Ten of the Best Shakespeare Quotes (And What They Actually Mean)
Do you love Shakespeare but have always wanted to understand it a bit better? Shakespeare is, and always has been, a staple of English literature – and probably always will be. Which means that if you’re interested in English Literature at A Level or higher it’s time to gain a better understanding. So here you go, some of the most famous (and in our opinion the best) Shakespeare quotes explained.
“Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind, and therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream)
This means that it shouldn’t matter what a person looks like, you love them for their personality and what’s inside. The quote is said in jealousy, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, by Helena because Demetrius thinks that Hermia is more beautiful than Helena and has been swayed by her beauty. Helena thinks that Demetrius should love her for who she is and keep his promises to her rather than loving Hermia for her beauty.
“Neither rhyme nor reason” (The Comedy of Errors)
“Dromio: But I pray, sir, why am I beaten?
Antipholus: Dost thou not know?
Dromio: Nothing, sir, but that I am beaten.
Antipholus: Shall I tell you why?
Dromio: Ay, sir, and wherefore; for they say, every why hath a wherefore.
Antipholus: Why, first, for flouting me, and then wherefore, for urging it the second time to me.
Dromio: Was there ever any man thus beaten out of season, when in the why and the wherefore is neither rhyme nor reason?”
Here Shakespeare links alliterative nouns in ‘neither rhyme nor reason’ and attempts a little Latin comedy while he’s at it; in fact, it wouldn’t be out of place on TV today.
Poor Dromio, confused as to why he is beaten, angers his master Antipholus even more by asking for a reason. Antipholus is sure Dromio has said something he shouldn’t, confusing the servant even more. The cause of the confusion lies in twin Antipholus and Dromios, a case of comical mistaken identity – a plot still used by Hollywood today.
“To die, to sleep – to sleep, perchance to dream – ay, there’s the rub, for in this sleep of death what dreams may come…” (Hamlet)
This is said by Hamlet to himself when he thinks he is alone. He is asking himself if it is better to give up and die rather than facing his troubles but he is frightened that he will dream when he is dead and never get any peace from his earthly troubles. The speech starts with the even more famous “To be or not to be…” which is the ‘should I live or die?’ part.
“Off with his head!” (Richard III)
It simply had to be included! Short and sweet, and one of the most famous Shakespeare quotes of all. Richard shouts this about his former friend, Hastings – having already tricked him into denouncing witchcraft, then accusing him publicly of the same skullduggery.
“I cannot tell what the dickens his name is my husband had him of. What do you call your knight’s name, sirrah?” (The Merry Wives of Windsor)
What the dickens? An expression you might have heard on countless occasions and wrongly presumed to be a reference to another writer of note, Charles Dickens. But in fact it was penned by the Bard of Avon, who meant something quite different when he wrote the line in Act 3, Scene 2 for his fictional Mrs. Page in the Merry Wives of Windsor.
The dickens in this case is an oath referring to old Nick, or the Devil. Little or perhaps nothing at all to do with anyone known by the name, Dickens, it was used to represent Satan in this instance (as in “what the deuce?” or similar). Here the meaning was aimed at the character Sir John Falstaff – Master Ford had stumbled into an elaborate plan by Mrs Page and Ford’s wife to spoil Sir John’s lecherous advances.
“My tongue will tell the anger of my heart, or else my heart concealing it will break.” (The Taming of the Shrew)
We love this quote. It’s delivered by Katherine to Hortensio during an argument in which he is being particularly foul and she feels she has to speak her mind; she tells him she has to express her anger to him or she will die from keeping it in. Another part of her speech is “Your betters have endured me say my mind and if you cannot best you stop your ears.” This means better men than you have heard me speak my mind so if you can’t take it you had better not listen! Stirring stuff.
