Match These Idioms from Shakespeare with their Meanings

Some of the most colorful and expressive phrases in English are idioms from Shakespeare. We still use many of them in everyday conversation.

They are like a shorthand way of expressing some of our deeply-held beliefs about human nature and experience. That makes them important (though often not easy) to understand.

Idioms from Shakespeare Still Used Today

Picture of Romeo & Juliet with some Shakespeare idioms & a question: 'Can you match these Shakespeare expressions with their meanings?' We still use these idioms-- find out what they mean!

I used this an infographic of Shakespeare idioms that is no longer available to make the matching game below.

While checking some of the references, I found a helpful page from the BBC with most of those expressions and others.

(It also gives the play each idiom was taken from.)

(In each case, when I checked, the BBC’s came directly from Shakespeare, so it was more accurate.)

Shakespeare did not invent all of these expressions. Sometimes he ‘borrowed’ colorful phrases he heard or read. However, he is the first written source for most of them, and he made them popular.

People found many of them useful ways to express their feelings or experiences, and so many of them are familiar to most native English speakers—a part of our heritage and our thinking patterns.

Try the matching game below to see how many of these common expressions you can guess.

(If you would rather download the game and use it at home or in a classroom, right-click this link to a pdf version.)

Can You Guess the Meaning of these Shakespeare Idioms?

A wild goose flying, with the question

Match the Shakespeare idioms on the left with their meanings on the right.

(The first one has been done for you.) 

green eyed monsterjealousy
set my teeth on edge
heart of gold
faint hearted
bated breath
good riddance
lie low
come what may
in a pickle
wear my heart upon my sleeve
full circle
break the ice
wild goose chase
the world is my oyster
laughing stock
makes your hair stand on end
love is blind

More Background (if You're Interested)

*to get rid of means to throw away or put out of our home and life. If someone has been in a difficult romantic relationship and his or her partner leaves, he or she may say “Good riddance! ”

**In English we still talk about being “green with envy” (an expression used by American writer Mark Twain over 100 years ago), but the idea goes back at least as far as the ancient Greeks. Shakespeare used “green-eyed jealousy” in The Merchant of Venice, but it became a monster in Othello. Iago warned Othello in act 3, scene 3.

“O, beware, my lord, of jealousy; It is the green-ey'd monster, which doth mock The meat it feeds on.”

Iago actually hated Othello and was trying to make him jealous.  Iago created the green-eyed monster that led Othello to suspect and kill his wife—and then himself when he learned she was innocent.

Shakespeare’s plays are full of powerful insights into human psychology and creative ways to express them.  Read them for yourself, with some help from modernized versions here (side by side with the originals). If you’re wondering which one to try, look at BBC’s short summaries. (They’re written as if they were headlines in one of the scandal-loving tabloid newspapers.) 

For ideas on how to teach Shakespeare to students still learning English (using the above resources and more) see the British Council's suggestions.

A teacher wrote that her students (preparing to see Romeo and Juliet) had used this page and wanted to share another link they found useful as a thank you. Although Buy Costumes sounds commercial, it has a helpful discussion of Shakespearean language and some excellent links to sites with more tips for making sense of his language as well as to a glossary.

A similar page with more interesting background on Shakespeare was recommended by community arts center director Terry Kelly and her daughter Alexa. (We've had other suggested links that I had to remove because they no longer work-- sorry.)

My thanks to Jen Maloney and her class for wanting to share what they found useful!

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