You don’t have to know Shakespeare to quote him. Every day we quote Shakespeare, without even knowing we are using his words. He has become part and parcel of our language.
Scholars have estimated he coined 1,700 words. Many of the words we use are traced back to his poems and plays.
There are no records of others before him using words such as academe, accessible, addiction, amazement, arch-villain, assassination, auspicious, barefaced, baseless, batty, belongings, birthplace, bloodstained, blood-sucking, blusterer, bold-faced, bubble, bump. And those are only words beginning with the first two letters of the alphabet. Run through the rest of the alphabet and you will find more words handed down by Shakespeare.
As good luck would have it
As good luck would have it, he was a genius or we would be at a loss for words. There in one sentence are two phrases first found in Shakespeare. “Foregone conclusion” is from Othello and “as good luck would have it” from The Merry Wives of Windsor. “But this denoted a foregone conclusion,” Othello tells Iago (Act 3, Scene 3). “As good luck would have it, comes in one Mistress Page,” says Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor (Act 3, Scene 5).
It’s neither here nor there – it’s not terribly important – whether you know your Shakespeare or not. The world is your oyster – you can do anything you want, go anywhere you like – as long as you are a wiz at science or technology. There again we have two phrases first found in Shakespeare. “’Tis neither here nor there,” says Emilia to Desdemona in Hamlet (Act 4, Scene 3). When Falstaff says, “I will not lend thee a penny”, Pistol replies, “Why then the world’s mine oyster, / Which I with sword will open” in The Merry Wives of Windsor (Act 2, Scene 2).
True, some of Shakespeare’s phrases seem archaic, old-fashioned. For example, “the world’s mine oyster”. That was more likely to be used in this writer’s salad days, when he was young. “Salad days”, meaning when one was young, is another phrase first found in Shakespeare. “My salad days, / When I was green in judgment,” Cleopatra recalls, talking to her attendant, Charmian, in Antony and Cleopatra (Act 1, Scene 5). “Salad days” sounds old-fashioned, too: people are more likely to talk and write about salad bars, salad dressings and salad oils.
Bated breath, up in arms and more Shakespeare
But there are plenty of Shakespeare phrases that continue to be widely used.
Fans watch football matches and plaintiffs and defendants await court judgments with “bated breath” – an expression used by Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. “With bated breath and whispering humbleness, / Say this,” he tells Antonio (Act 1, Scene 3).
Fans, of course, are up in arms if their team plays badly or the referee’s decision goes against them. “Up in arms” – that’s another phrase first found in Shakespeare: “The commons here in Kent are up in arms,” the captain tells the Earl of Suffolk in Henry VI, Part 2 (Act 4, Scene 1).
Any player who plays badly is likely to be sent packing – taken off the field and benched, and later maybe even dropped from the team. This expression also goes back to Shakespeare. When Prince Henry doesn’t want to meet a visitor, Falstaff says, “I’ll send him packing” in Henry IV, Part 1 (Act 2, Scene 4).
There are many other words and phrases which have come down to us from Shakespeare.
Hamlet’s father’s ghost talks of “murder most foul” (Act 1, Scene 5).
Iago tells Othello to beware of jealousy, “the green-eyed monster” (Act 3, Scene 3).
Can anything be “too much of a good thing”, Rosalind asks in As You Like It (Act 4, Scene 1).
If you ever gave up something as a “wild goose chase”, or impossible to achieve, then again you were quoting Shakespeare. Mercutio uses the phrase while talking to Romeo in Romeo and Juliet (Act 2, Scene 4).
If you were ever inclined to lie low, you were channelling Shakespeare, too. “Some of us would lie low” rather than quarrel with Don Pedro, says Antonio in Much Ado about Nothing (Act 5, Scene 1).
Shakespeare’s words and phrases have become part of our everyday language. We would be lost without them. Some of his lines have become well-known sayings. For example, this line from The Merchant of Venice: “All that glisters is not gold” (Act 2, Scene 7). Shakespeare could be pithy as a proverb. And magnificent in his blank verse which has resonated through the ages.
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts.
—Jaques in As You Like It (Act 2, Scene 7)
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
—Macbeth in Macbeth (Act 5, Scene %)
We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
— Prospero in The Tempest (Act 4, Scene 1)
Who can fail to respond to poetry like that? Or to a line like this from The Twelfth Night, which has the ring of truth: “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust on them.” (Act 2, Scene 5) Shakespeare wasn’t born great, but he achieved greatness. And all because of words.