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.