William Shakespeare

Over 200 Shakespeare quotes, along with explanations that provide context and meaning.

Illustration of William Shakespeare

We have collected the most famous Shakespeare quotes

(along with explanations)

Shakespeare quotes span the full bounds of the human experience as they explore different elements of life through comedy, tragedy, and romance. There are Shakespeare quotes about life and death, love and betrayal, each embedded in a famous play or poem.

View All Quotes

Shakespeare Sayings

Many quotes from William Shakespeare’s works now exist as popular sayings. You have likely heard many Shakespeare sayings without even realizing it, such as “wild goose chase” and “with bated breath.” Other Shakespeare sayings have fallen into obscurity, such as “eaten out of house and home” and “neither here nor there,” but are still recognized not as Shakespeare quotes but as generic popular sayings.

What's in a name? That which we call a rose

Juliet:
"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 who is called "Montague", not the Montague name and not the Montague family. Romeo, out of his passion for Juliet, rejects his family name and vows, as Juliet asks, to "deny (his) father" and instead be "new baptized" as Juliet's lover. This one short line encapsulates the central struggle and tragedy of the play, and is one of Shakespeare's most famous quotes.

Read more

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow

Macbeth:
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,
Signifying nothing.

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"). Murdering King Duncan and seizing his throne in retrospect seem like scenes of a script Macbeth was never suited to play. The idea that "all the world's a stage" is occasionally very depressing to Shakespeare's heroes. "To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow"—along with the other phrases culled from this lode of Bardisms—conveys the mechanical beat of time as it carries this poor player-king from scene to scene. "The last syllable of recorded time"—what Macbeth earlier called "the crack of doom" [see THE CRACK OF DOOM]—casts time as a sequence of words, as in a script; history becomes a dramatic record. If life is like a bad play, it is thus an illusion, a mere shadow cast by a "brief candle." The candle is perhaps the soul, and the prospects for Macbeth's are grim.

Read more

The lady doth protest too much

Player Queen:
Both here and hence pursue me lasting strife,
If once I be a widow, ever I be a wife!
Player King:
'Tis deeply sworn. Sweet, leave me here a while,
My spirits grow dull, and fain I would beguile
The tedious day with sleep.
Player Queen:
Sleep rock thy brain,
And never come mischance between us twain!
Hamlet:
Madam, how like you this play?
Queen:
The lady doth protest too much, methinks.

One of the more interesting quotes by Shakespeare: it's 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 bears some striking resemblances [see THE PLAY'S THE THING]. The queen in the play, like Gertrude, seems too deeply attached to her first husband to ever even consider remarrying; Gertrude, however, after the death of Hamlet's father, has remarried. We don't know whether Gertrude ever made the same sorts of promises to Hamlet's father that the Player Queen makes to the Player King (who will soon be murdered)—but the irony of her response should be clear. By "protest," Gertrude doesn't mean "object" or "deny"—these meanings postdate Hamlet. The principal meaning of "protest" in Shakespeare's day was "vow" or "declare solemnly," a meaning preserved in our use of "protestation." When we smugly declare that "the lady doth protest too much," we almost always mean that the lady objects so much as to lose credibility. Gertrude says that Player Queen affirms so much as to lose credibility. Her vows are too elaborate, too artful, too insistent. More cynically, the queen may also imply that such vows are silly in the first place, and thus may indirectly defend her own remarriage.

Read more

If music be the food of love, play on

Duke Orsino:
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 in mourning for her brother and only annoyed by Orsino's inappropriate attentions. The duke's idea of a cure for his disease is to stuff himself sick with his own passions. Orsino's brand of self-indulgent pouting comes in for much ribbing here and elsewhere in Shakespeare, most vividly in As You Like It and Much Ado about Nothing. For melancholic poseurs like Orsino, who are actually expected to make spectacles of themselves, affecting gestures are more important than sincere emotions.

