Common Talk from the Prolific Playwright
(USA Today, October 8, 1996)
By Cathy Hainer
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
► 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
► 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
► 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
– 30 –
First published in USA Today (October 8, 1996)