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Shakespeare Idioms

6 min read
21 December 2020
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There is no doubt that William Shakespeare gave a lot to literature and to the English language, but did you know that one of the most influential playwrights of all time also coined some of the best-known idioms we still use today in English? When studying English in an English-speaking country like the UK, it’s helpful to know some of the common idioms native speakers use in their day-to-day lives. We thought we would explore the origins of some of our favorite, fun, Will-inspired idioms so you can learn to quote Shakespeare effortlessly in your everyday English.


1. Heart of gold

“The king’s a bawcock, and a heart of gold, a lad of life, an imp of fame, of parents good, of fist most valiant.” – Henry V

Meaning: To say that someone has a "heart of gold" means that they are kind, good natured or generous.

Example: "Sarah always tries her best, she has a heart of gold."


2. Kill with kindness

“This is a way to kill a wife with kindness, and thus I’ll curb her mad and headstrong humor.” – The Taming of the Shrew

Meaning: This phrase means that you will get what you want by being very kind to another person.

Example: "No matter how horrible they are to you, kill them with kindness."


3. Laughing stock

Pray you let us not be laughing-stocks to other men's humours; I desire you in friendship, and I will one way or other make you amends.” – The Merry Wives of Windsor

Meaning: Originally referring to the medieval tradition of holding someone in the stocks as a punishment for their crime, a person subjected to ridicule or mockery can be described as a laughing stock.

Example: "She became a laughing stock when she tripped in the middle of Oxford Street." 



4. Wild-goose chase

“Nay, if our wits run the wild-goose chase, I am done, for thou hast more of the wild-goose in one of thy wits than, I am sure, I have in my whole five.” – Romeo and Juliet

Meaning: In Shakespeare’s day, this originally referred to a kind of horse race rather than hunting wild geese. Today, it refers to a pointless exercise, where the outcome will be fruitless (can you imagine how impossible trying to catch a wild goose would be?!). 

Example: "I've been looking for Rachel in the office for ages. Seems like she's taking me on a wild-goose chase."


5. Green-eyes monster

“O, beware, my lord, of jealousy! It is the green-eyed monster, which doth mock the meat it feeds on." – Othello

Meaning: In times gone by, the color green was often referenced to being unwell or sick. Shakespeare was the first person to introduce the concept of being sick with jealousy.

Example: "Uh oh! After Jacob asked Emily to prom, Jake's turned into the green-eyed monster."


6. Lie low

“If he could right himself with quarrelling, some of us would lie low.” – Much Ado About Nothing

Meaning: The act of "lying low" is described as keeping quiet and avoiding attention.

Example: "I want to lie low after my mum found out I've been sneaking out to meet friends."


Students in park
How many of these Shakespeare idioms can you remember?

7. Faint-hearted

Faint-hearted Woodvile, prizest him 'fore me? Arrogant Winchester, that haughty prelate, Whom Henry, our late sovereign, ne'er could brook? Thou art no friend to God or to the king.” – Henry VI

Meaning: If someone is faint-hearted, it means that they are timid and lacking in courage.

Example: "That rollercoaster isn't for the faint-hearted."


8. Apple of my eye

“Flower of this purple dye, hit with Cupid’s archery, sink in apple of his eye.” – A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Meaning: To say that someone is the apple of your eye means that you love and cherish them above all others.

Example: "My daughter is the apple of my eye."


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9. Wear your heart on my sleeve

“But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve for daws to peck at. I am not what I am.” – Othello

Meaning: To "wear your heart on your sleeve" is to make your feelings well known to others.

Example: "I don't hide my feelings, I wear my heart on my sleeve."


Want to learn more about how you can study in the United Kingdom and experience Shakespeare's homeland? Check out some of Kaplan's General or Intensive English courses and find out what it's like to learn English in the UK.


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