Read more

All the world's a stage

Jaques:
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 in this quote. Jaques (pronounced "jay-keys" or "jay-kweez") is the resident sourpuss in the Forest of Arden, home to political exiles, banished lovers, and simple shepherds. Picking up on another character's stray suggestion that the world is a "wide and universal theater," Jaques deploys the theatrical metaphor for his famous speech on the Seven Ages of Man. The first of these ages, according to Jaques, is infancy (when the babe is found "Mewling [sobbing] and puking in his nurse's arms"), and the last is "second childishness and mere oblivion" (complete senility). His glum epigrams make up a "set speech"; Shakespeare meant them to sound practiced, like a bit of oratory polished off and hauled out on the appropriate (or inappropriate) occasion.

Read more

To be, or not to be

Hamlet:
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.

“To be or not to be,” Hamlet’s opening line to this famous soliloquy, is probably the best-known line 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 the richer ones for comment. But rest assured that you can quote any line and people will recognize your erudition. Hamlet, in contemplating the nature of action, characteristically waxes existential, and it is this quality—the sense that here we have Shakespeare's own ideas on the meaning of life and death—that has made the speech so quotable. Whether or not Shakespeare endorsed Hamlet's sentiments, he rose to the occasion with a very great speech on the very great topic of human "being." The subtle twists and turns of the prince's language I shall leave to the critics. My focus will be on the isolated images Hamlet invokes, the forgotten pictures behind the words, the parts we ignore when we quote the sum. If you ever have trouble remembering who said “to be or not to be,” or which Shakespeare play the quote comes from, just picture Hamlet struggling to accept the tragic and unexpected death of his father. TO BE, OR NOT TO BE, THAT IS THE QUESTION If you follow Hamlet's speech carefully, you'll notice that his notions of "being" and "not being" are rather complex. He doesn't simply ask whether life or death is preferable; it's hard to clearly distinguish the two—"being" comes to look a lot like "not being," and vice versa. To be, in Hamlet's eyes, is a passive state, to "suffer" outrageous fortune's blows, while not being is the action of opposing those blows. Living is, in effect, a kind of slow death, a submission to fortune's power. On the other hand, death is initiated by a life of action, rushing armed against a sea of troubles—a pretty hopeless project, if you think about it. TO SLEEP, PERCHANCE TO DREAM Hamlet tries to take comfort in the idea that death is really "no more" than a kind of sleep, with the advantage of one's never having to get up in the morning. This is a "consummation"—a completion or perfection—"devoutly to be wish'd," or piously prayed for. What disturbs Hamlet, however, is that if death is a kind of sleep, then it might entail its own dreams, which would become a new life—these dreams are the hereafter, and the hereafter is a frightening unknown. Hamlet's hesitation is akin to that of the condemned hero Claudio in Measure for Measure, written a few years after Hamlet. "Ay, but to die," he considers, "and go we know not where;/ To lie in cold obstruction, and to rot . . ." (Act 3, scene 1). Hamlet's fear is less clearly visualized, but is of the same type. No matter how miserable life is, both heroes suppose, people prefer it to death because there's always a chance that the life after death will be worse. THERE'S THE RUB We say "there's the rub" and think we communicate perfectly well—but do we? I mean "there's the catch" while you might think "there's the essence"—the meanings can be close, yet they're not identical. Shakespeare implies both senses, but calls up a concrete picture which would have been familiar to his audience. "Rub" is the sportsman's name for an obstacle which, in the game of bowls, diverts a ball from its true course. The Bard was obviously fond of the sport (he played on lawns, not lanes): he uses bowling analogies frequently and expertly. This is the most famous of such analogies, though not as elaborate as "Like to a bowl upon a subtle ground,/ I have tumbled past the throw" (Coriolanus, Act 5, scene 2). Although "rub" is used figuratively here, the image that leaps to Hamlet's mind is vivid and homely. Hamlet is often homely at odd moments, especially when the topic is death. "I'll lug the guts into the neighbor room" is another good example. THIS MORTAL COIL Shakespeare is really twisting syntax with this one. "Coil" generally means a "fuss" or a "to-do"—as in the line, "for the wedding being here to-morrow, there is a great coil tonight" (Much Ado about Nothing, Act 3, scene 3). But a to-do can't be "mortal," so what Hamlet must mean is "this tumultuous world of mortals." HIS QUIETUS MAKE WITH A BARE BODKIN This phrase succinctly illustrates the power Shakespeare can achieve by employing words with radically different origins and uses. "Quietus" is Latinate and legalistic; "bodkin" is concrete and probably Celtic in origin. Here, "his quietus make" means something like "even the balance" or "settle his accounts for good." That he might do this with a "bodkin"—elsewhere in Shakespeare a kind of knitting-needle, here a dagger—puts more menace in the abstract, almost clinical "quietus." "Fardels," "grunt," and "sweat" pick up on the grunting and sweating sound of "bodkin." "Fardel," a pack or bundle, is derived from the Arabic fardah (package): "grunt" and "sweat" are rooted in good old Anglo-Saxon. Hamlet's "fardels" are the wearying burdens of a weary life. THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY, FROM WHOSE BOURN NO TRAVELLER RETURNS Comfortably back in the high diction appropriate to a noble soliloquizer, Hamlet pulls out all the stops. He may be likening the unimaginable "something after death" to the New World, from which, in this Age of Exploration, some travelers were returning and some weren't. "Bourn" literally means "limit" or "boundary"; to cross the border into the country of death, he says, is an irreversible act. But Hamlet forgets that he has had a personal conversation with one traveler who has returned—his father, whose ghost has disclosed the details of his own murder [see THERE ARE MORE THINGS IN HEAVEN AND EARTH, HORATIO]. THUS CONSCIENCE DOES MAKE COWARDS OF US ALL Hamlet's phrase is certainly the most famous judgment on fear of the unknown. But he was not the first of Shakespeare's characters to utter such words: King Richard III, on the verge of his downfall, had said that "Conscience is but a word that cowards use,/ Devis'd at first to keep the strong in awe" (Richard III, Act 5, scene 3). The difference is that Machiavellian Richard professes not to believe in (or even have) a conscience, though his bad dreams ought to have convinced him otherwise. Hamlet believes in conscience; he just questions whether it's always appropriate [see THINKING TOO PRECISELY ON THE EVENT].