“Stars, hide your fires; Let not light see my black and deep desires.” ( Macbeth)
This quote is by Macbeth to himself (the classic Shakespeare soliloquy) he is asking the stars to hide their light so that no one will be able to see the dark desires he has inside him. To put it in context, Malcolm is now the prince of Cumberland and Macbeth must decide whether to step over him to become king or just give up.
“I pray you, in your letters, when you shall these unlucky deeds relate, speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate, nor set down aught in malice. Then must you speak of one that lov’d not wisely but too well; Of one not easily jealous, but being wrought, perplex’d in the extreme…” (Othello)
Poor miserable Othello, before committing suicide and having murdered his wife Desdemona in a pique of jealous rage, tries to justify his foolish act in Act 5, Scene 2 with an emotional admission of loving her ‘not wisely but too well’. But she was blameless, and he never gave her a chance to prove that fact – so really, he was a bit of an over-indulged brute.
“He hath eaten me out of house and home, he hath put all my substance into that fat belly of his: but I will have some of it out again, or I will ride thee a-nights like the mare.” (Henry IV)
The lecherous Sir John Falstaff is back in Act 2, Scene 1 – this time facing the wrath of Hostess Quickly in her Boar’s Head Tavern where he has clearly outstayed his welcome (and introduced “eaten me out of house and home” to day-to-day speech in the process). Bawdy and lecherous as ever, he retorts with a lewd interpretation of her threat: “I think I am as like to ride the mare if I have any vantage of ground to get up.”
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet.” (Romeo and Juliet)
Juliet says this in her famous balcony speech while Romeo listens in secret. She is talking about the family rivalry between the Montagues and the Capulets and asks herself what difference does a name make; it would still smell as sweet if it were called something different. She goes on to ask Romeo (she still doesn’t know he is listening) to lose his name, as it doesn’t mean anything, and take her instead, as that way the family rivalry wouldn’t matter.
If you want to discover more about Shakespeare have a look at No Fear Shakespeare ( http://nfs.sparknotes.com/ ) to see original text side by side with a modern explanation.
To study while sitting back with the popcorn and a movie, check out our pick of Shakespeare films .
If this has inspired you to learn more take a look at our A Level English Literature courses .
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Famous Shakespeare Quotes
Image source: PRI, from a performance of Henry VIII at Shakespeare’s Globe Theater
Shakespeare is eminently quotable. He is, in fact, the most quoted author in the English language and perhaps in the entire history of literature. Shakespeare quotes are a world of inspiration, self-understanding, motivation, and beauty.
If you’ve ever used the phrases “Greek to me,” “fair play,” or “into thin air” then you’ve quoted from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar , King John , and The Tempest. respectively.
There are hundreds of other expressions, phrases, turns of phrases, and even words invented by the Bard . We call upon Shakespeare’s literary genius more often than we probably realize.
Some of Shakespeare’s lesser-known plays, mostly the histories, are brimming with soul-stirring quotes. Although not nearly as popular, these quotes are no less powerful than more famous ones.
Take, for example, this gem from Henry IV, Part I, (Act 5, Scene 4):
The better part of valor is discretion.
Many of these Shakespearean quotations are standalone pearls of wisdom. They are, however, best understood within the historical and literary context in which they occur.
You’ve no doubt heard the quote “ To be, or not to be .” In the immediate context of Hamlet , the phrase conveys Hamlet’s mixed feelings about committing suicide. Broadly, however, the quote touches on other thematic elements in the play — the possibility of an afterlife, the injustice of human suffering, the elusiveness of truth, and, directly after he speaks those words, Hamlet’s romantic (or otherwise) feelings towards Ophelia.
Every Shakespeare quote is brimming with meaning and not just the meaning that might occur at a first reading.
We’ve assembled some of the best-known, most-loved, and oft-quoted lines from Shakespeare, organized according to genre and the specific play in which they occur.
Shakespeare Quotes from the Comedies
Image source: All’s Well That Ends Well Performance, Wikipedia Commons
All’s Well That Ends Well
Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none.
