20 Shakespeare Quotes That Show the Bard’s Wit and Wisdom

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Although they were written more than 400 years ago, the words of William Shakespeare remain timeless. Thanks in large part to the Bard of Avon’s ability to poetically capture universal human emotions with overarching themes that continue to remain relevant, many people continue to find his writing highly relatable.

In fact, many lines of his work live far outside high school English classrooms and trivia games. Shakespeare has been credited with either coining or at least popularizing myriad phrases that have become so ingrained into the everyday lexicon that many people aren’t even aware of their origins. Just a few examples: “love is blind” (The Merchant of Venice), “break the ice” (The Taming of the Shrew), “the be-all and the end-all” (Macbeth), and “wild-goose chase” (Romeo and Juliet).

Aside from the pages of his tragedies and comedies, some of Shakespeare’s longer phrases and quotes continue to live on, frequently referenced throughout pop culture, emblazoned on posters, T-shirts, and even in tattoos. (Actor Megan Fox, for example, has a line from King Lear—“We will all laugh at gilded butterflies”—inked on her shoulder.)

Here are 20 of the playwright’s most famous quotes about life and love.

“To be or not to be—that is the question”

Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1

Prince Hamlet’s soliloquy in the Danish-set tragedy—particularly the first line—has been widely referenced in modern pop culture. The longer quote reads:

“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.”

Of course, “the question” can be broadly applied to many different situations, but at its inception, the speech was part of a deeply philosophical internal debate about the pros and cons of human existence.

“This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.”

Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 3

Also taken from the seminal tragedy, the line, which was spoken by Polonius as a pep talk of sorts, has resonated throughout the generations for its universal theme of sticking to one’s values when faced with a dilemma.

“Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.”

Julius Caesar, Act 2, Scene 2

Using death as a metaphor, the Roman ruler minimizes his wife Calpurnia’s fears that he may soon die, in the play. Many identify with the call to bravery in the present moment versus “dying inside,” so to speak, while wasting one’s life in fear of an inevitable end.

“Men at some time are masters of their fates.
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”

Julius Caesar, Act 1, Scene 2

Cassius uses this speech to convince Brutus to join the assassination conspiracy against his friend Caesar. What Cassius intended to convey is that people can control their destinies and that they’re not necessarily pre-determined by some divine power. Et tu, Brute?, a Latin phrase meaning “even you, Brutus?,” has also come to signify an unexpected betrayal by a loved one.

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet.”

Romeo and Juliet, Act 2, Scene 2

In Shakespeare’s tragedy about the titular “star-crossed lovers,” Juliet’s line references her and Romeo’s warring families and that their last names—Montague and Capulet—shouldn’t define who they are or negate their romance. Instead, she’s saying that a name given to an object is nothing more than a collection of letters, and changing what something is called doesn’t change what it inherently is.

“Good night, good night. Parting is such sweet sorrow,
That I shall say good night till it be morrow.”

Romeo and Juliet, Act 2, Scene 2

Taken from Romeo and Juliet’s iconic balcony scene, Juliet speaks these words as she is saying goodbye to Romeo. The highly relatable—though seemingly paradoxical—sentiment notes the sadness of saying goodbye to a loved one, while also pointing to the “sweet” excitement of thinking about the next time they will see each other.

“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players.”

As You Like It, Act 2, Scene 7

In this 17th century comedy, Jaques says this line from the frequently quoted passage:

“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.”

It contends that life essentially follows a script and that people play roles, as in a theater production, during its various stages.

“The robbed that smiles, steals something from the thief”

Othello, Act 1, Scene 3

Much like the phrase “grin and bear it,” the Duke of Venice’s words act as a piece of advice to follow when you are wronged. His claim is that when someone doesn’t show that he or she is upset, it removes a sense of satisfaction for the wrongdoer.

“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”

Henry IV Part 2, Act 3, Scene 1

Sometimes rewritten with the phrase “heavy is” in place of “uneasy lies,” the dialogue from the titular King Henry IV conveys the great difficulties of leaders who are tasked with great responsibilities and difficult decisions.

