Many people find Shakespeare’s English challenging. This is hardly surprising: reaching across a distance of more than 400 years can feel disorienting for even the most ambitious speaker of modern English.
What people don’t realise, though, is just how much Shakespearian English they speak every day. Shakepeare’s innovative coinage is still in circulation, though his face has worn off from frequent use. But, to quote line 23 of the Prologue of Henry VIII, “for goodness’ sake”, Shakespeare’s language is everywhere.
Here are five of Will's phrases still in common use today:
'The green-eyed monster'
(Othello, Act III scene III)
This famous description of jealousy in Othello – a play whose tragic hero is undone by uncontrollable (and unfounded) sexual jealousy – is still in wide circulation today. Shakespeare was far from the first or the only person to associate jealousy or envy with the colour green: in premodern medicine this sickly hue was associated with the jealous lover’s overproduction of yellow bile, one of the four humours (fluids) that circulated in the body and determined its health.
Furthermore, Othello is not the only place where Shakespeare associates envy with the colour green. But perhaps what makes this particular description the most memorable is its portrayal of jealousy as a monster – something grotesque and uncontainable – while the image of the jealous lover as 'the meat' that the monster 'doth feed on' gives us a powerful image of being consumed by this monstrous emotion.
The dramatic situation where we find this phrase couldn’t be more ironic: the character who warns against the green-eyed monster is Iago, the false friend who engineers the circumstances that draw Othello into his mistaken and murderous jealousy.
'Brevity is the soul of wit'
(Hamlet Act II scene II)
This statement in praise of succinctness is used more often in every day speech today to caution against the dreaded quality of long-windedness.
Detached from its origin, it appears to suggest that being pithy and to-the-point is a sign of humorous insight; but that’s because over the centuries since Shakespeare wrote this line, the meaning of ‘wit’ has narrowed. While today we associate it primarily with a keen comic intelligence, between the 16th and 18th centuries its meaning was much broader, encompassing good sense and reason as well as poised rhetoric. Back then, not mincing your words (another expression Shakespeare uses, in Henry V) was a sign of good judgement.
Again, when we come across this line in Hamlet it has a strong ironic quality, being declared after a lengthy preamble by the notorious windbag Polonius, who could have just been brief instead of talking about brevity while being anything but! But the pleasure of finding this pithy aphorism tucked into Polonius’s rambling speech is central to the fun that the audience has at his expense.
Troilus and Cressida (Act II scene I)
As with a number of the commonplace phrases that come from Shakespeare’s work, the separate words within 'good riddance' were not of Shakespeare’s coining; but the combination was his. The meaning of 'riddance', today an archaic noun, is not too hard to guess: it was, simply, a ‘getting rid of’. When Shakespeare prefixed this word with 'good', he was pointing to a situation where ridding oneself of a particular thing is a welcome situation.
This phrase can be found in the ‘problem play’ Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare’s nihilistic portrayal of an episode in the epic story of Troy. It comes at the end of a particularly caustic exchange between Patroclus, Achilles’ closest friend (and possibly lover), and Thersites, a servant in the Greek camp who is arguably Shakespeare’s most relentlessly cynical character. After being called a 'clotpole', a 'fool', and, most stingingly, 'Achilles’ brach' (bitch), Patroclus expresses his relief at Thersistes’ departure with the now ubiquitous “good riddance”.
In the early 19th century, the phrase was extended to the pleasingly rhythmic 'good riddance to bad rubbish', which is also still popular today. But for sheer blunt dismissiveness, Shakespeare’s 'good riddance' wins the day.
'Brave new world'
(The Tempest Act V, scene I)
This phrase has taken on a life of its own over the past decades that doesn’t just exceed its Shakespearean origin, but in fact largely inverts it. The most common place to encounter the phrase 'brave new world' today is in the countless news stories about scientific and technological innovations. Sometimes it signifies breathless optimism; elsewhere the adjective 'brave' takes on a more ominous tone, especially when it refers to domains of science, such as genetics, which bring with them thorny ethical implications.
When these words are spoken in Shakespeare’s final play, The Tempest, they express wonder at the new rather than trepidation. Miranda, the daughter of the magician Prospero, who has lived with her father in isolation her whole life, finally looks upon other humans, and exclaims “How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world / That has such people in’t!” The moment expresses her awakening but also her innocence; she admires humans partly because she knows so little about them.
Our modern usage of 'brave new world' differs so much from Miranda’s because here is a Shakespearean phrase that has become more famous via the pen of another. Aldous Huxley’s 1932 dystopian novel Brave New World, in which humans are not born but 'decanted' into lives of banal docility, has wielded such influence over the modern imagination that Shakespeare’s words are now shorthand for a world in which humanity is dominated by technology.
'Come full circle'
(King Lear Act V scene iii)
When today we describe something as having 'come full circle', we’re harking back to a Shakespearean phrase that itself harks back to a much older concept. We encounter this phrase in the epic final scene of the tragedy King Lear when Edmund, the conniving bastard son of the Earl of Gloucester, finally meets his downfall. Dying, he admits that 'the wheel has come full circle'.
Considering Edmund’s treacherous conduct, this image of circularity would appear to have a satisfying, almost karmic closure: ‘what goes around comes around’. But in fact Edmund is a more tragic figure than this, and the wheel’s circle is not karmic but random. The wheel that determines his fate is that of the goddess Fortuna, who spins it at her whim and is indifferent to human virtue and vice. By Shakespeare’s time this image, which was most fully developed by the Stoic philosopher Boethius (5th-6th century), had become a byword for the unpredictability of life. For Edmund, the “full circle” has brought him, despite his scheming and striving, back to the bottom of the wheel – back to where he began as a despised and landless bastard.
Today we tell ourselves we’re more in control of our fates than in previous centuries; the wheel of Fortune survives only as a game show. Yet in this show efforts and gains can be thwarted with one spin; people win for a while yet walk away empty-handed. It’s at these times that we say the wheel has come full circle. And it’s then that we’re speaking Shakespearean.