BRITAIN’S Top 10…William Shakespeare phrases


Read our top 10 Shakespeare expressions, and if you disagree with any of our choices then fear not, there’s method in our madness.


1. Wear one’s heart on one’s sleeve

“I will wear my heart upon my sleeve
In compliment extern, ’tis not long after
But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve”
Othello, Act I, Scene I, 1604

This phrase may derive from the Middle Ages when knights are said to have worn the colours of the ladies that were cheering them on by tying ribbons around their sleeves during jousting matches. Today the phrase is usually used to describe someone who is very honest about their feelings (sometimes disarmingly so), like a lovelorn teenager. The fact that these words are actually spoken by Iago during his famous soliloquy in Othello gives them a much more sinister quality, however.

2. Be in a pickle

“And Trinculo is reeling ripe: where should they
Find this grand liquor that hath gilded ’em?
How camest thou in this pickle?”
The Tempest, Act V Scene I, 1610

This phrase has its origins in the 1400s – possibly from the Dutch phrase ‘in de pekel zitten’ – an allusion to feeling as helpless as the stewed vegetables in a pickle. Some stories of the day take this to the literal level, recounting tales of unfortunate peasants who found themselves on the menu of an evil noble lord. Here Shakespeare is probably also playing on the fact that alcohol, which is sometimes used in the pickling process, has contributed to the character of Trinculo’s sticky situation. Whatever the origins, Shakespeare popularised the phrase in literature, and it is one of many culinary expressions he has contributed to the English language.

3. Method in my madness

“Though this be madness yet there is method in it”
Hamlet, Act II, Scene II, 1602

In this famous line from Hamlet, the politician Polonius, convinced that Hamlet is truly mad, recognises some “method” i.e. reason and meaning to what the prince is saying. Polonius considers Hamlet’s madness as  “love-melancholy,” – a genuine disorder in Shakespeare’s time – which today has lost any association with romance.

4. Wild goose chase
“Nay, if thy wits run the wild-goose chase, I have done, for thou hast more of the wild-goose in one of thy wits than, I am sure, I have in my whole five”
Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene IV, 1592

Despite the images the expression may conjure up today, it is believed that in Shakespeare’s day this expression related not to hunting but to horse racing. A ‘wild goose chase’ was a chase in which horses followed a lead horse mimicking they way wild geese would fly in formation. Today, the notion of a wild goose chase goes more hand in hand with a futile act, or time wasted rather than its earlier association with the erratic and the chaotic.

5. I have not slept one wink

“Since I received command to do this business
I have not slept one wink”
Cymbeline, Act III, Scene IV, 1623

While associated with Shakespeare, this expression can trace its origins to Robert Manning of Brunne who referenced it in Middle English in his work Handlyng synne, 1303, saying: “Ne mete ete, ne drank drynke, Ne slepte onely a-lepy wynke.’ Shakespeare brought the expression into popular use, and while we cannot be sure if he was aware of its earlier publication, the fact that we know he was an incredibly well-read man suggests some clever intertextual work is at play here.

6. Make your hair stand on end
“I could a tale unfold, whose lightest word would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood, make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres, thy knotted and combined locks to part and each particular hair to stand an end, like quills upon the fretful porpentine”
Hamlet, Act I Scene V, 1602

Shakespeare has used a wealth of imagery in his works; but few are more menacing than a fretful porcupine. Of course, while the ghosts that appear in Hamlet are more than enough to make your hair stand on end, these days the expression is synonymous with goosepimples or ‘gooseflesh’ as it is known across the Atlantic – brought on by the cold English winters perhaps.

7. The world is your oyster

“Why then the world’s mine oyster,
Which I with sword will open…”
The Merry Wives of Windsor, Act II Scene II, 1602

You’re most likely to see this Zen-sounding phrase written on the cover of every London commuter’s lifeline, the Oyster Card – a fitting place considering a trip within zone 1 to Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre will only cost you £2.20. An expression that appeals not just to globetrotters but to positive-minded people across the world, ‘the world is your oyster’ shows that Shakespeare has had not just a literary influence over us, but a spiritual one too.

8. Love is blind

“But love is blind, and lovers cannot see
The pretty follies that themselves commit …”
The Merchant of Venice, Act II, Scene VI, 1598

In the The Merchant Of Venice, the character of Jessica disguises herself as a boy to see her beloved, Lorenzo, one of many occasions in Shakespeare’s plays where cross-dressing is used as a device to separate lovers. Today the expression is used widely and has even inspired scientific research. In 2004 researchers at University College London proved that romantic love “suppresses neural activity associated with critical social assessment of other people”. Who knew Shakespeare was a man of science?

9. Mum’s the word

“Seal up your lips and give no words but mum”
Henry VI: Part 2, Act I Scene II

An obvious pun for magazines and websites around Mother’s Day, (although not BRITAIN), this expression has nothing to do with mothers and everything to do with the noise you make when you close your mouth and try to speak. What we do know is that ‘mumming’, or ‘miming’ as it might also be known, comes from the word ‘mum’. In the past, a parade of characters would go to houses to dance or play games in silence. In the 17th century, ‘Mum’s the word’ would later become the standard expression for asking a person to keep quiet – another expression that we still use today.

10. A piece of work
“What a piece of work is man, how noble in reason”
Hamlet, Act II, Scene II, 1602

In Hamlet’s speech directed at Rosencrantz and Guildenstern he comments on man as a noble being who has fallen from grace. Essentially we can interpret this as a positive statement. Somewhat ironic then that in our modern use of the phrase, we typically mean the opposite. As the Irish writer Oscar Wilde, a dedicated Shakespeare follower, noted: sarcasm is the lowest form of wit but the highest form of intelligence.

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