No legacy is so rich as honesty.
Good without evil is like light without darkness which in turn is like righteousness without hope.
The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together: our virtues would be proud, if our faults whipped them not; and our crimes would despair, if they were not cherished by our virtues.
Love is holy.
My friends were poor, but honest.
A young man married is a man that’s marr’d.
Many a man’s tongue shakes out his master’s undoing.
Excessive grief the enemy to the living.
Good alone, is good without a name, vileness is so
As You Like It
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.
Can one desire too much of a good thing?
I like this place and willingly could waste my time in it.
How bitter a thing it is to look into happiness through another man’s eyes!
Blow, blow, thou winter wind! Thou art not so unkind as man’s ingratitude.
True is it that we have seen better days.
Forever and a day.
The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.
Comedy of Errors
We came into the world like brother and brother, And now let’s go hand in hand, not one before another.
He that commends me to mine own content Commends me to the thing I cannot get.
If the skin were parchment and the blows you gave were ink, Your own handwriting would tell you what I think.
Yet this my comfort: when your words are done, My woes end likewise with the evening sun.
Love’s Labor’s Lost
Our court shall be a little academe, Still and contemplative in living art.
As painfully to pore upon a book To seek the light of truth, while truth the while Doth falsely blind the eyesight of his look.
They have been at a great feast of languages, and stolen the scraps.
Measure for Measure
Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt.
Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall.
The miserable have no other medicine but only hope.
Merchant of Venice
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 devil can cite scripture for his purpose.
I like not fair terms and a villain’s mind.
I hold the world but as the world, Gratiano, A stage, where every man must play a part; And mine a sad one.
Superfluity comes sooner by white hairs, but competency lives longer.
I dote on his very absence.
Mislike me not for my complexion, The shadow’d livery of the burnish’d sun.
It is a wise father that knows his own child.
But love is blind, and lovers cannot see The pretty follies that themselves commit.
All that glitters is not gold.
Merry Wives of Windsor
Why, then the world’s mine oyster.
This is the short and the long of it.
I cannot tell what the dickens his name is.
As good luck would have it.
Midsummer Night’s Dream
The course of true love never did run smooth.
Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind, and therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.
That would hang us, every mother’s son.
I’ll put a girdle round about the earth In forty minutes.
My heart is true as steel.
I know a bank where the wild thyme blows, Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows, Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine, With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine.
The true beginning of our end.
Much Ado about Nothing
Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more, Men were deceivers ever,= One foot in sea and one on shore, To one thing constant never.
I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow, than a man swear he loves me.
Let me be that I am and seek not to alter me.
Some Cupid kills with arrows, some with traps.
He that hath a beard is more than a youth, and he that hath no beard is less than a man. He that is more than a youth is not for me, and he that is less than a man, I am not for him.
When I said I would die a bachelor, I did not think I should live till I were married.
For which of my bad parts didst thou first fall in love with me?
For man is a giddy thing, and this is my conclusion.
Taming of the Shrew
I’ll not budge an inch.
There’s small choice in rotten apples.
Nothing comes amiss; so money comes withal. Tush! tush! fear boys with bugs.
Who wooed in haste, and means to wed at leisure.
And thereby hangs a tale.
Full fathom five thy father lies; Of his bones are coral made; Those are pearls that were his eyes: Nothing of him that doth fade But doth suffer a sea-change Into something rich and strange.
Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.
Where the bee sucks, there suck I, in a cowslip’s bell I lie.
We are such stuff as dreams are made on, rounded with a little sleep.
Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them.
Love sought is good, but giv’n unsought is better.
If music be the food of love, play on; Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting, The appetite may sicken, and so die. That strain again! it had a dying fall: O, it came o’er my ear like the sweet sound 1 That breathes upon a bank of violets, Stealing and giving odor!
Is it a world to hide virtues in?
We will draw the curtain and show you the picture.
