by Kate Woodford
This week we’re looking at a few more of the phrases from the plays of William Shakespeare, (1564 – 1616), that are part of ordinary ‘everyday’ English. Again, some of these phrases were coined (= invented) by Shakespeare. Others, which were already in use when he was writing, were simply made popular by him.
In modern English, It’s all Greek to me is a way of saying that you do not understand something said or written. In Shakespeare’s history play, Julius Caesar, the character of Casca is asked what Cicero said and replies: ‘But, for mine own part, it was Greek to me’. (Cicero had been speaking Greek and Casca didn’t understand Greek.) In modern English, we have simply added the word ‘all’ to the phrase.
Today, something that beggars description is so very good or so very bad that you find it difficult to describe. (A ‘beggar’ is a poor person who asks other people for money and so ‘to beggar’ here means ‘to make someone or something very poor’.) In Shakespeare’s play Antony and Cleopatra, Mark Antony’s friend says of Cleopatra’s appearance, For her own person, It beggar’d all description, meaning that Cleopatra’s appearance (‘her own person’) was so beautiful, it made words seem poor and useless.
Shakespeare’s comedy, The Merry Wives of Windsor, contains a number of very ordinary phrases in use today. One character tells another: ‘Pray you, let us not be laughing stocks to other men’s humours.’, meaning that he does not want them to do anything silly that will make people laugh at them. (The ‘stocks’ here refers to a form of punishment used in the past. A person was attached to a wooden frame in a public place. People would walk past and laugh and throw things at them.) Today, if we describe someone or something a laughing stock, we mean that other people consider them to be very silly.
From the same play we also have the modern phrase The world is your oyster. If the world is someone’s oyster, they are free to go where they want to, or do what they want to. In The Merry Wives of Windsor, the comic character of Sir John Falstaff refuses to lend his friend, Pistol, any money. Pistol replies, ‘Why, then the world’s mine oyster. Which I with a sword will open.’ Pistol seems to mean that he is free to do what he wishes to do, (though suggests that he may use violence – his sword – while doing it!).
The same character of Pistol appears in another of Shakespeare’s plays, Henry the fifth and gives modern English another phrase. Pistol praises his king as ‘a heart of gold’. Today, if we say someone has a heart of gold, we mean that they are very kind and generous.
Meanwhile, in Shakespeare’s Henry the fourth, part ll, the character of Mistress Quickly complains that Sir John Falstaff, (a famously big eater), ‘hath (=has) eaten me out of house and home.’ Today, you might humorously say that a visitor has eaten you out of house and home if they have eaten a lot while in your home.