Archive for Monday, March 13, 2006

Quoting Shakespeare

You use The Bard’s words more often than you might think

March 13, 2006


Wednesday is the ides of March.

Most people - and certainly those who read William Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" in school - know that means the ominous March 15, or the day Caesar was killed.

While the "ides of March" might not be a common phrase in the English vernacular, chances are you often quote something from Shakespeare's plays.

"A sorry sight"? Shakespeare.

"As dead as a doornail"? Also Shakespeare.

"In a pickle"? Shakespeare again.

"I don't know how much people are aware of it, but certainly people inadvertently use it all the time," says David Bergeron, a Kansas University English professor and Shakespeare scholar. "There is no other author in the English language that we've appropriated into our own language as much as Shakespeare."

Shakespeare's words and phrases have permeated our language to the point that The Bard has become a moral idol of sorts.

Marjorie Garber, a Harvard University scholar and author who spoke at KU earlier this month, says those quoting Shakespeare's plays often attribute the quotes directly to the poet himself with the line, "As Shakespeare said ..." Even Bartlett's Familiar Quotations cites Shakespeare - and not the plays he wrote - as the source of the quotations.

"They're quoting it as if it's Shakespeare's opinion," she says. "Quoting or misquoting Shakespeare's words is not the same as quoting Shakespeare the person."

The quotes sometimes appear in odd sources, Garber says.

For example, Rick Sanchez of CNN once said that Shakespeare might have called President Bush's cuts to education "the unkindest cut of all," a reference to "Julius Caesar." Or NASA's Web site on weather that says, "All the World's a Stage ... for Dust," a reference to "As You Like It."

Politicians also are usual suspects when it comes to quoting Shakespeare's plays. Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia is the "dean" of Shakespeare quoters, Garber says.

And Shakespeare quotes are showing up often in motivational speeches and books geared to businessmen and businesswomen. Some book titles include "Shakespeare in Charge: The Bard's Guide to Leading and Succeeding on the Business Stage" and "Power Plays: Shakespeare's Lessons in Leadership and Management."

Often, Garber says, as is the case in "Julius Caesar" when Polonius offers the advice "to thine own self be true" and "neither a borrower nor a lender be," Shakespeare was using common proverbs of his time.

Bergeron says the popularity of quoting Shakespeare's plays probably stems from how often the works are read and produced.

"Other than the fact he's the greatest - that's my unbiased view - all the ways he's been published and the productions, you can't discredit that," he says. "There's nobody else who's had such a run of productions as Shakespeare. One thing feeds off another. It's a convergence of cultural forces."

Bergeron says he has no problem with Shakespearean phrases creeping into everyday speech.

"I don't think it harms them," he says. "I don't think we've devised anything that can permanently harm Shakespeare - no matter how wretched the productions might be, or how bad the lectures might be."

Garber, the Harvard professor, says she, too, has no problem with the use of Shakespeare in popular culture - especially if it increases interest in his works.

"We need to return to the plays," she says, "and not rely merely on excerpts and sound bites."

Fron the Bard

Some familiar phrases and quotations used by Shakespeare, and the plays they came from:

"All's Well That Ends Well"

"All's well that ends well"

"As You Like It"

"All the world's a stage."

"For ever and a day."

"Too much of a good thing."


"All corners of the world."


"To be or not to be, that is the question."

"Frailty, thy name is woman!"

"Get thee to a nunn'ry."

"The lady doth protest too much, methinks."

"Though this be madness, yet there is method in 't."

"Something is rotten in the state of Denmark."

"Flesh and blood."

"His beard was as white as snow."

"Make your hair stand on end."

"Neither a borrower nor a lender be."

"Julius Caesar"

"Et tu, Brute?"

"Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears!"

"Beware the ides of March."

"Cowards die many times before their deaths."

"This was the unkindest cut of all."

"A dish fit for the gods."

"But, for my own part, it was Greek to me."

"King Henry IV"

"Discretion is the better part of valor."

"Send him packing."

"King Henry V"

"Eaten out of house and home."

"The Devil incarnate."

"King Henry VI"

"As dead as a doornail."

"King Richard III"

"Now is the winter of our discontent."

"Off with his head!"


"A sorry sight."

"At one fell swoop."

"Come what may come."

"I bear a charmed life."

"Out, damned spot!"

"The Merchant of Venice"

"All that glisters is not gold."

"The Merry Wives of Windsor"

"Why, then the world's mine oyster."

"As good luck would have it."


"A foregone conclusion."

"Romeo and Juliet"

"Parting is such sweet sorrow."

"What light through yonder window breaks?"

"A fool's paradise."

"Star crossed lovers."

"What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet."

"The Tempest"

"Fair play."

"In a pickle."

"Troilus and Cressida"

"Good riddance."

"Twelfth Night"

"In stitches."



jhawksfan 12 years, 3 months ago

In the Monday, March 13 article entitled "Quoting Shakespeare," the quotes "to thine own self be true" and "neither a borrower nor a lender be" come from Hamlet, not Julius Caesar. Just thought you might appreciate the clarification. The excerpt from the article appears below:

Often, Garber says, as is the case in "Julius Caesar" when Polonius offers the advice "to thine own self be true" and "neither a borrower nor a lender be," Shakespeare was using common proverbs of his time.

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