Talking Shakespeare: The Bard Could Turn a Phrase

Have you ever testified to a restless night by saying, "I have not slept one wink?" Or claimed, "All’s well that ends well?"

When is the last time you found yourself befuddled and commented, "It’s all Greek to me?" Do certain tasks leave you believing they will take "forever and a day?"

These phrases and many others in our common vernacular are credited to William Shakespeare and would arguably be lost to our phraseology if not for the First Folio, the first printed collection of his plays. A rare copy is on display at the Library through June 28.

A sampling of other phrases credited to Shakespeare, all preserved within the Folio:

  • "In a pickle." From The Tempest.
  • "Be-all and the end-all." From Macbeth
  • "A dish fit for the gods." From Julius Caesar
  • "Break the ice." From The Taming of the Shrew
  • "For goodness sake." From Henry VIII.
  • "My mind’s eye." From Hamlet.
  • "With bated breath." From The Merchant of Venice.
  • "The laughing stock." From The Merry Wives of Windsor


The First Folio contains 36 plays written by Shakespeare. Half of them, including The Tempest, Macbeth, Julius Caesar, The Taming of the Shrew, and Henry VIII, had not been previously published. So without the Folio, many expressions coined by Shakespeare would arguably be lost and our language would lack numerous popular and pithy phrases.

Prior to the printing of the Folio in 1623, the acting company in which Shakespeare was a shareholder withheld the printing rights of numerous plays, hoping to prevent competing theater companies from producing them and stealing patrons. Seven years after he died, with a number of his plays having fallen out of theatrical circulation, fellow actors John Heminge and Henry Condell set out to catalog his works.

Without that, mixed martial arts champion Ronda Rousey would not have had the words to reflect upon the first loss of her professional career in January. After months out of the public spotlight, she posted a quote from A Twelfth Night on her Instagram.

Beyoncé's 2011 Billboard Music Awards performance

Beyoncé, in her performance at the Billboard Music Awards show in 2011, also looked to Shakespeare for inspiration. Drawing from As You Like It, she introduced her song "Run the World," an anthem of female empowerment, with the line, "I am women, I must speak."

Supermodel Cindy Crawford received a birthday wish via Twitter from Piers Morgan, British journalist and television personality, that might lack poetic charm if not for Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. The opening line of the February tweet quotes from the play—and adorns many birthday cards today.

And so, may all of us—including Beyoncé—salute Heminge, Condell and of course the Bard the next time we "play fast and lose," lament "too much of a good thing," or "kill with kindness." We owe it to Shakespeare (and those respective phrases to King John, As You Like It, and The Taming of the Shrew).

We owe it to the First Folio.

By Danica Otten, Library intern