From ruthless scientists, to Nazi shoemakers and vicious Dinosaur
As the most famous playwright in the history of English, Shakespeare is quoted endlessly. However, when something is said over and over, sometimes you have to remind yourself of what the author actually meant.
The winter of our discontent
Full text: “Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this sun of York; / And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house / In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.” – Richard III, Act 1, Scene 1
Richard III enters his namesake play with this brief summation of the situation at hand. Without context, this just seems a flowery way to say “We’re doing good now,” but that’s not all that Richard is talking about. He is talking about the War of the Roses, a civil war over the throne of England between the houses of Lancaster and York. At this point, the war proper is over – the Yorkists have defeated the Lancasters, and Edward IV, a York, now sits on the throne. Thus, the war (“our discontent”) has come to a close (“winter of”), which resulted in victory (“glorious summer”) for the Yorks (“sun of York”), and so drawing to a close the York’s major problems.
From hour to hour we ripe and ripe
Full text: “And so, from hour to hour, we ripe and ripe, / And then, from hour to hour, we rot and rot” – As You Like It, Act 2, Scene 7
This is one of Shakespeare’s famous moments of crude humor that flies right over the heads of most people today. This time, at least, it was not our or Shakespeare’s fault – it all has to do with the way you say the words. In modern English, this phrase isn’t funny; it comes across as more morose and critical. However, in the original pronunciation, the word “hour” sounds an awful lot like “whore,” “ripe” sounds a fair amount like “rape,” and “rot” is almost indistinguishable from “rut.” So, instead of a scathing, hipster-like criticism of consumerism, it was really supposed to come across as a joke about some guy having hours of sex with prostitutes.
The play’s the thing
Full text: “The play’s the thing / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.” – Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2
This phrase is oft-quoted when talking about Shakespeare, especially when promoting a play. “The play’s the thing!” they seem to say, “So come see it!”
Seems kind of ironic, then, that in this phrase, Hamlet is talking to himself about how he’s going to trick his uncle, who killed his father and has since married his mother, into showing his guilt. Hamlet intends to hold a play for the royal couple which depicts a man killing his brother and wedding the widow to see how the king reacts.
My kingdom for a horse
Full text: “A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!” – Richard III, Act 5, Scene 4
This phrase is parodied so often, it’s lost all meaning, being reduced to just something to say when you need something really badly. This is a shame, since in the play, this is almost a desperate and angry cry by a man about to be killed. This comes at the end of the play, when, spoiler alert, things go badly for Richard. He is in battle against his organized enemies, and has been de-horsed. This is a very bad position in the midst of a battle, wearing heavy armor and surrounded by enemies with deadly weapons. Knowing that it is likely that he will be killed if he does not get back on a horse or leave the battlefield, he calls for a horse, refusing to leave the battlefield.
Spoiler alert: he dies.
Prince of cats
Full text: “Benvolio: Why, what is Tybalt?
Mercutio: More than Prince of Cats.” – Romeo and Juliet, Act 2, Scene 4
Mercutio is that one friend who just will not stop making jokes. When Mercutio utters this quip, he’s actually discussing a challenge that Tybalt (who is Juliet’s relative) has sent to Romeo, with the probable intention to kill the young man. Mercutio is making a reference to the Prince of Cats from Le Roman de Renart, a story about anthropomorphized animals. Mercutio continues to use this title to make fun of Tybalt, even up to the fight which (spoiler alert) kills Mercutio.
Beast with two backs
Full text: “I am one, sir, that comes to tell you your daughter / and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs.” Othello, Act 1, Scene 1
Oh, Shakespeare, you randy pantaloon-wearing wordsmith, you. This is probably the most famous of Shakespeare’s sex jokes, based on the idea that when a man and a woman are mid-intercourse, they are connected, briefly forming one creature with two different backs.
Out, damned spot
Full text: “Out, damned spot! Out, I say! – One, two. Why, then, ’tis time to do ‘t. Hell is murky! – Fie, my lord, fie! A soldier, and afeard? What need we fear who knows it, when none can call out power to account? – Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him.” Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 1
This is another oft-quoted one-liner. It shares the unfortunate fate of “My kingdom for a horse” in being quoted to death, even being used as a joke in a Garfield comic. This seems kind of creepy, given that that line is from the insane ramblings of Lady Macbeth as she sleepwalks, tormented by guilt, unable to wash the blood from killing King Duncan from her hand, forever leaving an invisible stain – the “spot” which torments her.
The lady doth protest too much
Full text: “Hamlet: Madam, how like you this play?
Gertrude: The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”
I have never heard this phrase spoken outside the play without some smarmy expression, mocking tone, and suggestive eyebrow-wiggling. The phrase has taken on its own meaning over time outside the play, implying that whoever is protesting is doing so so much that everyone thinks they are lying. In the play, however, Hamlet is trying to shame his mother. He, his mother, and his uncle/father-in-law are watching a play Hamlet put together, where the King’s brother murders him, and the actress playing the Queen cries that she will never marry again. Hamlet, trying to embarrass her, asks how she likes the play, to which she replies with the line, saying that the queen promises too much, and probably will remarry.
There are more things in heaven and earth
Full text: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy” – Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 5
This was the Elizabethan era’s version of “You know nothing, John Snow.” However, in the context it is uttered, most people would probably be on the side of Horatio. At this point in the play, Hamlet has learned of the murderer of his father from his father’s ghost deep in the woods. Hamlet’s friend Horatio has followed him, worried at the midnight walk in the woods, and suddenly finds himself face to face with Hamlet and the voice of Hamlet’s dead father coming from the ground beneath their feet. When Horatio quite understandably says something to the effect of “holy crap this is weird,” Hamlet brushes aside Horatio’s confusion with the above line.
Wherefore art thou Romeo?
Full text: “O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?” – Romeo and Juliet, Act 2, Scene 2
Most people assume that Juliet is wondering where Romeo is. And while she might have been, it turns out that “Wherefore” doesn’t mean “where” so much as it means “why.” Instead of voicing a longing to see Romeo, Juliet is lamenting that Romeo is a Montague. She is wishing aloud that Romeo was named anything else.
Now check out these Shakespearean insults.