12 Misunderstood and Misquoted Shakespearean Expressions

By Mark Nichol

The plays of William Shakespeare provide a wealth of pithy sayings — many of which he likely popularized rather than produced himself, though we may still be grateful to him for sharing them. Unfortunately, sometimes the original sense is adulterated by careless usage, so that the eloquent force of the expression is weakened. Here are a dozen of Shakespeare’s phrases with comments about their original wording and meaning:

1. “At one fell swoop”

This phrase from Macduff’s grief-stricken lamentation about the murder of his family in Macbeth uses the archaic word fell, meaning “fierce,” to extend the metaphor of the perpetrator (who he calls a “hell-kite”) as a bird of prey. Modern usage is generally more casual and even comical.

2. “Brave new world”

This phrase from a speech by Miranda, daughter of the wizard Prospero in The Tempest, naively uses brave in the sense of “handsome” when she first lays eyes on other men. The subtext in Shakespeare is that those she refers to are superficially attractive but substantially deficient in character. The sense is the same in the phrase as it appears in the title of Aldous Huxley’s dystopian classic. Unfortunately, the dark sarcasm is being dulled by use of the phrase to blithely herald a bright future.

3. “Foregone conclusion”

From Othello, this phrase means literally something that has already occurred (it has “gone before”); now, the phrase often refers to a conjectural event.

4. “Gild the lily”

This misquotation from King John, which actually reads, “To gild refined gold, to paint the lily . . . is wasteful and ridiculous excess,” confuses the metaphor, because lilies are white, not gold.

5. “Lead on, Macduff”

This misquotation from Macbeth, in which the title character baits his nemesis to attack him by saying, “Lay on, Macduff,” is now a variation of “After you” — quite a diversion from the original intent.

6. “The milk of human kindness”

This metaphor, employed in the service of a heartwarming connotation, would rouse the wrath of Lady Macbeth, whose reference to the virtue in the play named for her husband was contemptuous.

7. “More honored in the breach than the observance”

This phrase from Hamlet has been twisted by time to mean an admirable custom that is neglected more often practiced. Shakespeare’s sense was of a deplorable custom that should be halted. The expression immediately follows another well-known but oft-misunderstood phrase: Hamlet refers to himself as one “to the manner born,” meaning “brought up to follow the custom,” but some people believe the phrase, when expressed out of context, to be “to the manor born,” referring to one raised in the opulent surroundings of a manor house.

8. “Neither rhyme nor reason”

The modern focus is on the second element of this phrase from The Comedy of Errors, but the intent is to express a lack both of sense and of eloquence.

9. “Sea change”

This expression from The Tempest refers to a deadly shift in weather, but now the sense of peril has been replaced by a connotation of significant transformation.

10. “Third degree”

Shakespeare’s humorous reference in Twelfth Night to someone “in the third degree of drink” harks to the principle of degrees in natural philosophy, which assigns the third degree to the penultimate level of intensity. The modern sense is of merciless interrogation, though it’s usually employed in a lighthearted tone.

11. “What the dickens”

Some of those unfamiliar with the origin of this expression — The Merry Wives of Windsor — assume it has a Victorian provenance and refers to Charles Dickens. But dickens is an Elizabethan euphemism for the devil, and Shakespeare employs it as an oath.

12. “The world’s mine oyster”

The usual assumption is that one can easily lay the world wide open and extract its contents. But the boast in The Merry Wives of Windsor goes on to say, “Which I with sword will open,” expressing the partaker’s more active — and more violent — role.

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18 Responses to “12 Misunderstood and Misquoted Shakespearean Expressions”

  • Deborah H

    My favorite (but lesser known): I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw. from Hamlet

  • BS

    Great post! I have to take issue with your note on the third degree, though. Our “merciless interrogation” doesn’t come from Shakespeare at all, but rather through the induction of a Master Mason into Freemasonry. It’s the most rigorous of their examinations and involves a great deal of questions.

  • JoanL

    Here’s another: “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” Used today to express contempt for lawyers, this quote, from Henry VI, expresses quite the opposite when read in context. The point being made was if you want tyranny to prevail, first get rid of the bulwark against tyranny–the lawyers. A Google search led me to the following webpage, in which the author explains it more fully better than I can: http://www.howardnations.com/shakespeare.html.

  • Lee Doyle

    Great post, Mark. Thanks for setting us straight on the real meaning of these phrases. Curious how we’ve have transformed “darker” references to sunnier ones.

  • Kathryn

    Interesting, and in most cases good reminders and clarifications. However, I disagree with the explanation of “sea-change.” The /only/ use of the phrase in /The Tempest/ is in Ariel’s song:

    Full fathom five thy Father lies,
    Of his bones are Corrall made:
    Those are pearles that were his eies,
    Nothing of him that doth fade,
    But doth suffer a Sea-change
    Into something rich & strange
    Sea-Nymphs hourly ring his knell.
    Harke now I heare them, ding-dong, bell.

    It takes a considerable wrenching of that text to conclude that his already dead father is undergoing a deadly shift in the weather. The phrase may well have been used with that meaning, before, during and after Shakespeare’s time, but he didn’t use it that way.

