Ten of the Best Shakespeare Quotes (And What They Actually Mean)

Shakespeare's Globe Theatre London

Do you love Shakespeare but have always wanted to understand it a bit better? Shakespeare is, and always has been, a staple of English literature – and probably always will be. Which means that if you’re interested in English Literature at A Level or higher it’s time to gain a better understanding. So here you go, some of the most famous (and in our opinion the best) Shakespeare quotes explained.

“Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind, and therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream)

This means that it shouldn’t matter what a person looks like, you love them for their personality and what’s inside. The quote is said in jealousy, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, by Helena because Demetrius thinks that Hermia is more beautiful than Helena and has been swayed by her beauty. Helena thinks that Demetrius should love her for who she is and keep his promises to her rather than loving Hermia for her beauty.

“Neither rhyme nor reason” (The Comedy of Errors)

“Dromio: But I pray, sir, why am I beaten?

Antipholus: Dost thou not know?

Dromio: Nothing, sir, but that I am beaten.

Antipholus: Shall I tell you why?

Dromio: Ay, sir, and wherefore; for they say, every why hath a wherefore.

Antipholus: Why, first, for flouting me, and then wherefore, for urging it the second time to me.

Dromio: Was there ever any man thus beaten out of season, when in the why and the wherefore is neither rhyme nor reason?”

Here Shakespeare links alliterative nouns in ‘neither rhyme nor reason’ and attempts a little Latin comedy while he’s at it; in fact, it wouldn’t be out of place on TV today.

Poor Dromio, confused as to why he is beaten, angers his master Antipholus even more by asking for a reason. Antipholus is sure Dromio has said something he shouldn’t, confusing the servant even more. The cause of the confusion lies in twin Antipholus and Dromios, a case of comical mistaken identity – a plot still used by Hollywood today.

“To die, to sleep – to sleep, perchance to dream – ay, there’s the rub, for in this sleep of death what dreams may come…” (Hamlet)

This is said by Hamlet to himself when he thinks he is alone. He is asking himself if it is better to give up and die rather than facing his troubles but he is frightened that he will dream when he is dead and never get any peace from his earthly troubles. The speech starts with the even more famous “To be or not to be…” which is the ‘should I live or die?’ part.

“Off with his head!” (Richard III)

It simply had to be included! Short and sweet, and one of the most famous Shakespeare quotes of all. Richard shouts this about his former friend, Hastings – having already tricked him into denouncing witchcraft, then accusing him publicly of the same skullduggery.

“I cannot tell what the dickens his name is my husband had him of. What do you call your knight’s name, sirrah?” (The Merry Wives of Windsor)

What the dickens? An expression you might have heard on countless occasions and wrongly presumed to be a reference to another writer of note, Charles Dickens. But in fact it was penned by the Bard of Avon, who meant something quite different when he wrote the line in Act 3, Scene 2 for his fictional Mrs. Page in the Merry Wives of Windsor.

The dickens in this case is an oath referring to old Nick, or the Devil. Little or perhaps nothing at all to do with anyone known by the name, Dickens, it was used to represent Satan in this instance (as in “what the deuce?” or similar). Here the meaning was aimed at the character Sir John Falstaff – Master Ford had stumbled into an elaborate plan by Mrs Page and Ford’s wife to spoil Sir John’s lecherous advances.

“My tongue will tell the anger of my heart, or else my heart concealing it will break.” (The Taming of the Shrew)

We love this quote. It’s delivered by Katherine to Hortensio during an argument in which he is being particularly foul and she feels she has to speak her mind; she tells him she has to express her anger to him or she will die from keeping it in. Another part of her speech is “Your betters have endured me say my mind and if you cannot best you stop your ears.” This means better men than you have heard me speak my mind so if you can’t take it you had better not listen! Stirring stuff.

“Stars, hide your fires; Let not light see my black and deep desires.” (Macbeth)

This quote is by Macbeth to himself (the classic Shakespeare soliloquy) he is asking the stars to hide their light so that no one will be able to see the dark desires he has inside him. To put it in context, Malcolm is now the prince of Cumberland and Macbeth must decide whether to step over him to become king or just give up.

“I pray you, in your letters, when you shall these unlucky deeds relate, speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate, nor set down aught in malice. Then must you speak of one that lov’d not wisely but too well; Of one not easily jealous, but being wrought, perplex’d in the extreme…” (Othello)

Poor miserable Othello, before committing suicide and having murdered his wife Desdemona in a pique of jealous rage, tries to justify his foolish act in Act 5, Scene 2 with an emotional admission of loving her ‘not wisely but too well’. But she was blameless, and he never gave her a chance to prove that fact – so really, he was a bit of an over-indulged brute.

“He hath eaten me out of house and home, he hath put all my substance into that fat belly of his: but I will have some of it out again, or I will ride thee a-nights like the mare.” (Henry IV)

The lecherous Sir John Falstaff is back in Act 2, Scene 1 – this time facing the wrath of Hostess Quickly in her Boar’s Head Tavern where he has clearly outstayed his welcome (and introduced “eaten me out of house and home” to day-to-day speech in the process). Bawdy and lecherous as ever, he retorts with a lewd interpretation of her threat: “I think I am as like to ride the mare if I have any vantage of ground to get up.”

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet.” (Romeo and Juliet)

Juliet says this in her famous balcony speech while Romeo listens in secret. She is talking about the family rivalry between the Montagues and the Capulets and asks herself what difference does a name make; it would still smell as sweet if it were called something different. She goes on to ask Romeo (she still doesn’t know he is listening) to lose his name, as it doesn’t mean anything, and take her instead, as that way the family rivalry wouldn’t matter.

If you want to discover more about Shakespeare have a look at No Fear Shakespeare (http://nfs.sparknotes.com/) to see original text side by side with a modern explanation.

To study while sitting back with the popcorn and a movie, check out our pick of Shakespeare films.

If this has inspired you to learn more take a look at our A Level English Literature courses.