Then come kiss me, sweet and twenty.
He does it with a better grace, but I do it more natural.
Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ’em.
This is very midsummer madness.
Out of the jaws of death.
Two Gentlemen of Verona
They do not love that do not show their love.
That man that hath a tongue, I say is no man, if with his tongue he cannot win a woman.
To die, is to be banish’d from myself.
You, minion, are too saucy.
Ay, but hearken, sir; though the chameleon Love can feed on the air, I am one that am nourished by my victuals, and would fain have meat.
Wilt thou reach stars because they shine on thee?
For what I will, I will, and there an end.
What ‘s gone and what’s past help should be past grief.
You pay a great deal too dear for what’s given freely.
A snapper-up of unconsidered trifles.
I love a ballad in print o’ life, for then we are sure they are true. To unpathed waters, undreamed shores.
Shakespeare’s Quotes from The Histories
Image source: BloggingShakespeare, from a performance of Henry VI
Henry IV, Part I
He will give the devil his due.
The better part of valor is discretion.
So shaken as we are, so wan with care.
In those holy fields Over whose acres walked those blessed feet Which fourteen hundred years ago were nail’d For our advantage on the bitter cross.
Old father antic the law.
If all the year were playing holidays, To sport would be as tedious as to work.
I know a trick worth two of that.
Play out the play.
Exceedingly well read.
Henry IV, Part II
He hath eaten me out of house and home.
Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.
A man can die but once.
I do now remember the poor creature, small beer.
We have heard the chimes at midnight.
Men of few words are the best men.
O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend The brightest heaven of invention!
Even at the turning o’ the tide.
As cold as any stone.
Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more, Or close the wall up with our English dead! In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man As modest stillness and humility; But when the blast of war blows in our ears, Then imitate the action of the tiger: Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood.
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips, Straining upon the start.
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.
Henry VI, Part I
No, no, I am but shadow of myself: You are deceived, my substance is not here.
Fight till the last gasp.
My thoughts are whirled like a potter’s wheel; I know not where I am, nor what I do.
When a world of men Could not prevail with all their oratory, Yet hath a woman’s kindness overrul’d.
Unbidden guests are often welcomest when they are gone.
Henry VI, Part II
The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.
Small things make base men proud.
True nobility is exempt from fear.
Is not this a lamentable thing, that of the skin of an innocent lamb should be made parchment? that parchment, being scribbled o’er, should undo a man?
Henry VI, Part III
Having nothing, nothing can he lose.
And many strokes, though with a little axe, Hew down and fell the hardest-timbered oak.
The smallest worm will turn, being trodden on.
Suspicion always haunts the guilty mind; The thief doth fear each bush an officer.
Men’s evil manners live in brass; their virtues we write in water.
We all are men, in our own natures frail, and capable of our flesh; few are angels.
My drops of tears I’ll turn to sparks of fire.
I charge thee, fling away ambition. By that sin fell the angels.
For courage mounteth with occasion.
For new-made honor doth forget men’s names.
I will instruct my sorrows to be proud; For grief is proud, and makes his owner stoop.
Here I and sorrows sit; Here is my throne, bid kings come bow to it.
Be great in act, as you have been in thought.
Grief fills the room up of my absent child, Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me, Puts on his pretty look, repeats his words, Remembers me of his gracious parts, Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form
Few love to hear the sins they love to act.
For death remembered should be like a mirror, Who tells us life’s but breath, to trust it error
Opinion’s but a fool, that makes us scan the outward habit by the inward man.
Who makes the fairest show means the most deceit.
Tis time to fear when tyrants seem to kiss.
I wasted time, and now doth time waste me.
You may my glories and my state depose, But not my griefs; still am I king of those.
Woe, destruction, ruin, and decay; the worst is death and death will have his day.
No matter where; of comfort no man speak: Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs; Make dust our paper and with rainy eyes Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth
Keep time! How sour sweet music is when time is broke and no proportion kept! So is it in the music of men’s lives. I wasted time and now doth time waste me.