“All that glitters is not gold”

The Merchant of Venice, Act 2, Scene 7

In essence, the quote written on a scroll in the 16th century play means that appearances can sometimes be deceiving. Shakespeare originally used the word “glisters,” an antiquated synonym of “glitters.”

“But love is blind, and lovers cannot see
The pretty follies that themselves commit”

The Merchant of Venice, Act 2, Scene 6

The phrase “love is blind” was first penned circa 1405 by Chaucer in his Merchant’s Tale. Shakespeare loved the phrase so much that it appears in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Henry V, and the example here. Like Cupid, the blindfolded Roman god of love striking unsuspecting couples with his arrows so they fall in love, this phrase explains the often-inexplicable behavior of those in love.

“Be not afraid of greatness.
Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ’em.’’

Twelfth Night, Act 2, Scene 5

In this scene, Malvolio reads a letter written in jest by his fellow servants claiming that they were born to noble parents and thus into greatness. Today, this phrase is used to describe various routes to success: being born into wealth, working hard, or being at the right place at the right time.

“We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.”

The Tempest, Act 4, Scene 1

This famous line from one of Shakespeare’s last plays is also one of his most-quoted, often incorrectly as: “We are such stuff as dreams are made of.” However, this does not change its meaning, that life is illusory. Humphrey Bogart’s character, Sam Spade, references this phrase in the classic film The Maltese Falcon (1941).

“Though this be madness, yet there is method in ’t.”

Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2

Polonius speaks this line to imply that Hamlet is not truly crazy, but simply pretending in order to fool his mother and uncle. In modern parlance, we use the idiom “There’s method in my madness” to convey that there’s a reason behind our seemingly inane actions.

“It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.”

Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5

Upon learning of the death of his wife, Lady Macbeth, Macbeth delivers these lines from the full text of the tragedy’s soliloquy:

“Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.”

Macbeth’s speech is nihilistic, full of pessimism and despair, signifying that for him, life is meaningless, leading to inevitable death. The title of William Faulkner’s novel The Sound and the Fury is derived from this Shakespeare quote.

“A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!”

Richard III, Act 5, Scene 4

Spoken while fighting for his life after losing his horse—an indispensable tool in medieval battle—the villainous Richard III would have traded his entire kingdom for one. Today, we’ve modified the statement to sayings such as “I’d give my right arm” or “I’d give my eye teeth” to imply that we’d give anything in exchange for something we desperately need.

“The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”

Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 2

Spoken by Hamlet’s mother, Queen Gertrude, to imply that the actions of the Player Queen are excessive or insincere, Gertrude suggests that she doesn’t believe a word of it. Today, this cynical comment about someone overdoing a denial has lost its gender specificity and can be also applied to a man.

“Jesters do oft prove prophets.”

King Lear, Act 5, Scene 3

In royal courts, jesters were often the only ones who could speak their minds in the presence of a king by cloaking painful truths or those likely to provoke in humor. Only the fool can tell King Lear the truth without fear of punishment.

“Why then, the world’s mine oyster, which I
with sword will open.”

The Merry Wives of Windsor, Act 2, Scene 2

As with many sayings derived from Shakespeare, the idiom we use today, “The world is your oyster,” is a misquote. The modern implication is that one’s future is bright and full of potential, but the original metaphor from this comedy had a more sinister connotation. Oysters are notoriously difficult to open, and so to get what one wants—to open the oyster and get the pearl—one must resort to violence.

“If music be the food of love, play on.”

Twelfth Night, Act 1, Scene 1

In one of English literature’s most famous opening lines, Orsino, hopelessly in love with Olivia, a woman who will never requite his affection, tells the musicians assembled before him to continue playing so that he can be sated with music instead of the love that will forever evade him. Orsino hopes that more music will cause him to lose his appetite for Olivia, like eating too much so that one is no longer hungry.

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