    I am also very skeptical of the claim that “the third degree,” used for harsh police interrogation, is in any sense directly traceable to Shakespeare. The Phrase Finder traces it to the initiation rites for a Third Degree Mason http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/372300.html, as does Webster’s New World Dictionary (although the latter indicates the etymology is speculative). This seems a far more plausible origin for a phrase whose actual origin is not known for sure.

  • Precise Edit

    “Hoist with his own petard” (I think I stated that correctly.) The expression, as used, doesn’t refer to hurting one’s self but to being lifted by one’s own…um…flatulence.

  • Kathryn

    Um. No. The actual line, from /Hamlet/, is “For ’tis the sport to have the enginer/ Hoist with his own petar”; by “petar” Shakespeare did, indeed, mean “petard,” but “petard” does /not/ mean “flatulence.” It was a type of mine or bomb–“enginer” (a variant spelling of “engineer”) at the time meant “a constructor of military engines.” “Hoist,” however, does actually mean “lifted,” in the sense of “blown up.”

    So, it’s not so much about hurting oneself, but rather about having one’s own machinations turned upon oneself. A near equivalent of “he will fall into the pit which he has digged for others.”

  • Mark MacKay

    I appreciate your deft avoidance of the title of The Scottish Play in number six.

  • Douglas Arvidson

    This discussion of Shakespeare is quite wonderful. As a writer and a speech-language pathologist, I have always understood that language is a tool and as such, must change with the society/culture that uses it to communicate changing needs. So I don’t lament the evolution of the meanings of words as some do. With regards to The Bard, however, his genius will always be a source of profound wisdom on how to live–or not live–our lives. His meaning should be kept as he intended and so must be constantly examined by each generation to be sure we have it right.

  • Mark Nichol

    Mark:

    At the risk of disappointing you, I must say that actually, the circuitous identification of the play in question was not in deference to the convention in the theatrical world of refraining from uttering the name of this play; I did so in the previous item, and my elision in item number 5 was for the purposes of elegant variation (both in counterpoint to the title in item number 5 and to Lady Macbeth’s name in item number 6). Despite being a lapsed thespian myself, I am devoid of superstition.

  • Stephen

    JoanL> I’m sorry to say that the interpretation on the Howard Nations site of the phrase “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers” is more of a misunderstanding than the interpretation it is trying to correct.

    Here’s a more thorough review: http://www.spectacle.org/797/finkel.html

  • Brian Wasko

    Maybe it was too obvious to include, but I can’t think of a more common or more misunderstood Shakespearian expression than “Wherefore art thou Romeo?” Everyone seems to think Juliet is wondering where Romeo is, rather than bemoaning her discovery of who he is.

  • Precise Edit

    Kathryn: Thank you for providing the correct quotation. Yes, ‘petard’ is a bomb, for all practical purposes.

    Given the context, I still think Shakespeare was making a play on words and referring to flatulence. “Petar” (not “petard,” which would be the correct spelling) resembles the french word “peter.” The meaning of “peter” comes from the Latin term for “to break wind,” i.e., fart.

    See “Hoist with his own petard” by fellow Shakespeare lover, Maeve Maddox: http://www.dailywritingtips.com/hoist-with-his-own-petard/

  • Kathryn

    Precise Edit–and thank you for the link to Maeve’s post; most interesting and yes, given the etymology of petard there is certainly a reasonable argument to be made that the “earthy pun” was part of the complex of meaning Shakespeare intended. But the phrase, as used, would be rather pointless if that were the primary meaning. Why would it be more amusing to see the designer of military machines raised off the ground (or, perhaps seat) by his own flatulence, than to see someone of a different occupation so raised? The pun may add to the core meaning, but it doesn’t displace it.

    Agreed, though, that the reference is distinctly /not/ about hurting oneself.

  • Mark Nichol

    Brian:

    Thanks for calling attention to this omission. It didn’t occur to me to add the line from Shakespeare that perhaps has confused more people than any other, but I collected the contents of this post on the basis of expressions that have entered our vocabulary, rather than lines from the plays in general.

  • Mel

    I would also have included ‘wherefore art thou Romeo?’ for the reasons someone above has already mentioned.
    Also commonly misquoted is ‘all that glisters is not gold’ from The Merchant of Venice as many people change it to ‘glitters’.

  • Tom

    Mark Nichol on October 29, 2011 5:18 pm : At the risk of disappointing you, I must say that actually, the circuitous identification of the play in question was not in deference to the convention in the theatrical world of refraining from uttering the name of this play; I did so in the previous item, and my elision in item number 5 was for the purposes of elegant variation (both in counterpoint to the title in item number 5 and to Lady Macbeth’s name in item number 6). Despite being a lapsed thespian myself, I am devoid of superstition

    Hahaha ….funny man

  • Valerie

    Could you, would you please point out the well-meaning but inane usage of “The play’s the thing!” in boosterism for theater, especially Shakespeare, by oh, maybe completing the line and explaining the context? And I have a request for anyone, anywhere who is bidding your own or anyone’s small boy children pleasant dreams at bedtime: Seeing as “Good night sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest” is spoken by Horatio to Hamlet as he dies, it has always struck me as a bit of bad juju misused in the manner in which it is so often. I’m picky, it’s icky.

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