Many of William Shakespeare’s phrases are well known in the English language; indeed, some exist that many people don’t know came from Shakespeare at all.

a fool's paradise
(from ‘Romeo and Juliet’)
a stupid situation; a situation in which ‘a fool’ is happy, but other people can see it is a mess.

– examples

He lived in a fool’s paradise, believing she would fall in love with him.

This company is a fool’s paradise; everybody seems to love working here, but they don’t see how they are wasting their time.


a foregone conclusion
(from ‘Othello’)
something that is certain to happen

– examples

The sale of this house is a foregone conclusion: it is not ‘if’, but ‘when’.

People seem to think it is a foregone conclusion that Brazil will win the World Cup, but I think China has a chance.


all that glitters is not gold
(from ‘The Merchant of Venice’)
appearances can be deceiving; not everything that looks good is good

– examples

Remember when you’re buying your new car that all that glitters is not gold.


band of brothers
(from ‘Henry V’)
a tight group of friends or comrades, usually with a bond formed through tough times (such as soldiers)

– examples

The guys Jonny fought with in Iraq are really close, a band of brothers who won’t forget what they saw.

They walked into danger like a band of brothers.


neither rhyme nor reason
(from ‘A Comedy of Errors’)
something makes no sense

– examples

There is neither rhyme nor reason in his actions; in fact, I think he has gone mad.

What you’re asking me to do has neither rhyme nor reason. Why do you want me to lie naked on the road?


it was all Greek to me
(from ‘Julius Cesar’)
I didn’t understand it at all

– examples

That lecture was all Greek to me.

I’m sorry, I know you’re trying to explain how an engine works, but it’s all Greek to me.


hoist on my own petard
(from ‘Hamlet’)
make one’s own trouble; have an action that you did to help yourself come back and hurt you

– examples

I told them I speak Chinese so they would give me a job. Now they want me to be a translator. I’ve been hoist on my petard.

I asked her to the dance to I could get closer to her sister. Now the wrong sister is sending me love-letters. Talk about being hoist on one’s own petard!


fight fire with fire
(from ‘King John’)
take strong action against strong action

– examples

The US military’s tactic is simple: fight fire with fire.

If he is going to try to steal your business, then you have to fight fire with fire: go out and start stealing his customers.


footloose and fancy free
(from ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’)
able to do whatever you want; no commitments, so completely free

– examples

He’s going to enjoy a summer of being footloose and fancy-free.

Life changes after you get married: you’re no longer footloose and fancy-free, and instead have to act like a responsible adult.


pound of flesh
(from ‘The Merchant of Venice’)
a debt that is harshly demanded; wanting to be repaid with as much work as possible

– examples

My work pays me money, but in return they want their pound of flesh.

In exchange for my money, I want my pound of flesh: I need you to do something for me.


salad days
(from ‘Anthony and Cleopatra’)
time of youth and innocence

– examples

I enjoyed my salad days.

Now that I’m married I feel trapped. I wish I could go back in time to my salad days: those were good times.


uneasy lies the head that wears the crown
(from ‘Henry IV, Part 2’)
it is difficult to be a leader; leaders must worry about others wanting their position

– examples

Congratulations on the promotion. Just remember uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.

Since he became manager his hair has gone white and he can’t sleep. He thinks everyone is out to get him. Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.


up in arms
(from ‘Henry IV, Part 2’)
angry and discontented; shouting or complaining about a situation

– examples

The students are all up in arms about the change in teacher.

The public are up in arms about the new tax; I think there will be a riot.