Happy St. George’s day, everyone, and happy birthday, Shakespeare – April 23rd 2010 is the 446th anniversary of his birth. So, following my resolution of yesterday to share some favourite quotations, I’ve been reminding myself of some of the Bard’s memorable ones…which seemed a better bet than trying to find quotes from St. George. An admirable saint no doubt, who may well have said, “Hey, girl, do you need rescuing today?” or “Blimey, (insert ancient swear-word here,) that dragon’s hot stuff.” But history doesn’t relate. I’m on safer ground with our William.
I’m not a Shakespeare scholar. I studied some of the plays at school (didn’t we all?) and I’ve seen many of them on stage or film, but that’s about it. Still you can’t help being aware, can you, just how many familiar quotes old William has left us. “Friends, Romans, countrymen,” “To be or not to be,” “All the world’s a stage,” “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” I could add dozens more, and so could anyone who’s gone through an English-speaking education system.
But what surprises me when I start delving into quotation books or websites is how many ordinary, everyday idioms originate with Shakespeare. Modern-seeming phrases and expressions that I thought of as just part of the language…and so they are, but not by mere chance. “For goodness sake,” for instance (uttered by Wolsey in Henry VIII,) and “in my mind’s eye” (said by Hamlet,) and, most unexpectedly, “what the dickens?” (Master Ford in the Merry Wives of Windsor.) I always thought that one was related to a much later Dickens, he of Bleak House and Great Expectations fame. Now own up…didn’t you?
Another surprise concerns “too much of a good thing,” said by Rosalind in As You Like It. Apparently the original meaning of this was a bawdy joke which Will’s audience would have well understood. “Thing” was a common euphemism for male or female genitalia, so “too much of a…” well you get the idea. And next time I find myself using that expression in all innocence, I’ll have a job not to smile as I remember what my Elizabethan ancestors were probably thinking of when they heard it.