On the Wednesday this week, we published a second article about Stratford upon Avon, the home of Stratford Teachers and the birthplace of William Shakespeare. The text of the article contained eight phrases that come from Shakespeare’s plays but are still used as idioms in modern English.
This article will reveal the eight phrases, explain their meaning, tell you which plays they came from, and give some modern examples of their use.
If you didn’t see the first article and want to test yourself, click here to read it then come back here.
Here’s the second paragraph of the very short biography of Shakespeare. It contains two phrases.
In 1623, Shakespeare’s colleagues John Heminges and Henry Condell collected many of the plays collected into a book called the First Folio. However, by this time, William was as dead as a doornail. He died on his fifty-second birthday in 1616. Nobody knows for sure why he died so young. There are many theories including murder most foul.
1. dead as a doornail means completely dead.
It comes from the play Henry VI Part 2 Act 4 Scene 10
… and if I do not leave you all as dead as a door-nail, I
pray God I may never eat grass more.
This phrase is often used in a humorous way:
Sorry I can’t fix your computer this time. It’s as dead as a doornail.
2. murder most foul comes from Hamlet Act 1 Scene 5
Murder most foul, as in the best it is,
But this most foul, strange, and unnatural.
This is probably not a phrase you will use in everyday life but it is the title of a film based on a story by Agatha Christie.
This is the paragraph about Shakespeare’s birthplace.
The house became a pub called The Swan Maidenhead. By the nineteenth century, the building had seen better days. When the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust bought it in 1856 it was a sorry sight. They renovated and opened it; so Shakespeare’s Birthplace has been a tourist attraction for more than 150 years.
3. seen better days means something is old and in a bad condition.
Here it is in Act 2 Scene 7 of As You Like It.
True is it that we have seen better days,
These days we usually use the phrase to talk about things not people:
Goodness me, those shoes have seen better days. Why don’t you throw them out and get a new pair?
4. a sorry sight also means something is in a bad condition or a bad situation.
Macbeth says it in Act 2 Scene 2
This is a sorry sight.
This phrase can be used to talk about people:
Philip got caught in that rain storm yesterday. He was a sorry sight when he got here.
There are three more phrases in the story of New Place.
When it became several tourists every day, he was in a pickle. He asked the local government for money to pay a tour guide but they sent him packing. He went back and said that if they didn’t give him any money he would demolish the house. The men of the local government wouldn’t budge an inch.
5. in a pickle means to be in a difficult situation.
Shakespeare used this phrase in The Tempest Act 5 Scene 1
How cam’st thou in this pickle?
You can use the phrase to talk about yourself:
Can you help me? I’ve got in a bit of a pickle with this stupid spreadsheet.
6. send someone packing means to tell someone to leave but in an impatient way.
In Henry IV Part 1 Act 2 Scene 4, Falstaff says:
Faith, and I’ll send him packing.
This phrase is only used to talk about a future intention (like Falstaff) or something in the past:
A: Did Gerry get the pay rise he wanted?
B: No, the boss just sent him packing.
7. not budge an inch means refuse to change your point of view or opinion.
Shakespeare used this phrase in the prologue of The Taming of the Shrew.
… I’ll answer him by
law. I’ll not budge an inch, boy. Let him come, and
Unlike the character in The Taming of the Shrew, this phrase is usually used to talk about other people.
A: Did you persuade the boss to change his mind?
B: No. he wouldn’t budge an inch.
The final phrase is from the paragraph about the theatre’s tower.
When the theatre was renovated at the start of this century the design came full circle. Today, you can go to the top of the tower and look out at the countryside around Stratford.
8. to come full circle is to return to the place where you started or the opinion you had in the past.
In King Lear Act 5 Scene 3, Edmund says:
Th’ hast spoken right. ‘Tis true;
The wheel is come full circle; I am here.
At the beginning we sold our products online. Last year we tried selling in shops but that didn’t work. So, we’ve come full circle and now we only sell through the website.
All these phrase are idioms.
Using idioms well is an advanced skill in any language. You should:
- choose one or two common idioms (ask a teacher)
- learn and practise the correct way to say them (check a dictionary)
- only use them at appropriate moments
- not use them too often
- not forget that idioms are usually informal phrases
- remember that you could be quoting William Shakespeare.
That’s all about William Shakespeare and Stratford upon Avon for now.
If you want to contact us, please use the comment box at the bottom of the page or the form on the Contact Us page.