For sorrow ends not, when it seemeth done.
Mine honor is my life; both grow in one. Take honor from me, and my life is done.
Each substance of a grief has twenty shadows.
I hate the murderer, love him murdered.
Now is the winter of our discontent.
A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!
Conscience is but a word that cowards use, devised at first to keep the strong in awe.
So wise so young, they say, do never live long.
Off with his head!
An honest tale speeds best, being plainly told.
The king’s name is a tower of strength.
The world is grown so bad, that wrens make prey where eagles dare not perch.
Quotes from Shakespeare’s Tragedies
Image source: Performance of Hamlet from Wikipedia Commons
Antony and Cleopatra
My salad days, when I was green in judgment.
There ’s beggary in the love that can be reckon’d. This grief is crowned with consolation.
Nature teaches beasts to know their friends.
That it shall hold companionship in peace With honor, as in war.
If you have writ your annals true, ’t is there That, like an eagle in a dove-cote, I flutter’d your Volscians in Corioli: Alone I did it. Boy!
The game is up.
I have not slept one wink.
As chaste as unsunn’d snow.
It is no act of common passage, but a strain of rareness.
Triumphs for nothing and lamenting toys Is jollity for apes and grief for boys.
Golden lads and girls all must, As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.
To be, or not to be: that is the question.
Neither a borrower nor a lender be; For loan oft loses both itself and friend, and borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.
This above all: to thine own self be true.
Though this be madness, yet there is method in ‘t.
That it should come to this!
That he is mad, ’tis true. Tis true, ’tis pity, And pity ’tis ’tis true—a foolish figure,
There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so
What a piece of work is man! how noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals!
The lady doth protest too much, methinks.
In my mind’s eye.
A little more than kin, and less than kind.
The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.
And it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.
This is the very ecstasy of love.
Brevity is the soul of wit.
Doubt that the sun doth move, doubt truth to be a liar, but never doubt I love.
Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind.
Do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe?
I will speak daggers to her, but use none.
When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions.
Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
But, for my own part, it was Greek to me.
A dish fit for the gods.
Cry Havoc, and let slip the dogs of war.
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.
Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more.
Beware the ides of March.
This was the noblest Roman of them all.
When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept: Ambition should be made of sterner stuff.
Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look; He thinks too much: such men are dangerous
For Brutus is an honorable man; So are they all, all honorable men.
As he was valiant, I honor him; but, as he was ambitious, I slew him.
Cowards die many times before their deaths; The valiant never taste of death but once. Of all the wonders that I yet have heard, it seems to me most strange that men should fear; Seeing that death, a necessary end, will come when it will come.
How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!
I am a man more sinned against than sinning.
My love’s more richer than my tongue.
Nothing will come of nothing.
Have more than thou showest, speak less than thou knowest, lend less than thou owest.
The worst is not, So long as we can say, ‘This is the worst.’
There’s daggers in men’s smiles.
What’s done is done.
I dare do all that may become a man; Who dares do more is none.
Fair is foul, and foul is fair.
I bear a charmed life.
Yet do I fear thy nature; It is too full o’ the milk of human kindness.
Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather the multitudinous seas incarnadine, making the green one red.
Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.
Out, damned spot! out, I say!
All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.
More Shakespeare Quotes Resources
- Here Are Shakespeare’s 15 Most Beloved Quotes – This is an assemblage from Time magazine, surveying some of the most-highlighted quotes in Shakespeare’s corpus.
- 34 Of The Most Brilliant Shakespeare Quotes – Buzzfeed, always the master of lists, has their own selection of top Shakespeare quotes.
- Top Shakespeare Quotes – If a quick-and-easy list is to your liking, check out this top ten from ThoughtCo.
- BrainyQuotes William Shakespeare Quotes Collection – Shakespeare quotes with pictures! Even better.