Read more

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio

Hamlet:
Swear by my sword
Never to speak of this that you have heard.
Ghost:
[Beneath] Swear by his sword.
Hamlet:
Well said, old mole, canst work i' th' earth so fast?
A worthy pioner! Once more remove, good friends.
Horatio:
O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!
Hamlet:
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 hard to figure what Horatio and Marcellus are being asked to keep quiet, though Hamlet and the burrowing ghost (a "pioner," or miner) insist. Horatio, a model of rationality, is still having a hard time swallowing the whole business. Ghosts are not the sort of beings his "philosophy" easily takes into account. We know that Horatio is, like Hamlet, a student at the University of Wittenberg, a notable outpost of Protestant humanism. The philosophy he studies there is probably classical—a compound of ethics, logic, and natural science. The emphasis on everyday phenomena pretty much excludes speculation about talking ghosts. Wittenberg, however, isn't just a place where sober-minded Horatios debate Aristotelian physics. In Christopher Marlowe's play of the late 1580s, Doctor Faustus, it is where the doctor lectures and, on the sideline, fraternizes with demons.

Read more

To sleep, perchance to dream

Hamlet:
"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 and the escape of death. He has been disconsolate since learning of the murder, from the ghost of his dead father. In this scene, he ponders suicide, "To die, to sleep-/No more." But he is tortured with the fear that there might not be peace even in death. "For in that sleep of death what dreams may come, /When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, /Must give us pause." Hamlet's moral and mental anguish is at its height in this soliloquy, which is the emotional centerpiece of the play.

