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From Shakespeare’s Pen to Our Mouths

A portrait of William Shakespeare was painted in 1610 and is believed to be the only surviving portrait of William Shakespeare painted during his lifetime (File Photo)
A portrait of William Shakespeare was painted in 1610 and is believed to be the only surviving portrait of William Shakespeare painted during his lifetime (File Photo)
From Shakespeare’s Pen to Our Mouths
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Now, time for Words and Their Stories from VOA Learning English.

William Shakespeare is probably the most famous English-language writer ever.

Historians think Shakespeare was born on April 23 in 1564. They believe he died exactly 52 years later, on the same day!

But historians and the rest of us actually know very little about the personal life of Shakespeare. Some researchers even suggest that he did not write all the plays that are credited to him.

But, let us put all the mystery aside.

What we do know is this: the language of Shakespeare is alive and well in modern, everyday English.

Even if an English-speaker knows nothing about Shakespeare, they will surely know some of his expressions. And I am not talking about sayings like “to be or not to be” or “wherefore art thou Romeo.” Most people know those lines come from Shakespeare.

Syrian children, living at a refugee camp in Jordan, perform an interpretation of Shakespearean plays "Hamlet" and "King Lear", during a Shakespeare event, 2014. (REUTERS PHOTO)
Syrian children, living at a refugee camp in Jordan, perform an interpretation of Shakespearean plays "Hamlet" and "King Lear", during a Shakespeare event, 2014. (REUTERS PHOTO)

The playwright invented many more words and expressions that we continue to use every day.

Perhaps this is best explained as a theatrical production.

As Shakespeare wrote, “All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players.”

Let's pretend two friends are in a crowded theater. They are waiting for a performance of Shakespeare to begin. One is a Shakespeare buff who knows a lot about the playwright. The other person thinks he knows very little about Shakespeare. But he may know more than he thinks.

Before the curtain rises, let's listen to their conversation.

A: What took you so long? The play is starting soon.

B: I wanted to buy something to eat, but that turned out to be a wild-goose chase. This theater does not have any food!

A: I thought you went home.

B: Why would I leave?

A: Because you do not like Shakespeare.

B: It’s not that I don’t like Shakespeare. I just don’t know Shakespeare.

A: I suspect you know more than you think.

B: What do you mean?

A: Well, the term “wild goose chase” comes from Shakespeare’s play “Romeo and Juliet.” Years ago, it meant a kind of horse race. But now, it means a hopeless search for something you cannot find.

B: Well, I wish you would have told me that this theater doesn’t serve food before my wild-goose chase. I’m so hungry! A friend has been staying with me for the past month and he’s eating me out of house and home! There's nothing left in my house to eat.

A: That is another expression from Shakespeare! It comes from the play “Henry IV.”

B: What expression, “I’m hungry!”?

A: No! To eat someone out of house and home. It means that someone eats all the food in your house, like you’re friend. In Shakespeare’s play, Mistress Quickly says to the king, “He hath eaten me out of house and home; he hath put all my substance into that fat belly of his … !”

B: That is exactly what is happening … just like in Henry IV!

A: So, why has your friend been staying with you for so long?

B: He says he got into a little trouble with the law and needs to lie low for a while.

A: Staying out of sight until trouble passes is great advice! In fact, Shakespeare wrote that advice for Antonio in Much Ado About Nothing. The exact words were, “If he could right himself with quarreling, some of us would lie low.”

B: When you start talking Shakespeare I really get lost. It’s all Greek to me. I just cannot understand any of it.

A: Well, you must understand a little because you use his expressions all the time. “It’s Greek to me” is from the play Julius Caesar! And it’s a one way to tell someone you don’t have a clue what’s going on.

B: I have to say I am a little jealous that you know so much about Shakespeare. And I’m not one to fall victim to the green-eyed monster.

A: Guess what?

B: Don’t tell me? That expression is also from Shakespeare? I thought it came from the fact that feeling bitter kind of makes you feel sick. And sick people often look green.

A: You are right. Before Shakespeare’s time, the color green was most commonly linked with bad health. In his play Othello, Shakespeare turned the idea of being sick with a disease into a condition -- being sick with jealousy.

B: You know there are many other playwrights out there. Shakespeare is not the be-all and end-all of English writers.

A: No one ever said he was the most important person in the English-speaking world. But now that you said it -- be-all and end-all is my favorite Shakespeare expression. And it comes from my favorite play, “Macbeth.” As Macbeth is preparing to kill the King, he says, “That but this blow / Might be the be-all and the end-all.”

B: I really didn’t know that Shakespeare was such an influence on the way we speak today. I just thought he was for old college professors and people who do nothing but go to the theater.

A: Hey!

B: Seriously, it is fun to find out that so many of his words and expressions are still used today.

A: Did you know, he even invented the knock-knock joke.

B: Really?!

A: Knock, knock!

B: Who’s there?

A: Orange.

B: Orange who?

A: Orange (Aren’t) glad I didn’t quote Shakespeare again?

B: Yes. Yes, I am. Now be quiet. The play is about to start and I don’t want to miss a word.

We hope you enjoyed this special Words and Their Stories celebrating the writer William Shakespeare. Have fun using the Shakespearean expressions that you heard today.

I'm Anna Matteo.

Do have a favorite Shakespeare play? Have you ever heard of these Shakespearean expressions? Let us know in the Comments Section!

Anna Matteo wrote this story for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

buff n. a person who is very interested in something and who knows a lot about it

wild-goose chasen. a foolish and hopeless pursuit of something unattainable.

eat out of house and homeidiomatic expression : to eat everything that someone has in the house

lie low phrase keep out of sight; avoid detection or attention

It’s all Greek to me.idiom : used to mean that you do not understand something

jealousy n. an unhappy or angry feeling of wanting to have what someone else has

green-eyed monster n. jealousy thought of as a monster that bites or attacks people

be-all and end-all n. the most important part of something or the reason for something