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Juliet:Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2)
"What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet."
Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet meet and fall in love in Shakespeare's lyrical tale of "star-cross'd" lovers. They are doomed from the start as members of two warring families. Here Juliet tells Romeo that a name is an artificial and meaningless convention, and that she loves the person...Complete Quote and Explanation »
Macbeth:Macbeth Act 5, scene 5, 19–28
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
After hearing that his wife has died, Macbeth takes stock of his own indifference to the event. Death—our return to dust—seems to him merely the last act of a very bad play, an idiot's tale full of bombast and melodrama ("sound and fury"), but without meaning ("signifying nothing")....Complete Quote and Explanation »
Both here and hence pursue me lasting strife,
If once I be a widow, ever I be a wife!
'Tis deeply sworn. Sweet, leave me here a while,
My spirits grow dull, and fain I would beguile
The tedious day with sleep.
Sleep rock thy brain,
And never come mischance between us twain!
Madam, how like you this play?
Queen:Hamlet Act 3, scene 2, 222–230
The lady doth protest too much, methinks.
Almost always misquoted as "Methinks the lady doth protest too much," Queen Gertrude's line is both drier than the misquotation (thanks to the delayed "methinks") and much more ironic. Prince Hamlet's question is intended to smoke out his mother, to whom, as he intended, this Player Queen...Complete Quote and Explanation »
Duke Orsino:Twelfth Night Act 1, scene 1, 1–3
If music be the food of love, play on,
Give me excess of it; that surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.
Duke Orsino of Illyria, presiding over the merry, mixed-up world of Twelfth Night, opens the play with these festive sentiments, soured though they be by the affected airs of the melancholic lover. He has convinced himself that he's insanely in love with a wealthy and resistant lady, who is...Complete Quote and Explanation »
Jaques:As You Like It Act 2, scene 7, 139–143
All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.
The idea that "all the world's a stage" was already clichéd when Shakespeare wrote As You Like It. So Jaques is intended to sound at least a little pretentious here. Jaques (pronounced "jay-keys" or "jay-kweez") is the resident sourpuss in the Forest of Arden, home to political exiles,...Complete Quote and Explanation »
Hamlet:Hamlet Act 3, scene 1, 55–87 [Italics mine]
To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. To die—to sleep,
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to: 'tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish'd. To die, to sleep;
To sleep, perchance to dream—ay, there's the rub:
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause—there's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th'oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,
The pangs of dispriz'd love, the law's delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th'unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovere'd country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action.
Probably the best-known lines in English literature, Hamlet's greatest soliloquy is the source of more than a dozen everyday (or everymonth) expressions—the stuff that newspaper editorials and florid speeches are made on. Rather than address every one of these gems, I've selected a few of...Complete Quote and Explanation »
Swear by my sword
Never to speak of this that you have heard.
[Beneath] Swear by his sword.
Well said, old mole, canst work i' th' earth so fast?
A worthy pioner! Once more remove, good friends.
O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!
Hamlet:Hamlet Act 1, scene 5, 159–167
And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
Horatio and Marcellus, though advised against it, barge into Hamlet's conversation with his father's ghost [see SOMETHING IS ROTTEN IN THE STATE OF DENMARK]. Hamlet is a little unforthcoming with the news imparted by this spirit, who is still rustling about under the stage. So it's...Complete Quote and Explanation »
Hamlet:Hamlet (III, i, 65-68)
"To sleep, perchance to dream-
ay, there's the rub."
This is part of Hamlet's famous soliloquy which begins "To be or not to be", and it reveals his thoughts of suicide. He has learned that his uncle killed his father, the late King, and married the king's wife, his mother. This foul deed has driven Hamlet nearly mad, and he seeks both revenge...Complete Quote and Explanation »
O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name;
Or if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love
And I'll no longer be a Capulet.
[Aside] Shall I hear more, or shall I speak at this?
Juliet:Romeo And Juliet Act 2, scene 2, 33–49
'Tis but thy name that is my enemy:
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What's Montague? It is nor hand nor foot,
Nor arm nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O be some other name!
What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call'd,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
and for thy name, which is no part of thee,
Take all myself.
In the most famous scene of the play, Romeo stands unnoticed beneath Juliet's balcony as she engages in a fantasized debate. She questions the purpose of Romeo's being Romeo—something he's probably taken for granted all these years. That Romeo is Romeo creates a few rather touchy problems...Complete Quote and Explanation »
Prospero:The Tempest Act 4, scene 1, 148–158
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd tow'rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
Anticipating his daughter's wedding to the Prince of Naples, Prospero has staged a short entertainment, with spirits taking the parts of Roman gods. But he abruptly cuts the fun short when he remembers some pressing business. He tries to calm the startled couple by explaining, somewhat off...Complete Quote and Explanation »
'Tis almost morning, I would have thee gone—
And yet no farther than a wan-ton's bird,
That lets it hop a little from his hand,
Like a poor prisoner in his twisted gyves,
And with a silken thread plucks it back again,
So loving-jealous of his liberty.