Read more

O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?

Juliet:
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.
Romeo:
[Aside] Shall I hear more, or shall I speak at this?
Juliet:
'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 for the new lovebirds. To be Romeo is to be a Montague while to be Juliet is to be a Capulet, and the Montagues and Capulets have a nasty history of killing off one another. Juliet fancies that family identity can be changed along with one's name, and family fueds thus nullified. O ROMEO, ROMEO, WHEREFORE ART THOU ROMEO? Although we use "wherefore," if at all, as a synonym for "why," Juliet uses the word in a more limited sense. By "wherefore?" Juliet means "for what purpose?" If she had merely asked "Why art thou Romeo?" she wouldn't be distinguishing the two major meanings of "why"—"from what cause" (in the past) and "for what purpose" (in the future). "Wherefore" clearly emphasizes the latter sense, which is why "whys and wherefores" are different things. "Wherefore" and its partner "therefore" reflect the basic tendency of English to use spatial ideas—"where?" "there"—to represent logical ideas, such as cause and effect. WHAT'S IN A NAME? THAT WHICH WE CALL A ROSE BY ANY OTHER WORD WOULD SMELL AS SWEET If there's such a thing as generic Shakespeare today, this is it. Both "What's in a name?" and "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet" are Instant Bard, although the latter is, as many forget, merely a paraphrase. From the romantic declamation to the crass advertisement, these phrases have served generations with complete flexibility. "What's in a name?" is the less specific of the two phrases, and also the less common. Juliet here merely rehearses in a different form the point of "What's a Montague," moving, like a good Renaissance student, from the particular to the general. Names in general, she insists, ought to be separable from the things they name. Romeo never does change his name, and it wouldn't have done much good anyway. Whether or not he's essentially a Montague, and Juliet essentially a Capulet, their families will continue to act that way. "That which we call a rose/ By any other word would smell as sweet" seems bloated to the modern ear. But we're accustomed to the paraphrase, which never occurred to the playwright or his audience. It's a little futile to second-guess Shakespeare now, but he did have to fill out a line and a half of blank verse. Regarding Juliet's use of "word" instead of "name," we can perhaps be grateful; she already uses "name" six times in fifteen and a half lines.

Read more

Such stuff as dreams are made on

Prospero:
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 the point, that the "revels" (performance) they've witnessed were simply an illusion, bound sooner or later to melt into "thin air"—a phrase he coins. Prospero's metaphor applies not just to the pageant he's created on his fictional island, but also to the pageant Shakespeare presents in his Globe Theater—the "great globe itself." Dramatic illusion in turn becomes a metaphor for the "real" world outside the Globe, which is equally fleeting. Towers, palaces, temples, the Globe theater, the Earth—all will crumble and dissolve, leaving not even a wisp of cloud (a "rack") behind. Prospero's "pageant" is the innermost Chinese box: a play within a play (The Tempest) within a play (the so-called "real" world). Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream, and people are the "stuff" dreams are "made on" (built of)—just as characters might be called the "stuff' plays are "built on." "Our little life" is like a brief dream in some divine mind, "rounded with a sleep"—that is, either "surrounded" by sleep or "rounded off" (completed) by sleep. Prospero seems to mean that when we die, we awake from the dream of life into true reality—or at least into a truer dream. "The stuff of dreams" seems to derive from this passage, but it only superficially resembles Prospero's pronouncement. "The stuff of dreams" as we use it today refers to a scenario one can only fantasize—something devoutly to be wished. Prospero's "stuff" refers to the materials that go into creating an illusion, not to the object of a wish. Take note that Prospero says "made on," not "made of," despite Humphrey Bogart's famous last line in the 1941 film The Maltese Falcon: "The stuff that dreams are made of." (Bogart suggested the line to director John Huston, but neither seems to have brushed up his Shakespeare.) Film buffs may think "made of" is the authentic phrase, but they're only dreaming.

