Michael Macrone

Common Talk from the Prolific Playwright
(USA Today, October 8, 1996)

By Cathy Hainer

USAT-box-264x232 You're probably more fluent in Shakespeare-speak than you think. Everyone knows “To be or not to be,” and “All the world's a stage.” But it's surprising how many other common phrases come straight from Mr. S.

When you say guests are “eating you out of house and home,” you're quoting Will. When you describe someone as having “itchy palms,” you're paraphrasing Cassius from Julius Caesar. The title of Ray Bradbury's seminal science fiction novel Something Wicked This Way Comes? Yep, borrowed from the Bard.

"Most people are surprised to discover how many of the things we say on a daily basis are derived from Shakespeare,” says Michael Macrone, author of Brush Up Your Shakespeare (HarperPerennial, $10). "Like 'there's the rub' from Hamlet. We say it all the time, it's become a cliche. It's delightful what you discover when you find out what the Shakespeare quote really means.”

Macrone shares several surprising Shakespeare coinages.

With bated breath. From The Merchant of Venice, Act l, Scene 3. Spoken by Shylock, it means "with breath held.” “Bated is related to the verb abate, meaning to lessen,' ” Macrone says.

The be-all and end-all. From Macbeth, Act l, Scene 7. “When Macbeth utters this phrase, he isn't admiring a paragon or deploring an obsession,” Macrone says. “He's hoping that killing King Duncan will be all' that's required and 'end all' he has to suffer to seize the throne.”

To not budge an inch. From Taming of the Shrew, Induction, Scene 1. This phrase appeared in the mouth of the drunken tinker Christopher Sly. Sly's refusal to budge condemned this neutral verb to eternal negation, Macrone says. "No one ever says 'I budged' or 'let's budge.'”

Foregone conclusion. From Othello, Act 3, Scene 3. Othello's estimate of his wife's adultery. "When told (falsely) that another man has had erotic dreams about her, Othello deduces that her betrayal must already have happened, that the event (conclusion) preceded the dream,” Macrone explains.

Knock-knock jokes. “Though knock-knock jokes caught on only in this century, they were probably inspired by the "porter scene” in Macbeth (Act 2, Scene 3), which dates to 1606. Roused by incessant knocking at the castle gate, the porter grumbles, “Knock, knock! Who's there, i'th' name of Belzebub? Knock knock who's there, in th' other devil's name?'

Salad days. From Antony and Cleopatra, Act l, Scene 5). Cleopatra's term for her youth. “She doesn't mean that she had to eat salad,” Macrone says, “but that when it came to men she was as cold and “green” (inexperienced) as a piece of lettuce.”

Strange bedfellows. From The Tempest, Act 2, Scene 2. “The jester Trinculo's assessment of having to cozy up in a storm with the deformed islander Caliban."

There's the rub. From Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1. "What Hamlet means is 'there's the bowling obstacle,” Macrone says. Shakespeare derived several metaphors from the then-popular Sunday sport of lawn bowling. “ 'Rub' is the sportsman's name for an obstacle which diverts a ball from its true course.”

What the dickens. From The Merry Wives of Windsor, Act 3, Scene 2. “Not Charles, but the devil, replaced with a nonsense euphemism in this mild oath by Mrs. Page.”

Wild goose chase. From Romeo and Juliet, Act 2, scene 4. When Mercutio refers to a “wild goose chase,” he's in the middle of some witty repartee with Romeo. "He likens the process to the goose's task of keeping up with the erratic flight pattern of its flock leader,” Macrone says.

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First published in USA Today (October 8, 1996)

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