Shakespearean idioms are so common that you likely use many of them without knowing they came from the famous playwright. Though Shakespeare died almost 400 years ago, his legacy lives on in the rich language he used throughout his plays and poetry. Many Shakespearan phrases are still used today, and not just in high school readings of Romeo and Juliet. Let’s take a look at nine common Shakespearean idioms and their meanings.
- Wear your heart upon your sleeve
- Heart of gold
- All that glitters is not gold
- Break the ice
- Good riddance
- Kill somebody with kindness
- Green-eyed monster
- The world is your oyster
We’re starting with a few idioms related to the heart and firstly, we have ‘faint-hearted’. This comes from Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part III and it means that someone lacks courage and that they are cowardly.
“Bungee jumping isn’t for the faint-hearted.”
2. Wear your heart upon your sleeve
Next, we have to ‘wear your heart on your sleeve’, which comes from Othello. This idiom means that someone is very open with their feelings. In the original, Shakespeare used the word ‘upon’, but as this is quite old-fashioned, it tends to be replaced by ‘on’.
“It’s not a good idea to wear your heart on your sleeve when you’re negotiating in business.”
3. Heart of gold
Our final heart-related idiom is ‘heart of gold’ and it first appeared in Henry V. If someone has a heart of gold, they’re a kind, generous person. However, it’s normally used nowadays to offset other, worse personality characteristics.
“She appears tough on the outside but she’s got a heart of gold really.”
4. All that glitters is not gold
Another idiom that references gold, this time in The Merchant of Venice. It was originally written as ‘all that glisters’ but ‘glitters’ is now the accepted, modern form. Nevertheless, the meaning of this lovely idiom hasn’t changed. It’s a warning that not everything that looks good or precious is so.
“It’s a good-looking car but remember, all that glitters isn’t gold! Have you checked the engine?”
5. Break the ice
Most people who’ve attended a meeting or started a new class know what it means to break the ice. This idiom, from the fantastically named The Taming of the Shrew, means to do or say something small to get over the awkwardness of a first meeting.
“James told a joke at the start of the class and it really helped to break the ice.”
6. Good riddance
Meaning to say a happy goodbye to something worthless or troublesome, ‘good riddance’ comes from the play Troilus and Cressida”. It usually refers to a person and is often extended now into ‘good riddance to bad rubbish’.
“I’m so glad you finally broke up with Henry. Good riddance!”
7. Kill somebody with kindness
Another idiom from The Taming of the Shrew is ‘kill with kindness’. The original phrase was ‘to kill a wife with kindness’ and it means to be too kind to someone and to overwhelm or harm them by helping them too much.
“My mum just won’t leave me alone since I’ve been ill. She’s killing me with kindness.”
8. Green-eyed monster
One of our absolute favorites is ‘green-eyed monster’. In Othello, Shakespeare used this idea of a monster to personify jealousy as something that can destroy a person. You’ll also often hear that someone was ‘green with envy’, which is a similar, but slightly less threatening, idiom that uses the same color.
“My boyfriend turned into a green-eyed monster when he saw a guy chatting with me at the bar!”
9. The world is your oyster
Finally, let’s finish with a very optimistic idiom: ‘The world is your oyster’. It first appeared in Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor in a slightly different form: ‘The world’s mine oyster’ and with a different, more violent meaning than it has at present as the original exchange implied that someone would use a sword to extract money (presumably like an oyster’s pearl) from someone. Nowadays, ‘the world is your oyster’ means that every possibility is available to you and that, by exploring, you might find something very precious, like finding a pearl in an oyster.
“You’ve just graduated from an amazing university; the world is your oyster!”
Do you use Shakespeare’s idioms in your speech?
If you’re learning English, don’t be faint-hearted about speaking in front of people – it’s the best way to practice. And, if someone speaks English better than you, don’t let the green-eyed monster take over; learn from them! Once you’ve got to a good level of English, the world is your oyster and you’ll be able to speak to people from all over the globe.
Laura is a freelance writer and was an ESL teacher for eight years. She was born in the UK and has lived in Australia and Poland, where she writes blogs for Lingoda about everything from grammar to dating English speakers. She’s definitely better at the first one. She loves travelling and that’s the other major topic that she writes on. Laura likes pilates and cycling, but when she’s feeling lazy she can be found curled up watching Netflix. She’s currently learning Polish, and her battle with that mystifying language has given her huge empathy for anyone struggling to learn English. Find out more about her work in her portfolio.