What is a cliché? Does it necessarily point to a lack of inventiveness or originality?  A cliché is a French word that is related to photography and somehow sums up, epitomizes ideas that usually fall within the scope of everyday life. Clichés are overused words and phrases that are sadly lacking in originality and inventiveness. Through punning and wordplay, it is nonetheless possible to give them true life, genuine expression and authenticity. Do you think Shakespeare's plays are a particularly striking instance of contemporary clichés used as material tapped for a more authentic mode of writing? Which of his plays are most relevant in this respect?   

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The common understanding of the term cliché is that of overuse and unoriginality. Previous posts to the contrary notwithstanding, that is what most people mean by using the term.

Is it a problem? It is in two ways:

I find that most teenage writers use clichés because they've heard them, not because they understand them. A cliché dulls the senses; we don't pay attention to the words because we've heard them so often. If we write to be understood, we awaken the ear.

If originality matters, avoid clichés. Or refresh them with new spins.

My theory is that clichés become clichés only because they were fresh expressions at some point in time. They wear out with overuse. I tell my poetry students that if they write something today that becomes a cliché in thirty or fifty years, they've achieve near-immortality in writing.

 

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Though it is true that cliches are often subject of derision that is not because they are less than apt, it is only because they have been used so often.

To me, this means that cliches are un-original, yes, but not necessarily empty or lacking poignance.

As far as Shakespeare is concerned, the Bard's plays are not seen as employing cliches but as inventing new turns of phrase, as has been pointed out, some of which have now become cliches.

Do we think less of Shakespeare's work because he wrote so memorably? I wouldn't say we do. Though maybe your point is more that his work does not seem new to us anymore because of its success and because it has so deeply entered into our speech.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

You've got the scenario regarding Shakespeare and cliches turned around backwards. Shakespeare didn't use "contemporary cliches" that he "tapped" for "a more authentic mode of writing." Shakespeare generally originated the expressions that have been borrowed till they've become "overused" and developed into "cliches" that "are sadly lacking in originality and inventiveness." When Shakespeare wrote expressions that are now cliche, like "compare thee to a summer day," he was epitomizing the height of inventiveness and originality by newly creating breathtaking metaphors. For this reason, Shakespeare's writing is a higher mode of authentic writing. For us today, in our writing, it is best in many instances to analyze what a tempting cliche actually means ("summer day": fresh and warm and full of life and bloom), then find our own metaphor for a lovely person who is fresh and warm and full of life: e.g., compare you to an ocean misted rose garden. A cliche is a phrase that was once vivid but that has become meaningless through overuse.

http://web.cn.edu/kwheeler/documents/Cliches_Trite_phrasing.pdf

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Cliches have their place and purpose; there are times when they are the perfect way to summarize a situation or describe an event. However, cliches are very often over-used or misused as a byproduct of laziness or lack of being concerned about using specifically and completely applicable phrasing.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

I don't think that the use of cliches shows a lack of inventiveness or originality.  I would use the analogy of the wheel.  It's not as if the fact that we all use wheels means we're unoriginal.  What it means is that someone came up with a really good idea that serves a purpose and can't really be done better.  Some cliches are like that.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Cliches should never be overused unless there is a specific reason to do so. However, sometimes a standard cliche is the perfect way to describe a situation or symbolize an element of the writing or dialogue.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

People often mix up cliches with tropes, so it's important to understand the difference between the two. A trope can be common between several stories; it is something that you can point to and say, "There's that, it was in [---] story!" A cliche is a trope that becomes overused. Neither are specifically unoriginal; many authors unconsciously echo their own favorite works, and many others have ideas that have been "done before," but they never read those works.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Certainly, there are many phrases and sentences quoted from Shakespeare's Hamlet.  These phrases, of course, were not trite or overworked until people began using them in the unoriginal manner of repeating what they have heard. As Bernard Levin in his book Enthusiasms declares, Shakespearean phrases "remain alive in his mouth even if they do not in ours. So, cliches do, indeed, point to lack of originality on the part of the modern speaker/writer.

Here are some from Hamlet,

"neither a borrower nor a lender be"

"the lady doth protest too much"

something is "rotten in Denmark"

"sweets for the sweet"

"The time is out of joint"

 "every dog has its day"

"To be, or not to be"

 

 

 

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Shakespeare's works are full of proverbs, which might be viewed as clichés but which sum up -- usually in pithy ways -- commonly accepted wisdom.  Clichés often do much the same thing; phrases don't usually become clichés unless they seem true to great numbers of people. However, they can often indicate lazy thinking, especially if they are over-used.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

I agree that the use of cliché can be intentional.  You mentioned Shakespeare.  He used cliché to evoke an emotional response.  Many are emotional.  It also helps if your audience already knows what you are talking about.  Advertisers still use cliché in commercials.  Sometimes satirizing or playing with the cliché is also effective.

Posted on

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial