5 Phrases Shakespeare Popularized — People First Content


Growing up, I thought William Shakespeare represented the height of sophistication.

As an awkward middle schooler, I felt super smart watching the Leonardo DiCaprio version of Romeo and Juliet, even though I didn’t understand half of it.

In high school, I told everyone who would give me the time of day about how Ten Things I Hate About You (the ultimate teen movie back in the day) was really a take on Taming of the Shrew (even though I had never read Taming of the Shrew).

Then, in college, I actually read Shakespeare. Like, really read his works. I realized that, contrary to being sophisticated and high-brow, he was actually, well, pretty bawdy.

As a college senior, I spent a semester studying literature in London. One of the courses I took was on Shakespeare. Every week for 12 weeks, we went to a Shakespeare play. Some were in ultra-fancy theatres, while others were in teeny tiny basement theatres that made the audience part of the show.

My favorite experience was going to the Globe Theatre and watching Pericles live. That was the ultimate experience of what it must have been like to be a theater-goer in Shakespeare’s day.

The actors would have casual conversations with audience members throughout the play, sometimes heckling those in our group who weren’t paying attention. They used the Globe as the stage, flying through the air to create a makeshift pirate ship, with us audience members as part of the crew.

That’s when I fully understood the influence Shakespeare had on his culture.

You don’t need to be fluent in Renaissance English to appreciate the wordplay in his scripts (although it helps).

One thing that can humanize Shakespeare and bring him into more modern times is recognizing that so much of his language has become embedded into the modern era.

Love him or hate him, you have to admit that Shakespeare was a heck of a wordsmith.

5 Phrases That Came Straight Out of Shakespeare

Here’s a look at 5 common phrases we can thank Shakespeare for giving to the English language.

Note that I hesitate to use the word “invented,” since many of these phrases may have been used conversationally before Shakespeare wrote them down in his plays. So, we can say that he memorialized them and helped bring them into our everyday vernacular.

1. “A method to the madness”

In my favorite play, Hamlet, Polonius suggests that there’s some larger purpose behind Hamlet acting as if he were mad: “Though this be madness, yet there is method in ‘t.”

400 years later, the saying has morphed to “method to the madness,” though “madness” usually refers to more abstract chaos than to a person’s mental state.

You can find this line in Hamlet, Act 2, scene 2.

2. “The green-eyed monster”

This one comes from another of my favorite plays, Othello. Shakespeare’s greatest villain (in my humble opinion), Iago, says it as he manipulates Othello into thinking his wife Desdemona is being unfaithful (spoiler: she’s not).

The full lines are:

“Oh, beware, my lord, of jealousy!
It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock
The meat it feeds on.”

Today, the phrase green-eyed monster is often used to describe jealousy.

You can find this gem in “Othello,” act 3, scene 3.

3. “Send him packing.”

I’ll admit, Shakespeare’s historical plays aren’t my favorites. I prefer his tragedies (i.e., Hamlet, Othello, MacBeth, etc.). But they still have some good wordplay.

For example, in Henry IV: Part 1, we see the first written instance of the phrase “send him packing” when Falstaff dismisses his messenger saying, “Faith, and I’ll send him packing.”

The meaning of forcing somebody to leave abruptly is the same today as it was back then.

You can find this line in “Henry IV: Part 1,” act 2, scene 4.

4. “The devil incarnate”

It’s hard to imagine this not being an everyday phrase. But it wasn’t put into writing until Shakespeare wrote Titus Andronicus.

In this play, Lucius refers to Aaron the Moor as “the incarnate devil” because he has caused so much suffering to his family. Then, in Henry V, he uses the phrase “devils incarnate.”

“O worthy Goth, this is the incarnate devil
That robb’d Andronicus of his good hand.”

He must have liked the phrase a lot because he used it again in Henry V.

“Yes, that a’ did; and said they were devils incarnate.”

The way the phrase is used in both plays suggests that it was something that was commonly said during the time period, but there isn’t a record of the phrase being written until Shakespeare came along.

Find it in “Titus Andronicus,” act 5, scene 1 and “Henry V,” act 2, scene 3.

5. “In a pickle”

I’ll admit, the first time I heard this phrase was when I was watching the Sandlot. It turns out, being “in a pickle” doesn’t have origins in baseball.

Instead, we can thank Shakespeare for popularizing the phrase “in a pickle” in his play The Tempest. In Act 5, scene 1 King Alonso asks Trinculo, the jester,

“How camest though in this pickle?”

To which the drunk Trinculo replies,

“I have been in such a pickle since I saw you last.”

In Shakespeare’s day, the word “pickle” referred to a jam-like substance, not a dill-brined cucumber. So, the phrase refers to being in the middle of a jam. A clever play on words that probably made more sense back then than it does today, now that I think about it.

Shakespeare could also be alluding to alcohol here, which was used in the brining process to make pickle.

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Originally published at https://www.peoplefirstcontent.com on July 31, 2022.



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