Is this Shakespeare I see quoted before me?

“It is important to recognise that Shakespeare’s phrases are not unique in having entered the language in this way. Any song or film or book experienced by a large proportion of the population tends to leave the same kind of legacy.”

Hide

Much has been written about the language of Shakespeare; it is often said that Shakespeare used many new words, probably around 3,000, and that many vivid phrases coined by him are still common in English today.

People tend to recognise quotations from Shakespeare even if they haven’t seen or read the play in question. ‘If music be the food of love, play on’; ‘To be or not to be, that is the question’ are familiar sayings, even if we forget they come from Twelfth Night, and Hamlet respectively. In fact, interviews with members of the public (‘Sunday’, BBC Radio 4, 17 April 2016) found most did not know whether familiar sayings such as ‘the milk of human kindness’ or ‘neither a borrower nor a lender be’ come from the Bible or from Shakespeare. We might say that phrases like these are no longer quotations but have entered the language.

But what happens when a saying ‘enters the language’? We can find the answer looking at genuine examples found in a large corpus of English (the Bank of English). Occasionally a writer will make a direct reference to Shakespeare:

(1) To kick or not to kick, that is the question! With apologies to Shakespeare, it appears that anyone who kicks the ball during a rugby match nowadays becomes a target for the slings and arrows of outrageous criticism.

But in most cases the pattern ‘to xxx or not to xxx, that is the question’ is used without overt acknowledgement of the origin:

(2) To go, or not to go? That is the question.

In examples like these the verb ‘be’ is changed but the rest of the quotation stays the same. This is true even if a verb is invented:

(3) To PC or not to PC, that is the question. [= to buy a PC]

More adventurous writers extend the end of the pattern:

(4) To buy or not to buy? That is the question facing summer sun-seekers as they decide when to purchase foreign spending money.

or change the kind of verb, adding an object:

(5) To make tea or not to make tea: that is the question.

Further exploitation involves losing the verb repetition:

(6) To devolve or dissolve, that is the question.

Finally, only the rhyme can be kept:

(7) DB or not DB – that is the question.

Other sayings are exploited in similar ways. Using the same pattern as Macbeth’s ‘Is this a dagger I see before me?’, we find in the corpus:

(8) Is this a poison chalice I see before me?

And the opening lines of Twelfth Night are exploited by changing some of the words in the pattern:

(9) If muesli be the food of love, feed on.

But some writers extend the food metaphor even further:

(10) If music be the food of love, make sure your stomach’s not too full for the opera.

Changing familiar sayings in this way is a common thing to do, often with comic or at least wry intent. People say things like ‘Every silver lining has a cloud’ or ‘Not even the newest of brooms could clean this organisation’. The origins of the expressions are for the most part lost, but speakers reworking them in this way reinforce language as a community experience, speakers share a common memory for phrases and sayings as well as for words and grammar. The original phrases can be from popular culture (‘may the course be with you’ or ‘the generation that couldn’t get no satisfaction…’) as well as from great literature.

What matters is that the original, canonical expression (‘To be or not to be’, ‘Every cloud has a silver lining’, ‘May the force be with you’) is memorable and often repeated. Arguably, these expressions lose most of their meaning in most people’s minds and become a rhythmic phrase that is easy to say. Exploiting the phrase by re-ordering it, or extending it, or replacing some of the words both references the original and draws attention to its forgotten meaning.

It is important to recognise, then, that Shakespeare’s phrases are not unique in having entered the language in this way. Any song or film or book experienced by a large proportion of the population tends to leave the same kind of legacy. But Shakespeare’s iambic rhythms are pleasing (if MUsic BE the FOOD of LOVE), many of the images are striking (‘Is this a dagger I see before me’) or puzzling (music makes us feel more in love than we really are?), and the words often summarise a moment of crisis (‘To be or not to be’). As a result, the phrases stay in the mind, but their form ceases to be fixed. Instead they become the raw material for clever or comic invention.

Have your say...