Read more

Parting is such sweet sorrow

Juliet:
'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.
Romeo:
I would I were thy bird.
Juliet:
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 mischievous youth ("wan-ton"), to snare her lover in twisted "gyves" (chains or fetters). Parting is pleasurable, presumably, because doing anything with Romeo is pleasurable. Note the latent sadomasochism of this exchange, and the almost wistful prophecy that Romeo will be killed with too much cherishing. Juliet's "Good night, good night!" is, incidentally, the thou-sand-and-first and thousand-and-second times she bids Romeo goodnight [see A THOUSAND TIMES GOOD NIGHT].

Read more

The winter of our discontent

Richard:
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 is the winter of our discontent" are doing these lines a disservice, since the "now" actually modifies "made glorious" (i.e. "The winter is now made glorious summer"). To translate more loosely: "The oppression of our family, which made life like a long winter, has been turned to a summery contentedness now that my brother is king." Edward's emblem is the sun, and the radiance of his glory has dispelled the clouds that "lowered" (frowned) on the House of York. Richard's string of metaphors runs adrift, though, when he begins talking about burying clouds in the ocean. But lest we get the idea that Richard couldn't be happier with the current state of affairs, he quickly begins grousing about Edward's decadent ways now that he's king. And from there he moves on to brooding over his own deformity—Richard was born hunchbacked and disfigured. In many respects, it's still winter for the restless Richard, who himself has ambitions for the throne. He attempts to bring on his own summer through manipulation, treachery, and murder, and, for a short time, he succeeds.

Read more

What a piece of work is a man

Hamlet:
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:
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 going to settle the argument here; you probably get the drift of Hamlet's speech anyway. Man is the noblest of all God's pieces of work, the "quintessence of dust" (the fifth, or purest, extract from the dust of which all things are compounded). But despite the nobility, the reason, the grace, and the beauty of man, Hamlet cannot be delighted. At least, so he tells the king's parasites, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, as he explains his melancholia. This is one of the moments where Hamlet's sincerity is genuinely in question. Like his claim that Denmark seems to him a prison [see THERE IS NOTHING EITHER GOOD OR BAD, BUT THINKING MAKES IT SO], Hamlet's disgust here seems more than an act, though perhaps he exaggerates for the benefit of the king's spies.

Read more

Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind

Helena:
"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 Demetrius dotes on Hermia's beauty, and she wishes appearances were contagious the way a sickness is so that she might look just like Hermia and win back Demetrius. The connection of love to eyesight and vision are matters of vital importance in this play about love and the confusion it sometimes brings.

Read more

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark

Horatio:
He waxes desperate with imagination.
Marcellus:
Let's follow. 'Tis not fit thus to obey him.
Horatio:
Have after. To what issue will this come?
Marcellus:
Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.
Horatio:
Heaven will direct it.
Marcellus:
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 says "state of Denmark" rather than just Denmark: the fish is rotting from the head down—all is not well at the top of the political hierarchy. There have been some hair-raising goings-on outside the castle at Elsinore. As the terrified Horatio and Marcellus look on, the ghost of the recently deceased king appears to Prince Hamlet. The spirit beckons Hamlet offstage, and the frenzied prince follows after, ordering the witnesses to stay put. They quickly decide to tag along anyway—it's not "fit" to obey someone who is in such a desperate state. In this confused exchange, Marcellus's famous non sequitur sustains the foreboding mood of the disjointed and mysterious action. And it reinforces the point and tone of some of Hamlet's earlier remarks—for example, that Denmark is "an unweeded garden" of "things rank and gross in nature" (Act 1, scene 2). When his father's ghost tells him his chilling tale in scene 5, the prince will realize just how rotten things really are in Denmark.

