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. This year marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, so 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.
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.
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: Recently adopted by Selena Gomez in popular music, this phrase means that you will get what you want by being very kind to another person.
“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.
“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?!).
“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.
“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.
Meaning: If someone is faint-hearted, it means that they are timid and lacking in courage.
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.
Wear your heart on your sleeve
“But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve for daws to peck at. I am not what I am.” – Othello
Meaning: A hugely popular song lyric adopted by the likes of Calvin Harris and Rihanna, to "wear your heart on your sleeve" is to make your feelings well known to others.
Break the ice
“If it be so, sir, that you are the man must stead us all and me amongst the rest, and if you break the ice and do this feat, achieve the elder, set the younger free for our access, whose hap shall be to have her will not so graceless be to be ingrate.” – The Taming of the Shrew
Meaning: To break the ice is to do or say something to relieve tension and is often used in the context of strangers meeting.
Example: We played a silly game at the start of the meeting the other day – it really broke the ice with everyone!
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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.