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.”


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.