Shakespeare Idioms

William Shakespeare gave a lot to literature and to the English language, but did you know that one of the most influential playwrights of all time also coined some of the best-known idioms we still use today in English? We thought we would explore the origins of some of our favorite, fun, Will-inspired idioms so you can learn to quote Shakespeare effortlessly in your everyday English.

1. Heart of Gold

“The king’s a bawcock, and a heart of gold, a lad of life, an imp of fame, of parents good, of fist most valiant.” – Henry V. Meaning: To say that someone has a “heart of gold” means that they are kind, good natured or generous.

Example: “Sarah always tries her best, she has a heart of gold.”

2. Kill with kindness

“This is a way to kill a wife with kindness, and thus I’ll curb her mad and headstrong humor.” – The Taming of the Shrew. Meaning: This phrase means that you will get what you want by being very kind to another person.

Example: “No matter how horrible they are to you, kill them with kindness.”

3. Laughing Stock 

Pray you let us not be laughing-stocks to other men’s humors; I desire you in friendship, and I will one way or other make you amends.” – The Merry Wives of Windsor. Meaning: Originally referring to the medieval tradition of holding someone in the stocks as a punishment for their crime, a person subjected to ridicule or mockery can be described as a laughing stock.

Example: “She became a laughing stock when she tripped in the middle of Oxford Street.” 

a glass of iced coffee beside a book. Shakespeare Idioms
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4. Wild Goose Chase

“Nay, if our wits run the wild-goose chase, I am 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. Meaning: In Shakespeare’s day, this originally referred to a kind of horse race rather than hunting wild geese. Today, it refers to a pointless exercise, where the outcome will be fruitless (can you imagine how impossible trying to catch a wild goose would be?!). 

Example: “I’ve been looking for Rachel in the office for ages. Seems like she’s taking me on a wild-goose chase.”

5. Green-eyed Monster

“O, beware, my lord, of jealousy! It is the green-eyed monster, which doth mock the meat it feeds on.” – Othello. Meaning: In times gone by, the color green was often referenced to being unwell or sick. Shakespeare was the first person to introduce the concept of being sick with jealousy.

Example: “Uh oh! After Jacob asked Emily to prom, Jake’s turned into the green-eyed monster.”

6. Lie Low

“If he could right himself with quarreling, some of us would lie low.” – Much Ado About Nothing. Meaning: The act of “lying low” is described as keeping quiet and avoiding attention.

Example: “I want to lie low after my mum found out I’ve been sneaking out to meet friends.”

7. Faint-hearted

Faint-hearted Woodvile, prizest him ‘fore me? Arrogant Winchester, that haughty prelate, Whom Henry, our late sovereign, ne’er could brook? Thou art no friend to God or to the king.” – Henry VI. Meaning: If someone is faint-hearted, it means that they are timid and lacking in courage.

Example: “That roller-coaster isn’t for the faint-hearted.”

Related: Idioms from Greek Mythology

8. Apple of my eye

“Flower of this purple dye, hit with Cupid’s archery, sink in apple of his eye.” – A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Meaning: To say that someone is the apple of your eye means that you love and cherish them above all others.

Example: “My daughter is the apple of my eye.”

9. Wear your heart on your sleeve

“But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve for daws to peck at. I am not what I am.” – Othello. Meaning: To “wear your heart on your sleeve” is to make your feelings well known to others.

Example: “I don’t hide my feelings, I wear my heart on my sleeve.”

10. In a pickle

In The Tempest, King Alonso asks his jester, Trinculo, “How camest thou in this pickle?” And the drunk Trinculo – who has indeed gotten into trouble – responds “I have been in such a pickle since I saw you last …” (Act 5, Scene 1) Meaning ‘in a jam’; in a difficult or unpleasant situation

Example: “Has the NYT got itself into a pickle over digital editions on Kindle and iPad?”

11. Love is blind

In The Merchant of Venice, Jessica is shy about her beloved Lorenzo seeing her disguised as a boy, but recognizes that it won’t affect his love for her, saying, “But love is blind and lovers cannot see / The pretty follies that themselves commit …” (Act 2, Scene 6). This phrase has more than one meaning: we overlook flaws in those we love (that’s good), but love can blind us to serious issues (that’s bad).

Example: “Jonathan Rhys Meyers thinks love is blind. The actor … thinks it is easy to fall for someone without knowing much about them, just like his alter-ego does….”

12. Cruel to be kind

“I must be cruel only to be kind; / Thus bad begins, and worse remains behind,” says the tormented Hamlet. He has just mistakenly killed Polonius, and it’s clear that he doesn’t know how bad things are going to get. (Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 4). Meaning helpful but perceived as hurtful.

Example: “The government has portrayed the cull [of 400 kangaroos] as a necessary case of being cruel to be kind, but the international focus has been mostly on the cruelty.” -Tim Johnston, New York Times, Mar. 14, 2008


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