Shakespeare Said it First?

Shakespeare Said It First?

A Compendium of Familiar Phrases from Hamlet and Their Modern Meanings

By Theresa MacNaughton, Community Engagement Associate

Artwork by Kimberly Shepherd
Artwork by Kimberly Shepherd

Dog will have his day. Dead as a door nail.   Make your hair stand on end.   It was Greek to Me. In the twinkling of an eye. Sweets to the sweet. Sound familiar? Have you ever wondered about the origins of some of the phrases you use nearly every day – and what they were intended to mean? Many of today’s most common clichés and sayings actually originated with William Shakespeare.

Shakespeare used over 34,000 different words in his plays – some of which he invented himself. Not only does Shakespeare’s legacy of brilliant plays remain timeless, so do the numerous words and phrases that he coined through his creative use of language. Hamlet, one of Shakespeare’s most revered works, contains many phrases and terms that you may normally use or have heard in popular music or read in contemporary literature.

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark. Spoken by Marcellus to Horatio after seeing the ghost of the dead king. This line can be defined as an ominous omen, with a larger theme of the moral legitimacy of a ruler and the health of his nation as a whole. 

Sweets to the sweet. Spoken as Queen Gertrude bids farewell to Ophelia. Although this would seem to indicate happiness – in the play, the phrase is tinged with much sadness. The implied meaning – good things should happen to good people – is more wistful in nature; today, it is intended to mean something more joyous. 

Brevity is the soul of wit. Spoken by Polonius in a nonsensical speech to the king and queen. Essentially, this line translates to mean that keeping your comments short and concise is the essence of intelligence. It has since become a standard English proverb.

To be, or not to be, that is the question. Spoken by Hamlet during his soliloquy in the nunnery scene. It remains one of Shakespeare’s most famous quotes. Although it is more meditative than angry, the phrase deals with the question of whether to commit suicide and has Hamlet contemplating whether one route is “nobler” than the next.

(The cat will mew and) dog will have his day. Spoken by Hamlet to Laertes, brother of Ophelia. The most common interpretation of this expression is that any person’s moment of glory is inevitable.  Dogs were considered, in Shakespeare’s time, to be lowly animals; thereby, Hamlet considered himself to be an “underdog” who would eventually triumph in his request to seek revenge for his father’s death.

Hair to stand on end. Spoken by the dead king’s ghost to Hamlet.   This phrase is commonly used today in regard to something extremely frightening. In this particular line of the play, Shakespeare conjures the image of a fretful porcupine with its quills extended.

There’s method in my madness. Spoken by Polonius to the audience, in an aside. Americans usually say “method to one’s madness,” while the British say “method in one’s madness.”   While Hamlet’s actions seem mad, the purpose behind his words actually makes sense to Polonius.

It smells to heaven.   Spoken by King Claudius. The entire line is “O, my offense is rank, it smells to heaven. It hath the primal eldest curse upon it. A brother’s murder.” Today, the phrase “stinks to high heaven” is more generally used. While the line in Hamlet refers to the metaphorical “stench” of an evil deed, today is used mostly as a hyperbole in reference to extremely unpleasant scents.

In my mind’s eye. Spoken by Hamlet in reference to his father.   It is most commonly used to describe one’s visual memory or imagination. The concept of having an “eye in our mind” first dates back to Chaucer in 1390; and then again in 1577 when “mind’s eye” was mentioned in a letter from Hubert Languet to Sir Philip Sidney in 1577. The phrase is actually believed to have been popularized in Hamlet.

Get thee to a nunnery. Spoken by Hamlet to Ophelia. “Nunnery” was common Elizabethan slang for a brothel. The phrase was used in anger and frustration by Hamlet – it could be that he considered Ophelia to be “easy” or, alternately, that he was imploring her to be virtuous. A spoof of this famous line – “bring me the shrubbery” – was used in Monty Python & the Holy Grail.

O, woe is me. Spoken by Ophelia, during a soliloquy, to the audience.   This phrase, which also appeared in the Bible (Isaiah 6:5), is a common expression of grief and sorrow. The urban slang term “woe-is-me”ing is a modern adaptation of this phrase to express sorrow and misfortune to others.

Neither a borrower nor a lender be. Spoken by Laertes to Polonius. Meant as words of advice, the meaning behind this line is that one should, in general, resist lending and borrowing money, as it usually tends to complicate relationships. The phrase has persisted to this day – taking on many familiar forms (“don’t mix business with pleasure,” “family and money don’t mix”).

Witching time of night. Spoken by Hamlet, in soliloquy. This phrase actually appears in several of Shakespeare’s plays, including Macbeth, Julius Caesar and Hamlet. Ghosts and other supernatural phenomena take place around midnight in the plays, but the modern term “witching hour” never appears. It may be used to refer to any arbitrary time of bad luck or in which something bad has a greater likelihood to occur.

Frailty, thy name is woman. Spoken by Hamlet, in the first of five soliloquies. Alluding to the alleged weakness of women, Hamlet is specifically referring to his mother – whom he feels has betrayed him with her remarriage after the death of his father. The phrase is generally defined that women are weaker in spirit and strength than men.  

Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio. Spoken by Hamlet, to the skull of Yorick. This phrase is, essentially, a meditation on the fragility of life. Yorick was a court jester Hamlet had been entertained by as a child and for whom he now grieves. The line is often misquoted as ‘Alas poor Yorick, I knew him well.”

Time is out of joint. Spoken by Hamlet to Horatio after being visited by the ghost of his father. The phrase translates as time being dislocated and not in the right place. The phrase was the inspiration for the dystopian novel of the same name by Philip K. Dick.

Sick at heart. Spoken by Francisco to Barnardo.   Francisco is a minor character in the play, but his line is of great significance. The more contemporary phrase “heartsick” is a term many use to convey great sadness.

Murder most foul. Spoken by the ghost to Hamlet. While the literal meaning is obvious, the phrase is intended to define a peculiarly bad murder. In this instance, familial homicide.

What a piece of work is man. Spoken by Hamlet, as part of a soliloquy. While Hamlet uses the phrase to proclaim the goodness of mankind, his father’s death make him think about whether it is all an illusion. “What a piece of work” is often used today in a negative way to define someone who is not as they seem.