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What’s In A Name? These Popular Phrases Came From Shakespeare

22 March 2017 Claire Fox Events No Comments

Since its inception in 2014, Shakespeare Week has been working to increase the visibility of Shakespeare’s works in primary schools across the UK. From its website:

“Shakespeare Week has been embraced by Britain’s best-loved cultural institutions to deliver a fun-packed week that will bring Shakespeare’s works, creative legacy and the nation’s cultural birthright to life for everyone’s enjoyment.”

Run by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, the awareness week already has an impressive reach: in 2016, nearly two million primary school children took part, and 96% of the schools that took part said they would do so again. So, here we are; it’s 2017, and Shakespeare Week (20th-26th March) is upon us.

In tandem with Makewaves, an organisation that takes the digital learning platform a step further and makes it social, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust has this year put together Mission Shakespeare, inviting teams and schools to take part in a range of fun, artistic, and informative challenges to earn badges. A great example of a creative challenge asks pupils to imagine they are writing a magic spell from Prospero’s book in The Tempest. Why not give it a go? We’d love to see some of your efforts!

The one thing that is absolutely undeniable when it comes to Shakespeare’s ongoing impact is the use of his language. Hundreds of words came from his mind, including addiction and dwindle. Shakespeare also had a remarkable ability to spin words into phrases that captured audiences to such an extent that we still use these idioms today. Here’s some of our favourites – or at least ones we have all used!  

Knock, knock! Who’s there, in th’ other devil’s name? – Macbeth Act II, Scene III
While there’s a fair amount of dispute as to the origin of the knock knock joke, Shakespeare arguably provided one of the earliest examples of it in use. Given Macbeth’s dark subject matter, the porter (the character delivering this line) provides some welcome comic relief as he images being hell’s gatekeeper.

And if you break the ice and do this feat – The Taming Of The Shrew, Act I Scene II
We’ve probably all used ‘break the ice’ as a way to describe a conversation starter and that’s exactly the intent in this phrase from The Taming Of The Shrew. It refers to the ‘icy cold’ character of Katherine and the man who wishes to win her hand by ‘breaking the ice’.

But love is blind, and lovers cannot see the pretty follies that themselves commit – The Merchant Of Venice, Act II, Scene VI
This phrase has definitely stood the test of time, losing little to no of its original meaning over the years.

Nay, if our wits run the wild-goose chase, I am done – Romeo & Juliet, Act II, Scene IV
Mercutio, a source of comic relief in this tragic play, quips that the rapid-fire jokes and puns between them are becoming difficult for him to follow. The term ‘wild-goose chase’ is still commonly used today, although less in reference to speed and more to refer to an object or pursuit that is ultimately fruitless.

A good riddance! – Troilus & Cressida, Act II, Scene I
Another phrase that almost everyone will have used or at least heard, good riddance is still used today with the same intent as it was when this line was delivered by Patroclus as he responds to Thersites departure.

The king’s a bawcock, and a heart of gold – Henry V, Act IV, Scene I
Someone with a heart of gold is extremely kind and generous – and that’s exactly how Pistol is describing King Henry (albeit unknowingly to his face).

There are dozens more examples; these are just some of our favourites. What phrases do you find yourself using a lot? Do your students realise just how many of their most-used idioms come from William Shakespeare?

You can get resources and activity ideas from Shakespeare Week’s website here.