To Be or Not To Be? Shakespeare is the Answer.

In August 2016, I saw Shakespeare by the Sea’s production of King Lear. It was only a few months before the election that would see Donald Trump become the President of the United States, the campaigning was in full swing, and, like the rest of the world, Canadians were watching the insanity happening south of the border with a kind of horrified fascination.

Complete and total tangent: If you’re in Halifax during the summer, go to Shakespeare by the Sea. Just go. You’ll have a blast. Even if you don’t like Shakespeare, go. Take the chance and start with a comedy. Trust me, you won’t regret it.


To continue. Near the end of the play, the Earl of Gloucester says:

‘Tis the time’s plague, when madmen lead the blind.

The chuckle that rumbled through the audience was brief, and it was bitter, and it was filled with tension.

It was an unsettling moment. It was also a prime example of Shakespeare’s relevance in modern times. Shakespeare had a great understanding of human nature, which in the grand scheme of things doesn’t change very much, and that’s why his work speaks to us to this day. We see ourselves and those around us in his characters and we understand their motivations, so even if the play’s setting is foreign to us, what happens in it is not.

But this was different. This was language. It was words strung together in such a way that a universal truth was revealed.

The language of Shakespeare is, of course, the bane of high school students everywhere. The debate about the effectiveness of the way in which his plays are taught is a topic for another article. But I think it’s safe to say that a high percentage of people who have read Shakespeare have struggled with the language.

And that made me think of how, despite that, many of Shakespeare’s words have wormed their way into modern language. If it was happening today, they’d be called viral and doubtless end up as internet memes. But because they’ve been around for so long, we don’t even realize their pop culture origin. Because let’s face it – Shakespeare was the pop culture of his time.

I’d noticed this before, most clearly while watching Kenneth Branagh’s movie version of Hamlet. That particular play is littered with phrases that are part of our everyday lexicon, and because this version is uncut, with every single word of dialogue present, we can see just how many there are.

There are many reasons this is one of the most studied speeches of all time.

Sure, some of them are more common than others, and many have become a bit garbled over time, but the basic premise is there. If someone uses one of these phrases in everyday conversation, even if the words themselves seem a bit strange or irrelevant in the context of that conversation, we immediately understand what the speaker is trying to convey. They’re a shorthand to meaning.

With this in mind, I sat down to watch Branagh’s Hamlet and create a list of these phrases. It’s a simple transcription. The lines are as they appear in the play, not necessarily exactly as they’re used now. Sometimes it’s only a small part from the overall line that’s still in use today. Conversely, sometimes a line contains multiple phrases that are in common usage.

Just how common that usage is varies as well. And of course the whole thing is influenced by my own experiences. I’m sure there are things on this list that some would make a face at and proclaim, “I have never heard anyone say that!” But I have, so on the list it goes. Likewise, I may very well have missed something. (If I have, I’d love to know what. Please tell me in the comments!)

From just one viewing, I compiled this list of more than three dozen examples:

  • A little more than kin, and less than kind
  • I am too much i’ the sun
  • O, that this too too solid flesh would melt
  • That it should come to this
  • Frailty, thy name is woman
  • Neither a borrower nor a lender be
  • To thine own self be true
  • Angels and ministers of grace defend us
  • Something is rotten in the state of Denmark
  • O, day and night, but this is wondrous strange
  • There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy
  • Brevity is the soul of wit
  • More matter, with less art
  • What a piece of work is a man
  • You are welcome, masters; welcome all
  • O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I
  • The play’s the thing, wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king
  • We do sugar o’er the devil himself
  • To be or not to be, that is the question: – Whether ’tis nobler in the mind, to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, And by opposing end them?
  • To sleep, perchance, to dream; aye, there’s the rub; For in that sleep of death what dreams may come, When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, Must give us pause
  • Conscience does make cowards of us all
  • Get thee to a nunnery
  • We are arrant knaves, all
  • To a nunnery, go
  • O, woe is me! To have seen what I have seen
  • Madness in great ones must not unwatch’d go
  • Here’s metal more attractive
  • The lady doth protest too much, methinks
  • ’T is now the very witching time of night
  • Words without thoughts never to heaven go
  • O, what a rash and bloody deed is this
  • These words, like daggers, enter in my ears
  • I must be cruel, only to be kind
  • For ’t is the sport to have the engineer Hoist with his own petard
  • What is a man?
  • Good night, ladies; good night, sweet ladies; good night, good night
  • That we would do, We should do when we would
  • Alas, poor Yorick! – I knew him, Horatio.
  • The cat will mew, and dog will have his day
  • The king, the king’s to blame
  • The rest is silence
  • Good night, sweet prince, And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest

That’s an impressive list. And it’s just one play.

The Bard knew what he was doing, methinks.

2 Thoughts

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