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The wisdom of Shakespeare: 5 famous quotes explained

Shakespeare’s plays and poems contain many examples of what he himself refers to as “wise saws and modern instances” (As You Like It, Act 2, Scene 7 – aphorisms and pithy phrases that might become words of wisdom to us. But, as expert Dr Paul Edmondson explains, it is important and enriching to pay attention to the original dramatic contexts in which the words are intended to be spoken

French actor Jean-Louis Trintignant holding the skull of Yorik
Published: May 7, 2021 at 8:23 am
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Hamlet Act 3, Scene 2

“... the purpose of playing, whose end both at the first, and now, was and is, to hold as ‘twere the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.”


These words form part of what is often referred to as ‘Hamlet’s advice to the players’. The Prince of Denmark has welcomed a troupe of actors familiar to the court. He himself is highly interested in acting, likes the theatre, and he needs their help. They will put on a play and insert into it some lines by Hamlet that refer to the murder of his father. Their performance will hopefully shame Hamlet’s uncle, King Claudius, into confessing that he is the guilty party. But their acting, Hamlet reminds them, must seem as natural as possible, as though the audience were looking into a mirror. That, says Hamlet, is one of the main reasons why we go to the theatre: to see our own lives and times reflected back to us. Through our enjoyment of the performance and production, we might learn something about ourselves and the world in which we live.


Measure for Measure, Act 2, Scene 2

“O, it is excellent
To have a giant’s strength;
but it is tyrannous
To use it like a giant.”

Isabella, a novice nun, implores Angelo, the appointed deputy-governor of Vienna, to have mercy on her brother, Claudio. Angelo has condemned him to death for illegitimately impregnating Juliet. The crisis all too clearly mirrors William Shakespeare’s own life: Anne Hathaway became pregnant before wedlock. Isabella’s words are about the use of power by the most powerful. It is hoped, she assumes, that those in authority know the strength they have, and that they do not abuse their office by exercising their strength to its full capacity. She momentarily compares Angelo to something nonhuman – “a giant” – in order to provoke his empathy for the honest and erring Claudio. Isabella implies that to become tyrannical is the worst possible outcome for anyone in powerful office. She herself has just entered a convent and it is not surprising that the Christian direction to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ is really at the heart of what she says.


All’s Well That Ends Well, Act 2, Scene 3

“They say miracles are past, and we have our philosophical persons, to make modern and familiar, things supernatural and causeless. Hence is it, that we make trifles of terrors, ensconcing ourselves into seeming knowledge, when we should submit ourselves to an unknown fear.”

The old Lord Lafeu proffers this reflection in light of a ballad he has been reading. His is a grave warning that transcends fashion and time. Knowledge is limited and partial. We can never have all the answers, and in our quest to be in control we should be careful not to lose our sense of the numinous, or of the miraculous. Lafeu suggests that humility should accompany learning. Perhaps his view is akin to Shakespeare’s own perspective: as a dramatist he sought to body forth the wonders and fears of human experience. This quotation would make a fitting epigraph for many of his plays including, for example: Shakespeare's Richard III, Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, As You Like It, Twelfth Night, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Pericles, Cymbeline and The Winter’s Tale.


King Lear, Act 2, Scene 4

“O reason not the need.
Our basest beggars
Are in the poorest thing superfluous.
Allow not nature more than nature needs;
Man’s life is as cheap as beast’s.”

The increasingly weak-minded King Lear has divided his kingdom between two of his three daughters, Goneril and Regan. In return he expects to stay with each of them for a month at a time, along with one hundred of his knights. They urge him to reduce his number of followers: why should he even need one, if his own daughters are there to look after him? His rage against their reasoning – underpinned with the difficulties of old age – is a defence of all those things in our lives that we know, deep down, we do not really need. Lear argues that since even the beggars among us have more than their essential share of the basic necessities, why should a king be challenged about his requirements and preferences? If we were allowed to have only what we needed in order to survive, we would be admitting that human beings were no better than animals.


Love’s Labour’s Lost, Act 5, Scene 2

“Honest plain words best pierce the ear of grief”

The Princess of France has just heard about the death of her father, and has become queen. These words about how to talk to a grieving person are spoken by the Lord Biron. Love’s Labour’s Lost contains some of the most exuberant language in all of Shakespeare (including his longest word ‘Honorificabilitudinitatibus’, which means ‘the state of being able to achieve honours’), and Biron himself has shown himself to be one of the leading protagonists of a self-consciously intellectual rhetoric. Now, faced with a palpable reminder of mortality, he suddenly learns the need for simpler and more direct communication. This is a line about listening as well as language. Shakespeare often uses monosyllables when he is communicating something highly important. His image for the power of language is of simple words breaking down the barrier caused by grief, and working their way through successfully into the hearer’s head.


Paul Edmondson is Head of Research and Knowledge and Director of the Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival for the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, and the author, co-author, and co-editor of many books and articles about Shakespeare


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