William Shakespeare is universally revered as the greatest English playwright of all time. His words have influenced authors across the globe and across time. His plays are full of irony and word-play that have earned him a preeminent place in history. Here are ten of our favorite quotes from the marvelous plays of Shakespeare.
1. “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.”
(As You Like it, Act 2, Scene 7)
With these lines, Shakespeare tells us a little about how he sees the world. He believes that, like actors, we play many parts/roles and pass through seven stages of life, from “mewling” infant to “mere oblivion” (death). This quote reminds us that, in our own lives, we are mere performers playing the roles we are given. Perhaps the playwright is reminding us that we should not take our own dramas too seriously.
2. “Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once.”
(Julius Caesar, Act 2, Scene 2)
This quote, originally spoken by Julius Caesar in the play by the same name, shows the stark difference between cowardice and bravery. With this line, Shakespeare tells us that a cowardly man will let the fear of death stop him from truly living. The coward dies many “small deaths.” every time he lets the shackles of fear stop him from doing something. The courageous man, on the other hand, lives his life to the fullest and dies but once, when death comes to claim him.
3. “If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?” (The Merchant of Venice, Act 3, Scene 1)
This quote is part of a monologue by Shylock the Jewish moneylender, in which Shylock displays his humanity while defending his right to revenge. In the play, he is cheated out of collecting the debt that he is owed. He has been wronged, and as described in the old testament, he wants revenge. It does not end well and Shylock loses it all. Despite the tragic outcome, this monologue was a bold move on Shakespeare’s part – challenging the strong anti-semitism of his time.
4. “The lady doth protest too much, methinks”
(Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 2)
The story behind this quote is one of my favorites. Within Hamlet, there is another play that is created by Hamlet to point out the wrongdoings of his mother, the queen. In the play within the play, the queen vows to love her husband forever, and to never remarry (which the real queen has done). When asked what she thinks of the play, this quote is the real queen’s commentary on the character (which is based on her). Important note: In Shakespeare’s time, the word “protest” meant to vow or promise. The real queen feels that the queen in the play loses her credibility by making such lavish promises.
5. “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.” (The Tempest, Act 4, Scene 1)
According to Shakespeare, life is fleeting, and our greatest accomplishments and fondest relationships will one day be nothing more than a memory, like something we remember from a dream. This “little life” will one day be completed by what many call the endless sleep, or death, leading us to wake from this world.
6. “Get thee to a nunnery.”
(Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1)
This quote is commonly assumed to have a double meaning. It is spoken by Hamlet to Ophelia, but truly seems to be directed at all women, and his mother in particular. If Hamlet means a nunnery – as we know it now – it points to the fact that then Ophelia can’t bear vile men who are cruel to others. On the other hand, in Elizabethan England, the word “nunnery” was slang for brothel! If the latter was Hamlet’s real meaning, he is criticizing Ophelia for being unchaste.
7. “Et tu, Brute?”
(Julius Caesar, Act 3, Scene 1)
This quote is in Latin and loosely translates as ‘Even you, Brutus?’ In the play, these are Caesar’s last words when he is killed by the conspirators. Their leader, Brutus, is a long-time friend of Caesar, who saw the danger of Caesar’s ambitions and felt he needed to be stopped. This quote lives in our memory because it symbolizes ultimate betrayal by a trusted and beloved friend.
8. “These violent delights have violent ends, and in their triumph die, like fire and powder, which, as they kiss, consume”
(Romeo and Juliet, Act 2, Scene 5)
Romeo and Juliet. Their very names conjure fantasies of passionate, romantic, tragic love.
This warning is spoken to Romeo by Friar Lawrence. Romeo responds to the friar that he doesn’t care if he lives or dies, so long as Juliet is his. The friar feels that a love that burns as hot as theirs is likely to be consumed by its own flame and passion. With this quote, Shakespeare is no doubt evoking both meanings of “violent” – the common meaning of rough and brutal, as well as the somewhat less common meaning of rushed, impetuous and hotheaded.
9. “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)
In Hamlet, Polonius gives this advice to his son, Laertes. Despite Shakespeare’s inclination towards irony, this line feels honest and sincere. Exquisite in its simplicity, these timeless words tells us how to live a true and authentic life.
10. “To be or not to be, that is the question”
(Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1)
This is probably Shakespeare’s most famous quote. It is part of a monologue in which Hamlet, in a state of emotional desperation, questions whether or not to end his life. According to Hamlet, to live is to have no power in what befalls you. The only way to fully claim your power is to choose death, where there is safety from life’s many torments.
Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets have certainly left a massive mark on the English language. With hundreds of words and phrases attributed to our most famous English writer, you are probably quoting William without even realizing it! But if I perchance did not quote your favorite lines here, please accept my humble apology.
And speaking of apologies 😉 to conclude this article, please enjoy Shakespeare’s most famous (and beautiful) apology, from –
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 5, Scene 1
“If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
if you pardon, we will mend:
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call;
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.”
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1. “All the world’s a stage” Watch the video here.
3. “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” Watch the video here.
4. “The lady doth protest too much, methinks” Watch the video here.
5. “We are such stuff as dreams are made on” Watch the video here.
6. “Get thee to a nunnery.” Watch the video here.
8. “These violent delights have violent ends” Watch the video here.
9. “This above all: to thine own self be true” Watch the video here (begin viewing at 0.50 min).
10. “To be or not to be, that is the question” Watch the video here.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 5, Scene 1 Watch the scene here.
PR and Communications Intern
The English Center