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OPINION | DANA KELLEY: Quoting the Bard

by Dana Kelley | May 13, 2022 at 3:02 a.m.

William Shakespeare was born 458 years ago this spring. His canon of written dramatic works--widely recognized as the finest in history--comprises 39 plays: 16 comedies, 11 histories and 12 tragedies.

To that he added 375 poems, 154 sonnets and a trio of long narrative poems.

All before dying at age 52.

Even though Shakespeare is still required reading in schools for the most part (more than one "woke" educrat has floated canceling the Bard, or at least "cleansing" his work of racist and misogynist references), many would be hard-pressed to name more than a few of his famous works.

Indeed, people are far more likely to recognize enduring quotes from his plays--he is, after all, the world's most quoted writer--rather than the plays themselves.

His Elizabethan language, arranged in iambic pentameter, typically carries a majestic and authoritative tone. It's as if the lines were made to be bona fide quotations for the ages, like Spark-Notes or CliffsNotes call-outs for universal human truths and emotions.

Among the most recognizable is, "To be, or not to be; that is the question." Practically anyone who hears those words can link them with the Bard of Avon. But a significantly smaller number can correctly identify the play and soliloquy from which they are plucked.

It's "Hamlet."

Likewise with other highly popular Shakespearean quotes.

If you hear "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players," you know the author. But do you know the play?

It's the same with "All that glitters is not gold," and "Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once" and "This above all: to thine own self be true."

The plays of origin are "As You Like It," "The Merchant of Venice," "Julius Caesar" and "Hamlet" again.

Considering they're all more than 400 years old, the sheer volume of familiar, relatable quotes from Shakespeare is amazing. His potent and poetic words and wording have incredible stickiness.

But what's really uncanny, and often surprising, is how many people frequently quote Shakespeare in normal conversation and never even realize it.

If you ever use the phrase "wild-goose chase," you're reciting from "Romeo & Juliet," and specifically from Romeo's confidant: the witty, scene-stealing character Mercutio. Prone to pun till the end, Mercutio says after being stabbed by Tybalt, "Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man."

Next time someone says they've "seen better days," just know that the phrase was first published in "As You Like It" in 1623 (and written by Shakespeare decades earlier, in 1599).

That pastoral comedy also brought us "forever and a day" and "too much of a good thing."

A strong case can be made that we can literally thank Shakespeare as the "be-all and end-all" source of common conversation phrases (that expression of ultimacy is from "Macbeth"). Here's a litany of them:

"Love is blind" comes from "The Merchant of Venice"; "I have not slept one wink" is from "Cymbeline"; "eaten me out of house and home" from "Henry IV"; "What's done is done" from "Macbeth."

"Forgone conclusion" flows forth from "Othello," which also delivered "wear my heart upon my sleeve" and "the green-eyed monster" as a metaphor for jealousy.

"Neither rhyme nor reason" is from "The Comedy of Errors"; "a tower of strength" from "Richard III"; "come full circle" from "King Lear"; "break the ice" is traced back to "Taming of the Shrew."

"Star-crossed lovers" self-describes "Romeo and Juliet"; "melted into thin air" first materialized as a turn of phrase in "The Tempest"; "send him packing" comes from "Henry IV."

And "All's well that ends well" is a Stratford hat trick: It's a casual colloquial, a famous Shakespeare quote, and the name of one of his plays.

A number of books have also borrowed their titles from the Bard, including several that went on to become movies.

Stephen Ambrose picked the "Band of Brothers" name from "Henry V": "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; For he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother."

John Steinbeck's "The Winter of our Discontent" is lifted verbatim from the Act I, Scene I opening line of Richard III: "Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York."

Other novels that owe their titles to Shakespeare: Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World" is from The Tempest"; William Faulkner's "The Sound and the Fury" is from a "Macbeth" line; John Green's "The Fault in Our Stars" is taken from "Julius Caesar"; Philip Dick's "Time Out of Joint" comes from "Hamlet"; Ray Bradbury's "Something Wicked This Way Comes" is prefaced in "Macbeth" with "By the pricking of my thumbs;" and Kate Wilhelm's "Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang" references a verse from Sonnet 73.

Perhaps a fitting final credit is the acknowledgement of Shakespeare as the father of the "knock, knock" joke, which first appeared as part of Macbeth, Act II, Scene III in 1605.

The subsequent "who's there?" descendants birthed from the Bard's particular parlance in that instance are numerous, if not always humorous.


Dana D. Kelley is a freelance writer from Jonesboro.


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