The plays of William Shakespeare provide a wealth of pithy sayings — many of which he likely popularized rather than produced himself, though we may still be grateful to him for sharing them. Unfortunately, sometimes the original sense is adulterated by careless usage, so that the eloquent force of the expression is weakened. Here are a dozen of Shakespeare’s phrases with comments about their original wording and meaning:
- “At one fell swoop”
This phrase from Macduff’s grief-stricken lamentation about the murder of his family in Macbeth uses the archaic word fell, meaning “fierce,” to extend the metaphor of the perpetrator (who he calls a “hell-kite”) as a bird of prey. Modern usage is generally more casual and even comical.
- “Brave new world”
This phrase from a speech by Miranda, daughter of the wizard Prospero in The Tempest, naively uses brave in the sense of “handsome” when she first lays eyes on other men. The subtext in Shakespeare is that those she refers to are superficially attractive but substantially deficient in character. The sense is the same in the phrase as it appears in the title of Aldous Huxley’s dystopian classic. Unfortunately, the dark sarcasm is being dulled by use of the phrase to blithely herald a bright future.
- “Foregone conclusion”
From Othello, this phrase means literally something that has already occurred (it has “gone before”); now, the phrase often refers to a conjectural event.
- “Gild the lily”
This misquotation from King John, which actually reads, “To gild refined gold, to paint the lily . . . is wasteful and ridiculous excess,” confuses the metaphor, because lilies are white, not gold.
- “Lead on, Macduff”
This misquotation from Macbeth, in which the title character baits his nemesis to attack him by saying, “Lay on, Macduff,” is now a variation of “After you” — quite a diversion from the original intent.
- “The milk of human kindness”
This metaphor, employed in the service of a heartwarming connotation, would rouse the wrath of Lady Macbeth, whose reference to the virtue in the play named for her husband was contemptuous.