I would I were thy bird.
Juliet:Romeo And Juliet Act 2, scene 2, 176–185
Sweet, so would I,
Yet I should kill thee with much cherishing.
Good night, good night! Parting is such sweet sorrow,
That I shall say good night till it be morrow. [Exit above]
Depending on how gripping you find the first balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet, Juliet's parting may or may not be "such sweet sorrow." In any case, her phrase is an oxymoron, combining contradictory ideas of pleasure and pain. Parting is sorrowful because Juliet would prefer, like a...Complete Quote and Explanation »
Richard:Richard The Third Act 1, scene 1, 1–4
Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this son of York;
And all the clouds that low'r'd upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Richard, the future king, opens his play not by protesting his discontent, but by celebrating an upturn in his family's fortunes. His brother Edward IV—they're sons of the Duke of York—has wrested the English crown from Henry VI and the Lancastrian house. So those who simply quote "Now...Complete Quote and Explanation »
What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how
infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and
admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like
a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals—and yet,
to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me—
nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so.
Rosencrantz:Hamlet Act 2, scene 2, 303–312
My lord, there was no such stuff in my thoughts.
This passage has provoked bitter scholarly battles—over its punctuation. Is Hamlet saying that man is like an angel in apprehension (understanding), or like a god in apprehension? The different placement of commas in the early texts of the play makes all the difference.
We're not...Complete Quote and Explanation »
Helena:A Midsummer Night's Dream (I, i, 234)
"Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind."
In this soliloquy, Helena ponders the transforming power of love, noting that Cupid is blind. The lovesick Helena has been abandoned by her beloved Demetrius, because he loves the more attractive Hermia. Helena, while tall and fair, is not as lovely as Hermia. Helena finds it unfair that...Complete Quote and Explanation »
He waxes desperate with imagination.
Let's follow. 'Tis not fit thus to obey him.
Have after. To what issue will this come?
Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.
Heaven will direct it.
Marcellus:Hamlet Act 1, scene 4, 87–91
Nay, let's follow him. [Exeunt.]
This is one time when the popular misquotation—"Something's rotten in Denmark"—is a real improvement on the original. But you ought to be careful around purists, who will also remember that the minor character Marcellus, and not Hamlet, is the one who coins the phrase. There's a reason he...Complete Quote and Explanation »
What is it she does now? Look how she rubs her hands.
It is an accustom'd action with her, to seem thus
washing her hands. I have known her continue in this a quarter of
Yet here's a spot.
Hark, she speaks. I will set down what comes from her, to
satisfy my remembrance the more strongly.
Lady Macbeth:Macbeth Act 5, scene 1, 26–40
Out, damn'd spot! out, I say!—One; two: why, then
'tis time to do't.—Hell is murky.—Fie, my lord, fie, a soldier, and
afeard? What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our
pow'r to accompt?—Yet who would have thought the old man to
have had so much blood in him?
Lady Macbeth, as has become her wont, sleepwalks through the royal castle. As her waiting-woman and her doctor listen in, she mutters fragments of an imaginary conversation that recalls the night she and her husband conspired to murder King Duncan [see A SORRY SIGHT]. The hour is two...Complete Quote and Explanation »
Cassius:Julius Caesar (I, ii, 140-141)
"The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings."
Cassius, a nobleman, is speaking with his friend, Brutus, and trying to persuade him that, in the best interests of the public, Julius Caesar must be stopped from becoming monarch of Rome. Brutus is aware of Caesar's intentions, and is torn between his love of his friend Caesar and his duty...Complete Quote and Explanation »
Go ask his name.—If he be married,
My grave is like to be my wedding-bed.
His name is Romeo, and a Montague,
The only son of your great enemy.
Juliet:Romeo And Juliet Act 1, scene 5, 134–141
My only love sprung from my only hate!
Too early seen unknown, and known too late!
Prodigious birth of love it is to me
That I must love a loathèd enemy.
At her father's masked ball, Juliet falls in a big way for the disguised Romeo, a Montague and thus an enemy of her family [see A PAIR OF STAR-CROSSED LOVERS and DANCING DAYS]. Even though she has nothing personal against the Montagues, Romeo in particular, she can't escape being a...Complete Quote and Explanation »
Prince of Morocco:The Merchant of Venice (II, vii)
"All that glisters is not gold."
Portia is a beautiful, virtuous, wealthy woman who is being wooed by numerous suitors. She is not free to decide on her own whom she will marry because her late father stipulated in his will that she must marry the man who correctly picks the one casket (out of three) that contains her...Complete Quote and Explanation »
Caesar:Julius Caesar (III, i, 77)
"Et tu, Brute?"
Perhaps the most famous three words uttered in literature, "Et tu, Brute?" (Even you, Brutus?) this expression has come down in history to mean the ultimate betrayal by one's closest friend. This scene, in which the conspirators in the Senate assassinate Caesar, is one of the most dramatic...Complete Quote and Explanation »
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