Shakespeare’s language has a reputation for being hard to understand. To our modern ears (or eyes if we’re reading instead of watching the plays), it can sound outdated, flowery, convoluted, or just plain ridiculous in some cases. No one actually talks like that anymore, at least not “normal” people. Right?
Well, actually we do (at least to a certain extent). It’s just that most of the time when we quote Shakespeare, we’re not doing it on purpose.
When this new live-action version of Beauty and the Beast came out, I started listening to the soundtrack and caught some lines I hadn’t in the animated version. I suppose I was just too familiar with the one I knew from childhood to really notice the lyrics. I’m thinking in particular of “The Mob Song” when Gaston sings, “Screw your courage to the sticking place.” Considering Gaston mocks Belle for reading, it’s ironic that this line is a quote from Macbeth (and it’s particularly noticeable in this version, where the book he insults is another Shakespearean play, Romeo and Juliet).
But screw your courage to the sticking place,
And we’ll not fail.”
— Lady Macbeth, Act 1, scene 7
Gaston isn’t the only person who accidentally quotes Shakespeare. You yourself may have already done so this week. Have you talked about a “wild goose chase” (Romeo and Juliet, 2.4), spoke of the “green eyed monster” (Othello, 3.3), or waited with “bated breath” for something (The Merchant of Venice, 1.3)? That’s Shakespeare. And if someone has been “eaten out of house and home” (Henry IV, Part II, 2.1) or “seen better days” (As You Like It, 2.7), you’re using phrases we only have because Shakespeare used them first.
I’ve loved Shakespeare since I first watched Kenneth Branaugh’s version of Henry V my first year of high school. I immediately read the play (which is still my favorite of the Bard’s works), then turned around and read it again the next year for British literature. All that led to taking two Shakespeare classes in college (one from a professor who gave me that lovely Riverside Shakespeare in the photo below). I’m such a Shakespeare nerd I don’t just have favorite plays — I have favorite editions (Folger for every-day reading, Arden for study).
While Shakespeare’s command of language is impressive, his often-talked of enormous vocabulary was actually smaller than most of ours. And even though he’s the first writer credited with using many common English words and phrases, we’ve no way of knowing if he coined them or simply recorded them first. On top of that, many words attributed to him actually appear in earlier works as well.
But even setting myths about Shakespeare aside, he’s still a genius storyteller (as evidenced by the fact that 400 years after his death his plays are still familiar to people who haven’t even seen or read them). In fact, stripping away the myths makes the fact that his writings have had such a large influence more impressive. Even if his vocabulary was smaller than mine, his writings have had a much larger influence than I even hope mine will have in my most ambitious dreams. It’s pretty amazing when you think about it.
Further Reading: Check out these links for more examples of ways you’re accidentally quoting Shakespeare.
- 45 Everyday Phrases Coined By Shakespeare
- 50 everyday phrases that came from the Bard
- 21 Phrases You Use Without Realizing You’re Quoting Shakespeare