How Well You Know Shakespeare!

BY Sharon Kilarski TIMESeptember 9, 2018 PRINT

If the very thought of seeing a Shakespeare play, reading one, or—dear, oh dear—memorizing a few of his lines makes you feel light-headed and in need of blotting your forehead, you might be surprised to learn that if you were raised with English as your first language, you’re likely quoting him all the time.

Shakespeare’s legacy goes deeper than one might imagine, to the very marrow of the English language. Expressions that the poet and playwright devised remain in common usage even after the 400 years of his penning them. Consider “It’s Greek to me,” meaning that whatever is being expressed is incomprehensible, whether because it is foreign, complex, imprecise, or belongs to a specialized field outside of one’s domain.

The phrase “It’s Greek to me” hails from Shakespeare’s 1599 play “Julius Caesar,” but most likely the idea for it originated from scribes of the Middle Ages, who were known to say in Latin: “It is Greek, [therefore] it cannot be read.”

And, the first printed mention of the phrase “too much of a good thing,” which may be a proverb preceding Shakespeare’s time, comes from his play “As You Like It.”

Our English language is strewn with such expressions. As Bernard Levin in his book “The Story of English” makes clear, it is hard to put one’s tongue around an idiom without Shakespeare’s having been around it first.  Many common expressions, as with the examples above, find precedents in works of earlier writers, like vanished into “thin air,” making a “virtue of necessity,” and “not slept one wink,” but somehow Shakespeare solidified them for us.

He also coined quite a few himself, including “Laugh yourself into stitches” (“Twelfth Night”), “a foregone conclusion” (“Othello”), “in a pickle” (“The Tempest”), “the game is up” (“Cymbeline”), and “at one fell swoop” (Macbeth).

There are also “good riddance“ (“Troilus and Cressida”), “short shrift” (“Richard III”), “my salad days” (“Antony and Cleopatra”), and “give the devil his due” (“Henry V Part 1”).

So, while you give Mr. Shakespeare his due credit, you can also pat yourself on the back. It’s clear you’re already a well-educated Shakespearean scholar.

Sharon writes theater reviews, opinion pieces on our culture, and the classics series. Classics: Looking Forward Looking Backward: Practitioners involved with the classical arts respond to why they think the texts, forms, and methods of the classics are worth keeping and why they continue to look to the past for that which inspires and speaks to us. To see the full series, see
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