(The Sydney Morning Herald, 1990)
By Alan Peterson
WHATEVER you think of Shakespeare, and even if you do not think of him
at all, you cannot escape him. “Once more unto the breach, dear friends,
once more” may not often occur in your conversation, but plenty of his
other words do.
Here are a few: A sorry sight, a foregone conclusion, one fell swoop,
tower of strength, spotless reputation, wild goose chase, a ministering
angel, a blinking idiot, too much of a good thing, method in his
madness, a pound of flesh, the primrose path, something rotten in the
state of Denmark, it smells to heaven, and hoist with his own petard.
All are household words, and that is Shakespeare’s phrase, too. “Then
shall our names, familiar in his mouth as household words” occurs in
So well known are Shakespeare’s phrases that you look a bit of a clown
if you misquote them or use them out of context. It would be handy if
somebody collected and annotated them in a book.
Somebody has. Michael Macrone, who teaches at the University of
California, Berkeley, specialising in Elizabethan drama and Shakespeare,
has named his book Brush Up Your Shakespeare after the Cole
Porter song. The publishers here are Collins/Angus & Robertson.
If I said “the world’s my oyster” you would take it to mean that the
world’s riches and pleasures were there for me to pick out of the shell.
That is not what Shakespeare meant. Refused a loan by Falstaff in The
Merry Wives of Windsor, the braggart Pistol responded with a
boastful threat of force:
Why, then the world’s mine oyster
Which 1 with sword will open.
Richard III’s “Now is the winter of our discontent” is not a lament over
hard times. In fact things were looking up for Richard’s family. His
brother Edward IV, another son of the Duke of York, has beaten the
Lancastrian Henry VI and seized the throne. The next line makes it
clear: the “winter of our discontent” is “made glorious summer by this
son of York.”
Macrone sets out famous passages and shows their context and
significance. Hamlet says: “The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the
conscience of the king.” By putting on a play about the murder of a
king, he aims to provoke a visible guilty reaction from the real king,
who murdered Hamlet’s father.
We know that, but Macrone says that about 10 years after the production
of Hamlet the playwright Thomas Heywood told a startling story.
He wrote about a tragedy in which a man was murdered by driving a nail
through his head. During a performance, he said, a woman in the audience
got up and “oft sighed these words: Oh my husband, my husband!” Later,
said Heywood, the woman confessed to murder and was burnt for it.
Speaking of Hamlet, what about that bare bodkin? It is an
unlikely weapon for a suicide. The fact is that bodkin was also used
then for a dagger.
Macrone credits Shakespeare with having coined enough words to fill nine
pages of his book. At least Shakespeare was the first user of these
words whom the Oxford Dictionary could trace. Among the words
were wittolly (contentedly a cuckold), slugabed, puh (an
interjection), skimble-skamble (senseless), nonregardance,
inhearse (load into a hearse) and kickie-wickie (derogatory
term for a wife). Many common words are also in the list, including
bedazzle, courtship, dewdrop, foppish, puppy-dog, silk stocking,
pious, sanctimonious and zany (a clown’s offsider or a
mocking mimic). Macrone sets the record straight on some phrases wrongly
attributed to Shakespeare. Among them are “all that glisters is not
gold,” “the dog will have his day” and, appropriately, “the truth will