20 Expressions in the English Language that Originated or Were Popularised from Shakespeare | History Hit

20 Expressions in the English Language that Originated or Were Popularised from Shakespeare

Samuel Higson

06 Jun 2023

William Shakespeare is the most famous and arguably greatest writer Britain has ever produced. He elevated the English language to such an extent that many words and expressions that were first used in his plays over 400 years ago are still used today.

Expressions or phrases with a figurative and not literal meaning were commonplace in Shakespearean spoken language. Anyone that has read or seen a Shakespeare play will know this! We use ‘idioms’ much more sparingly today, and when we do use them we rarely think of their origins or why they are given the meanings we ascribe to them.

Below are 20 of the most recognisable idiomatic expressions that either originated or were popularised from Shakespeare’s plays:


Patrick Stewart played Macbeth in the 2010 BBC television adaption.

Meaning: If something is ‘the be all and end all’ it is the very best or most important; something so good that it will end the search for something better.


Meaning: If something or someone has ‘come full circle’, they are now at the same as they were at the beginning.


Meaning: There is enough space to move about.


John William Waterhouse’s oil painting of Miranda, daughter of Prospero.

Meaning: Conformity to established rules; upright conduct and equitable conditions.


Al Pacino portrayed Shylock in the 2004 film version.

Meaning: Whilst holding one’s breath


Paraphrased: ‘the stuff that dreams are made of’ in 1941’s The Maltese Falcon.


Meaning: A conclusion already reached; an inevitable result.


Meaning: For a very long time.


Meaning: Something that you say to tell someone that their secret plans or tricks have been discovered and they cannot continue.

Mary, Queen of Scots, returned to the news headlines when the rosary she carried to her execution in 1587, were recently stolen from Arundel Castle. Mary reigned over Scotland for just over 24 years between December 1542 until her forced abdication. Considered the legitimate sovereign of England by many Catholics, Mary was seen as a threat to Queen Elizabeth I.
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Meaning: To be happy that someone or something is gone.


Meaning: If you know something in your heart of hearts, you are certain of it although you might not want to admit it.


Meaning: If you do something enjoyable to your heart’s content, you do it as much as you want to.


Hume Cronyn (far right) portraying Polonius opposite Richard Burton in John Gielgund’s 1964 Broadway production. He won a Tony Award for his performance. No other actor has won an award for playing Polonius in film or on stage.

Meaning: Something that you say which means that although someone seems to be behaving strangely, there is a reason for their behaviour.


Meaning: You have the ability and the freedom to do exactly what you want.


Meaning: To not have slept at all.


Simon Russell Beale as Falstaff and Julie Walters as Mistress Quickly in the 2012 BBC television adaption as part of the Hollow Crown series.

Meaning: To send someone away; to dismiss someone, possibly rudely.


Bill Paterson portrayed Richard Ratcliffe opposite Ian McKellen in the 1995 film.

Meaning: A brief period of consideration of a person’s ideas or explanations.


Meaning: A sight that one regrets seeing; someone or something that is unpleasant to look at.

There are so many myths about Anne Boleyn - among them that she had six fingers, that she was a murderess, even that she was Henry VIII's own daughter. In this episode of Not Just the Tudors, released on 19 May to mark the anniversary of the day of Anne Boleyn's execution in 1536, Professor Suzannah Lipscomb sets out to bust some myths with Natalie Grueninger, founder and editor of the On the Tudor Trail website and author of In the Footsteps of Anne Boleyn.
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Helen Mirren portraying Prospera (a female version of Prospero) in the 2010 film.

Meaning: To suddenly become impossible to see or find.


A young Maggie Smith portraying Portia in the 1972 BBC television adaption.

Meaning: If you love someone, you cannot see any faults in that person.


Tags: William Shakespeare

Samuel Higson