at a bust of William Shakespeare during the parade marking 400 years since the death of the playwright in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire.

Re-enactor John Evans looks at a bust of William Shakespeare during the parade marking 400 years since the death of the playwright in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire.

Here are 19 which can be traced to his works, and how their meanings are interpreted today.

1. "With bated breath" - Merchant of Venice

Spoken by Shylock, the original meaning was to speak in a hushed and humble voice, and was delivered with sarcasm and scorn. Today, it is used to more simply describe anticipation.

2."The be-all and the end-all" - Macbeth

A cake decorated with the bust of William Shakespeare on display during the parade marking 400 years since the death of the playwright in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire.

A cake decorated with the bust of William Shakespeare on display during the parade marking 400 years since the death of the playwright in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire.

Uttered by Macbeth as he ponders killing the king and usurping the crown, he wonders if the act of assassination is all he needs to do to sit on the throne. Today, it is used to describe a decisive end, or an all-consuming desire.

3. "Break the ice" - The Taming of the Shrew

Spoken by Tranio, telling Petruchio if he breaks the ice with Katherine, this may lead to a better relationship between them - in their case, a love-match. The meaning remains much the same today.

4. "Dead as a doornail" - Henry VI, Part II

A man peers out of a window wearing a William Shakespeare mask during the parade marking 400 years since the death of the playwright in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire.

A man peers out of a window wearing a William Shakespeare mask during the parade marking 400 years since the death of the playwright in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire.

A common phrase dating to at least the 14th century, which Shakespeare - and his character Jack Cade - helped enshrine for future generations. Its meaning is self-explanatory.

5."Faint-hearted" - Henry VI, Part I

The phrase had much the same meaning in Shakespeare's day as it does now, in describing a lack of courage. However its use is more like rueful or cautionary advice in contemporary usage, rather than its original purpose as an insult.

6. "Wild-goose chase" - Romeo and Juliet

Romeo's friend Mercutio uses the phrase to describe the pair's rapid and witty exchange. It refers to an old game played out on horseback where a lead rider is chased by a pack of others who must mimic the leader's unpredictable turns. Today it is used more simply to describe embarking on a pointless task.

7. "Laugh yourselves into stitches" - Twelfth Night

In modern-day speech we would say "in stitches" with laughter, but the meaning of Maria to Sir Toby Belch is the same as it is now - to laugh until it hurts.

8. "Zany" - Love's Labour's Lost

The reference in the play is to a comedic buffoon, jester or a mimic, but the word itself has come to mean anything crazed, idiosyncratic or slightly off-the-wall.

9. "I will wear my heart upon my sleeve" - Othello

The character Iago uses the phrase in conversation with Roderigo, as he duplicitously claims to be telling the truth. Today, the saying is used to honestly describe revealing one's true feelings or emotions.

10. "What's done, is done" - Macbeth

Lady Macbeth's meaning then, is the same today - you cannot change the past.

11. "At one fell swoop" - Macbeth

When Macduff discovers Macbeth has ordered his wife and children killed, his grief and rage are summed up in this economic phrasing. Its meaning today remains the same - to carry out a swift, decisive act.

12. "Though this be madness, yet there is method in it (There's method in my madness)" - Hamlet

The exact phrasing of Polonius's remarks on Hamlet's state of mind may have undergone a change over the centuries, but the meaning that there is a sort of order at play even when not immediately obvious, remains unchanged.

13."Spotless reputation" - Richard II

The meaning of the Duke of Norfolk Thomas Mowbray's phrase is the same then as it is today, meaning someone or something of impeccable public standing.

14. "Laughing-stocks (laughing stock)" - The Merry Wives of Windsor

Sir Hugh Evans intends to duel Dr Caius, but when he realises the two men are being made fun of by spectators, utters this famous phrase, which still retains the same meaning.

15. "Eaten me out of house and home" - Henry IV, Part 2

The meaning of this phrase is the same today as it was when Shakespeare's players walked the boards.

16."Fair play" - The Tempest/King John/Troilus and Cressida

The meaning as Miranda spoke of it in The Tempest has not changed with modern times.

17. "In a pickle" - The Tempest

In a conversation between Alonso and Trinculo the phrase, or a variation on it, crops up twice, but the meaning remains much the same - to describe being in a fix.

18. "Send him packing" - Henry IV, Part 1

The saying, meaning to send someone on their way ignominiously, has not changed since it was used by the character Falstaff.

19."Too much of a good thing" - As You Like It

When Rosalind asks of Orlando if he can have too much of a good thing, it was delivered as a sexually suggestive pun, whereas today it is routinely used as a sober observation.