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FAMOUS SHAKESPEAREAN PHRASES WE USE TODAY

Did you know that there are many Shakespearean phrases we use today? In this article, we’ll explore some of the most famous Shakespearean phrases that we still use today. 

William Shakespeare, the celebrated playwright and poet, left an indelible mark on the world of literature, the English language, and culture. His plays and sonnets have been studied and enjoyed by generations, but his influence extends far beyond the confines of the literary world. In fact, many of the phrases that we use today can be traced back to Shakespearean works. From everyday idioms to lofty expressions, Shakespeare’s contribution to the English language and culture is immeasurable.

You can learn English through stories, and English through poetry, idioms and metaphors!

Shakespeare’s iconic phrases from his plays and sonnets continue to be used today, showcasing the enduring power of his drama and historical influence. We can learn English through all of these at the same time! 

1. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet

Many Shakespeare sayings used in modern English can be found in Romeo and Juliet
The famous balcony scene

Act II, Scene II, ‘Romeo & Juliet’.

Juliet:

‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? It is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet is a well-known English saying. Can you guess the meaning?

The Shakespeare phrase “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” in modern English means the name of something does not affect its value. It can also mean that a person’s worth is judged by their character, not their name.

An alternative version of this English saying is “what’s in a name?” This is the first line of the saying.

In Romeo and Juliet, Juliet is lamenting that the boy she loves, Romeo, is a Montague. She is saying that he would still be the man she loves if he were not a Montague. This has a slightly different nuance to the modern English saying.

Let’s look at an example conversation:

Ballot Box | Denwasensei

Alex: How could you think of voting for him? His grandfather was the worst leader we’ve ever had!

Scott: What’s in a name? His policies are very forward-looking.

2. All that glitters is not gold

Act II, Scene VII, ‘The Merchant of Venice’.All that glisters is not gold | Denwasensei

Prince of Morocco:

All that glisters is not gold,
Often have you heard that told.
Many a man his life hath sold
But my outside to behold.
Gilded tombs do worms enfold.
Had you been as wise as bold,
Young in limbs, in judgment old,
Your answer had not been inscrolled
Fare you well. Your suit is cold—

Can you guess the meaning of this famous Shakespearean English phrase?

All that glitters is not gold means do not trust something because of its attractive appearance.

In The Merchant of Venice, the Prince of Morocco uses the word ‘glisters.’ In modern English, this word has become ‘glitters.’ The meaning is the same.

Prince of Morocco | Denwasensei

Let’s look at an example conversation:

Jessica: Look at this! This house comes with a swimming pool, tennis court, and 3 kitchens. All for less than a million dollars!

Rachel: Be careful, all that glitters is not gold. That sounds too good to be true – there must be major problems with the building.

3. Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown

Act III, Scene II, ‘King Henry IV’.

Henry IV:

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown | Denwasensei

Canst thou, O partial sleep, give thy repose
To the wet sea-boy in an hour so rude;
And in the calmest and most stillest night,
With all appliances and means to boot,
Deny it to a king? Then, happy low, lie down!
Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.

This English saying from Shakespeare is used to mean that responsibility is a heavy burden. In other words, being a leader is a difficult challenge.

There are two alternate versions of the English saying;

  • Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown

and

  • Heavy is the head that wears the crown

Both of these are Shakespearean phrases we use today, taken from the same scene but with the words changed.

Let’s see an example:

Deborah: Since being promoted to manager, none of my old coworkers are friendly with me. Everyone wants me to solve their problems, and complain all the time!

Gary: Yeah, being the boss changes your working relationships. Everyone thinks they’d be better than their own boss, but uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.

4. All the world’s a stage

all the world's a stage | Denwasensei

Act II, Scene VII, ‘As You Like It’.

Jaques:

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,
His acts being seven ages.

One of the most famous of Shakespearean phrases we use today, all the world’s a stage means that you should remember you are always being watched by others. It means you should be prepared to impress others at all times, so you impress people and don’t make mistakes.

Shakespeare sayings used in modern English: All the world's a stage
Always dress to impress

Let’s check out another example:

Danielle: What are you wearing for your interview tomorrow?

Mark: Oh, I don’t know if I really want the job so I was just going to wear jeans and a T-shirt.

Danielle: Don’t be silly! All the world’s a stage. You never know what they might offer you if you take it seriously.

5. Parting is such sweet sorrow

You can find a modern English saying from Shakespeare in almost every play
Romeo, o Romeo!

Act II, Scene II, ‘Romeo & Juliet’.

