Four centuries after his death, we are still using Shakespeare's phrases in our everyday speech. This list of phrases Shakespeare invented is a testament that the Bard has had a huge influence on the English language.
Some people today reading Shakespeare for the first time complain that the language is difficult to understand, yet we are still using hundreds of words and phrases coined by him in our everyday conversation.
You have probably quoted Shakespeare thousands of times without realizing it. If your homework gets you “in a pickle,” your friends have you “in stitches,” or your guests “eat you out of house and home,” then you're quoting Shakespeare.
The Most Popular Shakespearean Phrases
- A laughing stock (The Merry Wives of Windsor)
- A sorry sight (Macbeth)
- As dead as a doornail (Henry VI)
- Eaten out of house and home (Henry V, Part 2)
- Fair play (The Tempest)
- I will wear my heart upon my sleeve (Othello)
- In a pickle (The Tempest)
- In stitches (Twelfth Night)
- In the twinkling of an eye (The Merchant Of Venice)
- Mum's the word (Henry VI, Part 2)
- Neither here nor there (Othello)
- Send him packing (Henry IV)
- Set your teeth on edge (Henry IV)
- There's method in my madness (Hamlet)
- Too much of a good thing (As You Like It)
- Vanish into thin air (Othello)
Origins and Legacy
In many cases, scholars do not know if Shakespeare actually invented these phrases or if they were already in use during his lifetime. In fact, it is almost impossible to identify when a word or phrase was first used, but Shakespeare's plays often provide the earliest citation.
Shakespeare was writing for the mass audience, and his plays were incredibly popular in his own lifetime… popular enough to enable him to perform for Queen Elizabeth I and to retire a wealthy gentleman.
It is unsurprising therefore that many phrases from his plays stuck in the popular consciousness and subsequently embedded themselves into everyday language. In many ways, it is like a catchphrase from a popular television show becoming part of everyday speech. Shakespeare was, after all, in the business of mass entertainment. In his day, the theater was the most effective way to entertain and communicate with large audiences. Language changes and evolves over time, so the original meanings may have been lost to language.
Over time, many of the original meanings behind Shakespeare's words have evolved. For example, the phrase "sweets to the sweet" from Hamlet has since become a commonly used romantic phrase. In the original play, the line is uttered by Hamlet's mother as she scatters funeral flowers across Ophelia's grave in Act 5, Scene 1:
(Scattering flowers) Sweets to the sweet, farewell!
I hop'd thou shouldst have been my Hamlet's wife:
I thought thy bride-bed to have deck'd, sweet maid,
And not have strew'd thy grave."
This passage hardly shares the romantic sentiment in today's use of the phrase.
Shakespeare's writing lives on in today's language, culture, and literary traditions because his influence (and the influence of the Renaissance) became an essential building block in the development of the English language. His writing is so deeply ingrained in the culture that it is impossible to imagine modern literature without his influence.