Shakespeare says: Good riddance! and more

Published 9:58 am Thursday, April 19, 2018

Is William Shakespeare the most universally known English writer? Perhaps so. Even if you’ve never read one of his plays or sonnets, you can probably name a couple of his works and even recite back some of his most famous lines like “to be or not to be.”

The month of April marks the anniversaries of the birth and death of “The Bard” himself. No one knows his exact birth date, but he was baptized on April 26, 1564 and died on April 23, 1616. During his life he coined many phrases we still use centuries later. And because so many of Shakespeare’s plays remain prevalent and well-liked, even phrases he may have actually borrowed from older writers exploded into popularity thanks to his usage of it.

I remember studying Shakespeare in both high school and college. Many of my fellow students, including myself at times, were intimidated by the flowery English prose he often used. But if we’d have stopped and thought about it, there were already plenty of Shakespeare phrases we knew even before we cracked open the spine of the first play.

I scoured the internet for a list of these phrases and found a recent article on Mental Floss’ website accurately entitled “21 phrases you use without realizing you’re quoting Shakespeare.” Here are a few of the ones that surprised me the most:

“Wild goose chase” comes from “Romeo and Juliet”, spoken by the character Mercutio. Apparently, the term referred more to a kind of horse race at the time than real geese.

The phrase “green-eyed monster” is synonymous with jealousy these days, but it was Shakespeare who first drew the parallel in the play “Othello.” The character Iago was trying to warn Othello to “beware, my lord, of jealousy! It is the green-eyed monster, which doth mock the meat it feeds on.”

If I say “off with his head!” you’ll likely picture the Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland. But the phrase first appeared in Shakespeare’s “Richard III” play where the king declared a traitor should be detached from that particular body part.

You ever get annoyed by something and exclaim “good riddance!” when it’s finally gone? You can thank Shakespeare for that phrase too. Patroclus from the play “Troilus and Cressida” declares this once a character he doesn’t like exits the stage.

“It’s Greek to me” is a common phrase muttered as an excuse when we don’t understand something. Funnily enough, the excuse comes from a Roman character in “Julius Caesar.” Of course, he wouldn’t understand Greek!

Fans of tough love like to say, “you’ve got to be cruel to be kind.” They got this advice from Hamlet who declared, “I must be cruel only to be kind. Thus bad begins and worse remains behind.” Frankly, considering how things turned out for Hamlet, I would suggest you not use him as a role model.

Shakespeare didn’t come up with the phrase “love is blind,” but he’s responsible for popularizing it in “The Merchant of Venice.” Jessica, the character who declares this, does something crazy and dresses as a guy so she can meet up with her boyfriend.

Shakespeare also didn’t come up with the phrase “break the ice” but he used it in “The Taming of the Shrew” and it’s been synonymous with starting a conversation ever since.

Most people associate the phrase “the game is afoot!” to Sherlock Holmes. But Sir Arthur Conan Doyle borrowed this from Shakespeare’s “Henry V” play.

You can read the rest of the interesting phrases in the Mental Floss article. But I also gathered a few more familiar phrases not mentioned there. These include “dead as a doornail” (from Henry VI Part II), “wear my heart upon my sleeve” (from Othello), “eaten me out of house and home” (from Henry IV Part II), and “in a pickle” (from The Tempest). 

So the next time you cringe away from Shakespeare, just remember you might already be quoting him.

Holly Taylor is a Staff Writer for Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact her at or by phone at 252-332-7206.