Finding the Human Experience in Shakespeare’s Words

Feb. 15, 2016

As the First Folio makes its way to the Arizona State Museum, the UA’s expert on Shakespearean lingo explains why it’s not as archaic as you think.

“He was a man. Take him for all in all. I shall not look upon his like again.”

These are words out of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. They’re also the words that helped Brent Gibbsreconcile the death of his father.

Gibbs, an associate professor at the University of Arizona’s School of Theatre, Film & Television and the artistic director for the Arizona Repertory Theatre, recites the line, counting each word on his fingers. “Eighteen words,” he concludes. “To be able to come to grips with the loss of that figure in one line—18 words—is profound. It’s the mark of something special.”

Gibbs directs Shakespeare plays almost every year and believes language is, in large part, the reason Shakespeare’s stories have had such staying power: “He encapsulates—in a very brief way—these large ideas that we all wrestle with.”

Not only does Shakespeare “illuminate and help us deal with things” through his words, but “we are unaware that we use phrases that were created by Shakespeare all the time.”

Handpicked by Gibbs, here are three Shakespearean phrases we’re using to this day:

  1. “A piece of work”: Whether it be a boss, a belligerent uncle at Thanksgiving dinner, or Larry, the one-upper you regrettably dated for two weeks in high school, we all know a real piece of work. The phrase is derogatory, meant to describe someone who’s unpleasant—but its roots are in Shakespeare. In Hamlet, Shakespeare used “piece of work” literally, to describe a creation, or a product of work: “What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god!”
  2. “It’s Greek to me”: If something’s so unfamiliar that it doesn’t make sense, it’s all Greek to you. The playwright Thomas Dekkar used the phrase “Why, then it’s Greek to him” in 1603’S Patient Grissel, but it is said that Shakespeare popularized it in 1616, with Julius Caesar: “Nay, an I tell you that, I'll ne'er look you i' the face again: but those that understood him smiled at one another and shook their heads; but, for mine own part, it was Greek to me.”
  3. “For ever and a day”: Some amounts of time are inconceivable, so we call them “forever and a day.” For example, “You’re taking forever and a day to get ready this morning” or “I’ll love you forever and a day.” We have Shakespeare to thank for the phrase, which he coined in 1596, with The Taming of the Shrew: “If this be not that you look for, I have no more to say, But bid Bianca farewell for ever and a day.” He used it again in 1600’s As You Like It.

Other phrases Gibbs mentions include “Love is blind,” “Neither here nor there,” and “To thine own self be true.”

“The world would be so much poorer without Shakespeare. Our understanding of what it means to be human would be so much poorer if we didn’t have these First Folio plays,” says Gibbs.