Read more

Out, damned spot

Doctor:
What is it she does now? Look how she rubs her hands.
Gentlewoman:
It is an accustom'd action with her, to seem thus
washing her hands. I have known her continue in this a quarter of
an hour.
Lady Macbeth:
Yet here's a spot.
Doctor:
Hark, she speaks. I will set down what comes from her, to
satisfy my remembrance the more strongly.
Lady Macbeth:
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 o'clock; she upbraids her husband for his bad conscience; she insists that there will be nothing to fear once they've grabbed the crown; she marvels at how much blood Duncan had to shed. As Lady Macbeth replays this scene for the eavesdroppers, she not only incriminates herself, but also reveals the pangs of conscience she had ridiculed in her husband. "Out, damn'd spot" is a prime example of "Instant Bard," tailor-made for ironic jokes and marketing schemes. But the "spot" isn't a coffee stain, it's blood. One motif of Macbeth is how tough it is to wash, scrub, or soak out nasty bloodstains. Macbeth had said that even the ocean couldn't wash his hands clean of Duncan's blood; Lady Macbeth, who scorned him then, now finds the blood dyed into her conscience. The king and queen persist in imagining that physical actions can root out psychological demons, but the play is an exposition of how wrong they are.

Read more

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars

Cassius:
"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 to the republic. Cassius continues by reminding Brutus that Caesar is just a man, not a god, and that they are equal men to Caesar. They were all born equally free, and so why would they suddenly have to bow to another man? On another level this phrase has been interpreted to mean that fate is not what drives men to their decisions and actions, but rather the human condition.

Read more

Prodigious birth

Juliet:
Go ask his name.—If he be married,
My grave is like to be my wedding-bed.
Nurse:
His name is Romeo, and a Montague,
The only son of your great enemy.
Juliet:
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 Capulet, or escape her family's "hate." Today "prodigy" usually refers to a precocious youngster. But the word had much different connotations in Shakespeare's time: a "prodigy" was someone or something abnormal, a monstrosity. Prodigies were taken to be omens of a family's bad fortune; this idea was thus naturally linked to the idea of birth, an event surrounded with a vast structure of superstition. While the word "prodigious"—of sixteenth century origin—was often applied to newborns or children, "prodigious birth" seems to be Shakespeare's coinage. When Juliet refers to the "prodigious birth" of her love, her imagination runs through the horrors such an omen portends; with deadly dramatic irony, she foresees that her grave will in fact prove her marriage bed. In a play contemporaneous with Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare has a fairy-king bless the marriage beds of three newly-wed couples. He commands that "the blots of Nature's hand/ Shall not in their issue stand;/ Never mole, hair-lip, nor scar,/ Nor mark prodigious, such as are/ Despisèd in nativity,/ Shall upon their children be" (A Midsummer Night's Dream, Act 5, scene 1, 409–414). This passage is an excellent rendering of Elizabethans' dread of prodigious births.

Read more

All that glisters is not gold

Prince of Morocco:
"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 picture. One casket is gold, another is silver, and the third is made of lead. The Prince of Morocco is one in a long line of suitors who tries to win Portia's hand, and he decides that it would demean Portia to have her picture in anything other than a gold casket, and so he chooses that one. As he unlocks it, he is dismayed to find a picture, not of Portia but of Death, with a message written in its hollow eye: "All that glisters is not gold; / Often have you heard that told. / Many a man his life hath sold / But my outside to behold. / Gilded tombs do worms enfold." With a grieving heart the Prince takes hasty leave of Portia, who is happy to see him go, saying, "A gentle riddance."

Read more

Et tu, Brute?

Caesar:
"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 moments on the Shakespearean stage. The audience has just witnessed the arrogance and hubris of a ruler who has sought, within a republic, to become a monarch, comparing himself to the gods. Brutus, a friend of Caesar and yet a man who loves Rome (and freedom) more, has joined the conspirators in the assassination, a betrayal which is captured by the three words above in this famous Shakespeare quote.

Read more