Romeo:

I would I were thy bird.

Juliet:

Sweet, so would I,
Yet I should kill thee with much cherishing.
Good night, good night! Parting is such sweet sorrow,
That I shall say good night till it be morrow. 

Another example of one of the Shakespearean phrases we use today is “parting is such sweet sorrow.” This uses the oxymoron ‘sweet sorrow’ to create a powerful sensation of love tinged with sadness. It is a bittersweet line, and can be used to show you are sad to say goodbye with someone. Though the line is very romantic, it is so well-known that actually using it with a lover might be clichéd! It’s probably used more as a casual, jokey farewell.

An English saying from Shakespeare may be a good way to communicate your feelings
Parting is such sweet sorrow

Here’s an example of how to use this saying:

Calvin: Oh, parting is such sweet sorrow! I don’t want you to go home yet!

Susie: Oh stop it, you! I’ll see you tomorrow!

Shakespearean Phrases We Use Today

6. The course of true love never did run smooth.

Act I, Scene I, ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’.Lysander | Denwasensei

Lysander:

Ay me! for aught that I could ever read,
Could ever hear by tale or history,
The course of true love never did run smooth;

Have you ever been in love? Then you will understand this English saying from Shakespeare already!

Love isn’t easy. It doesn’t move without fuss, without problems. Love is a challenge. That’s what this famous Shakespeare phrase means.

For example:

Jennifer: I had a big fight with Sarah yesterday. I don’t know what to do. What if this is the end of us?

Kathy: Don’t worry about it too much. The course of true love never did run smooth. Fights are normal.

7. Love all, trust a few, do wrong with none.

Act I, Scene I, ‘All’s Well that Ends Well’.Countess of Rousillon | Denwasensei

Countess of Rousillon:

“In manners, as in shape, they blood and virtue,
Contend for empire in thee; and thy goodness,
Share with thy birthright! Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none.”

This English Shakespeare saying is easy to understand, and good advice for living a happy life! Do you agree?

8. Neither a borrower nor a lender be.

Act I, Scene III, ‘Hamlet’.

Ophelia | Denwasensei
Ophelia, Hamlet

Polonius:

“Neither a borrower nor a lender be,
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.”

This is another one of the Shakespearean phrases we use today, “neither a borrower or lender be” might be tricky for English students. The grammar is ‘literary,’ not everyday. In everyday spoken English, it is easier to say “don’t be a borrower or a lender.” However, that just doesn’t have the Shakespearean flourish! This means that even today, many English speakers use this saying in its original form.

The English Shakespeare saying “neither a borrower nor a lender be” means to never be in debt to another person, and to never let someone be in debt to you. Essentially, it means to be cautious when lending or borrowing, because this can destroy relationships and cause problems.

For example:

Harris: I lent my best friend $500 last year, and he never returned it. It caused so many fights we never talk anymore.

Scarlett: Well, they do say never a borrower nor a lender be. These things happen.

9. To thine own self be true.

Act I, Scene III, ‘Hamlet’.

Polonius:

“This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Farewell, my blessing season this in thee!”

This is another one of the Shakespearean phrases we use today in modern English that people often say in the original form. Of course, in modern English you would say “to your own self be true,” or “be true to yourself,” but Shakespeare just had a way with words!

“To thine own self be true” means don’t lie to yourself or try to change yourself for others. If you have a dream, try to make it real even if others try to stop you.

Dylan: I’ve always wanted to be a dancer, but my parents would kill me. They want me to be a doctor.

Ayeesha: You don’t have to always do what your parents say! To thine own self be true. Go to the audition!

10. The be-all and the end-all

Act I, Scene VII, ‘Macbeth’.the be-all and end-all - Macbeth | Denwasensei

Macbeth:

If it were done, when ‘tis done, then ‘twere well
It were done quickly. If th’ assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch
With his surcease, success: that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all—here,
But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,
We’d jump the life to come.

The final English saying from Shakespeare, the be-all and end-all is an essential featurethe most important part. The be-all and end-all is someone and something that is far more important and necessary than anyone or anything else. For example:

Travis: I’m going to buy that new Android phone.

Karla: What? Why waste your money? The iPhone is the be-all and end-all in smartphones.

This one’s a little difficult, so here’s another example:

“Artificial intelligence is the be-all and end-all to solving problems in the global economy.”

Shakespeare was one of the English-speaking world’s greatest writers, and there is still a lot more you can learn from him! Check out our video below for a summary of these sayings:

Are you interested in learning English from more English writers? Check out our article on short stories in English!

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