Feedback
  • 88952634
    External
    1. At 10:43AM on 11 December 2016, wrote

    88952634

  • 88952634
    External
    2. At 10:44AM on 11 December 2016, wrote

    88952634

  • 88952634
    External
    3. At 10:44AM on 11 December 2016, wrote

    88952634

  • 88952634
    External
    4. At 10:44AM on 11 December 2016, wrote

    88952634

  • 88952634
    External
    5. At 10:44AM on 11 December 2016, wrote

    88952634

  • 88952634
    External
    6. At 10:44AM on 11 December 2016, wrote

    88952634

  • 88952634
    External
    7. At 10:44AM on 11 December 2016, wrote

    88952634

  • 88952634
    External
    8. At 10:44AM on 11 December 2016, wrote

    88952634

  • 88952634
    External
    9. At 10:44AM on 11 December 2016, wrote

    88952634

  • 88952634
    External
    10. At 10:44AM on 11 December 2016, wrote

    88952634

  • 88952634
    External
    11. At 10:44AM on 11 December 2016, wrote

    88952634

  • 88952634
    External
    12. At 10:44AM on 11 December 2016, wrote

    88952634

  • 88952634
    External
    13. At 10:44AM on 11 December 2016, wrote

    88952634

  • 88952634
    External
    14. At 10:45AM on 11 December 2016, wrote

    88952634

  • 88952634
    External
    15. At 10:45AM on 11 December 2016, wrote

    88952634

  • 88952634
    External
    16. At 10:45AM on 11 December 2016, wrote

    88952634

  • 88952634
    External
    17. At 10:45AM on 11 December 2016, wrote

    88952634

  • 88952634
    External
    18. At 10:45AM on 11 December 2016, wrote

    88952634

  • 88952634
    External
    19. At 10:45AM on 11 December 2016, wrote

    88952634

  • 88952634
    External
    20. At 10:45AM on 11 December 2016, wrote

    88952634

  • 88952634
    External
    21. At 10:45AM on 11 December 2016, wrote

    88952634

  • 88952634
    External
    22. At 10:45AM on 11 December 2016, wrote

    88952634

  • 88952634'`"(
    External
    23. At 10:45AM on 11 December 2016, wrote

    88952634

  • 88952634-0
    External
    24. At 10:45AM on 11 December 2016, wrote

    88952634

  • 88952634s3
    External
    25. At 10:45AM on 11 December 2016, wrote

    88952634

  • 88952634'+'
    External
    26. At 10:46AM on 11 December 2016, wrote

    88952634

  • 88952634'
    External
    27. At 10:46AM on 11 December 2016, wrote

    88952634

  • 88952634'||'
    External
    28. At 10:46AM on 11 December 2016, wrote

    88952634

  • 88952634'
    External
    29. At 10:46AM on 11 December 2016, wrote

    88952634

  • 88952634
    External
    30. At 10:46AM on 11 December 2016, wrote

    88952634

  • 88952634
    External
    31. At 10:47AM on 11 December 2016, wrote

    88952634

  • 88952634
    External
    32. At 10:47AM on 11 December 2016, wrote

    88952634

  • 88952634
    External
    33. At 10:47AM on 11 December 2016, wrote

    88952634

  • 88952634
    External
    34. At 10:47AM on 11 December 2016, wrote

    88952634

  • 88952634
    External
    35. At 10:47AM on 11 December 2016, wrote

    88952634

  • 88952634
    External
    36. At 10:47AM on 11 December 2016, wrote

    88952634

  • 88952634
    External
    37. At 10:47AM on 11 December 2016, wrote

    88952634

  • 88952634
    External
    38. At 10:47AM on 11 December 2016, wrote

    88952634

  • 88952634
    External
    39. At 10:47AM on 11 December 2016, wrote

    88952634

  • 88952634
    External
    40. At 10:47AM on 11 December 2016, wrote

    88952634

  • 88952634
    External
    41. At 10:47AM on 11 December 2016, wrote

    88952634

  • 88952634
    External
    42. At 10:47AM on 11 December 2016, wrote

    88952634

  • 88952634
    External
    43. At 10:48AM on 11 December 2016, wrote

    88952634

  • 88952634
    External
    44. At 10:48AM on 11 December 2016, wrote

    88952634

  • 88952634
    External
    45. At 10:48AM on 11 December 2016, wrote

    88952634

  • 88952634
    External
    46. At 10:48AM on 11 December 2016, wrote

    88952634

  • 88952634
    External
    47. At 10:48AM on 11 December 2016, wrote

    88952634

  • 88952634
    External
    48. At 10:48AM on 11 December 2016, wrote

    88952634

  • 88952634
    External
    49. At 10:48AM on 11 December 2016, wrote

    88952634

  • 88952634
    External
    50. At 10:48AM on 11 December 2016, wrote

    88952634

  • 88952634
    External
    51. At 10:48AM on 11 December 2016, wrote

    88952634

  • 88952634
    External
    52. At 10:48AM on 11 December 2016, wrote

    88952634

  • 88952634
    External
    53. At 10:48AM on 11 December 2016, wrote

    88952634

  • 88952634
    External
    54. At 10:48AM on 11 December 2016, wrote

    88952634

  • 88952634
    External
    55. At 10:48AM on 11 December 2016, wrote

    88952634

  • 88952634
    External
    56. At 10:49AM on 11 December 2016, wrote

    88952634

  • 88952634
    External
    57. At 10:49AM on 11 December 2016, wrote

    88952634

  • 88952634
    External
    58. At 10:49AM on 11 December 2016, wrote

    88952634'`"(

  • 88952634
    External
    59. At 10:49AM on 11 December 2016, wrote

    88952634-0

  • 88952634
    External
    60. At 10:49AM on 11 December 2016, wrote

    88952634s3

  • 88952634
    External
    61. At 10:49AM on 11 December 2016, wrote

    88952634'+'

  • 88952634
    External
    62. At 10:49AM on 11 December 2016, wrote

    88952634'

  • 88952634
    External
    63. At 10:49AM on 11 December 2016, wrote

    88952634'||'

  • 88952634
    External
    64. At 10:49AM on 11 December 2016, wrote

    88952634'

Add Your Feedback