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Centuries Later, the Bard of Avon Still Makes His Mark on American English

RS: I'm Rosanne Skirble with Avi Arditti, and this week on Wordmaster: Shakespeare in American English.

This is the seventy-fifth anniversary year of the Folger Shakespeare Library, home to the largest collection of Shakespeare materials in the world. That collection is housed here in Washington, where Georgianna Ziegler heads the reference department. Ms. Ziegler says she has been poking around the Folger archives lately to document the influence of Shakespeare on American life, dating back to the founding of the nation.

GEORGIANNA ZIEGLER: "And it really did become a part of American language, through the schools, through people having a copy of Shakespeare in their homes. If they had any book, they would usually have the Bible, and then Shakespeare."

AA: "And so why don't you -- you've brought a book with you there ... "

GEORGIANNA ZIEGLER: "Yes, well there's a wonderful book by Michael Macrone called 'Brush Up Your Shakespeare' in which he lists a lot of these popular terms that we find all the time -- for example, something happened 'in one fell swoop,' everything happening at once. And, of course, we don't think about 'Macbeth' when we say that, but that's where it's from. And there are actually a lot of these terms -- I was just looking through this and discovering that there are lot of things that we use that come from 'Macbeth,' for some strange reason.

"For example, if you say it's the 'be all and the end all.' The idea of the 'be all and the end all' seems that it's the goal, it's a kind of a goal that you reach for. Or 'knock, knock! Who's there?' comes from the drunken porter scene in 'Macbeth' where the guy who is supposed to answer the door is drunk, and somebody's knocking and he goes into this long, sort of inebriated speech. He says 'knock, knock, knock! Who's there?'"

AA: "Are you serious? So when children now do knock, knock -- "

GEORGIANNA ZIEGLER: "Knock, knock jokes."

AA: "Knock, knock jokes came from Shakespeare."

GEORGIANNA ZIEGLER: "Well, knock, knock, who's there? [laughter] I think a lot of times Shakespeare is using phrases and things that were popular at his own time -- for example, 'to thine own self be true.' That comes from 'Hamlet,' from Polonius giving Laertes a lot of advice before he goes off to the Continent.

"He's sending his son off to Europe and he knows this is a dangerous place, so he gives him a whole slew of advice before he goes, and one of the last things he says is to thine own self be true. Of course, 'to be or not to be,' 'there's the rub,' that comes from Hamlet."

AA: "Which if you could explain simply what that means, when people say 'ah, there's the rub.'"

GEORGIANNA ZIEGLER: "There's the catch. There's the essence, might be close to it, as Michael Macrone suggests. The rub apparently in Shakespeare's time came -- it's a sports term. It came from an obstacle in the game of bowls, which diverts the ball from its true course."

RS: "What do you think has given these phrases that originated in Shakespeare such staying power?"

GEORGIANNA ZIEGLER: "Well, I think they're sort of catchy -- 'there's the rub,' or 'to be or not to be' or 'to sleep, perchance to dream.' Or 'friends, Romans, countrymen' -- they're things that stay in people's minds because they are sort of, they are a little bit catchy. And the other ones are really proverbial, like 'to thine own self be true.'

"In fact, Polonius' entire speech is made up of common proverbs. And a lot of those proverbs have come down not only in English but in other foreign languages, too. They just have other ways of expressing the same ideas. You know, 'neither a lender nor a borrower be,' that kind of thing."

AA: "Now when Shakespeare was writing -- this was late fifteen hundreds, early sixteen hundreds --


AA: "How close to contemporary English was that?"

GEORGIANNA ZIEGLER: "Very close. Shakespeare's language is very conversational for the time. Today it may seem a bit elite to us or musty, but in fact it was pretty much commonplace English in Shakespeare's time."

RS: "Does it surprise you that there are so many words in American English that come from Shakespeare -- or so many words and phrases?"

GEORGIANNA ZIEGLER: No, not really, I think because American English is so -- it goes back so much to the British English of the time. People in early America turned to England for their literature. It was only in the nineteenth century when you had people like Hawthorne and Melville and Thoreau and Emerson who began to think that they ought to build their own American tradition of literature.

"But even those men were extremely well-read -- and someone like Margaret Fuller, who was one of the early feminists, even in her writing [she] was really drawing on Shakespeare -- because they knew Shakespeare so well.

RS: Georgianna Ziegler is head of reference at the Folger Shakespeare Library. The library this year is celebrating its 75th anniversary as the largest and finest collection of Shakespeare materials in the world -- and a popular link between the Bard of Avon and the American people.

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With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble