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Skip to 0 minutes and 5 seconds Shahin talked about two idioms, which are in use today and which go back to Shakespeare’s time and, specifically, to “Macbeth.” They were “the be-all and end-all” and “the world is my oyster.” “The be-all and end-all” means the best thing, the most important thing about something so that you don’t need to look for anything else. So, if you have a friend called Jerry who loves cars more than anything else, you could say that cars are the be-all and end-all in Jerry’s life. Actually, the phrase is more often used to make the point that something is not, in fact, the most important thing.

Skip to 0 minutes and 49 seconds So you could say to someone who just talks about money all the time, “Look, money is not the be-all and end-all.” Or if your car-mad friend Jerry met a woman whom he loved even more than cars, you could say that, for Jerry, “Cars used to the be-all and end-all until he met Louise.” The other phrase Shahin mentioned is “The world is my oyster.” An oyster is a kind of shellfish. “The world is my oyster,” means, “I can do whatever I want” or “I can go wherever I want.” So, if you asked someone who’s just finished university what they’re going to do, they might say, “I’m not sure yet. The world is my oyster. I might go travelling.”

Idioms from Macbeth and other plays

Listen to Anthony explaining the two idioms that Shaheen mentioned.

What do you learn about the two expressions:

  • the be-all and end-all
  • the world is my oyster

Look at some more idioms taken from Shakespeare.

to lie low
Used in the play Much Ado About Nothing

If he could right himself with quarreling,
Some of us would lie low.

Meaning: to hide, and stay out of trouble
Example: After King Duncan was murdered, his son Malcolm escaped to England to lie low and stay out of Macbethʼs way.

a night owl
Used in Twelfth Night

…Shall we
rouse the night owl in a catch that will draw three
souls out of one weaver?

Meaning: a person who is busy at night while other people are asleep
Example: Iʼm a real night owl. I like to study at night, then go for a walk, and go to bed at around 3am.

at a snailʼs pace
Used in Richard III

Delay leads impotent and snail-paced beggary;

Meaning: very slowly
Example: Traffic was moving at a snailʼs pace.

to break the ice
Used in The Taming of the Shrew

And if you break the ice and do this feat,

Meaning: make people feel relaxed when they first meet
Example: When Keith and I found out that we both supported the same football team, it helped to break the ice.

  • Do you know any other Shakespearean idioms?
  • Are there any idioms in your language that come from works of literature?

Share your ideas with other learners.

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This video is from the free online course:

Exploring English: Shakespeare

British Council