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William Shakespeare quotes: The Bard's most powerful words of wisdom

On love, jealousy, trust, integrity, ambition, grief and everything in between

Jess Denham
Thursday 21 April 2016 17:50 BST
William Shakespeare at work in his study circa 1610
William Shakespeare at work in his study circa 1610 (Getty Images)

William Shakespeare might have died 400 years ago with modern life entirely different to Elizabethan times, but the playwright’s most powerful quotes still resonate strongly today.

The Bard ran the gamut of human experience in his comedies, tragedies and sonnets, musing on life’s joys and sorrows and masterfully crafting words into timeless morsels of wisdom.

From laying bare the futility of our existence in Macbeth (“a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”) and preaching the importance of integrity in Hamlet (“this above all; to thine own self be true”) to warning of speaking without thought in King Lear (“mind your speech a little lest you should mar your fortunes”) and urging us to take control of our dreams in Julius Caesar (“it is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves”, Shakespeare’s grasp on the English language is arguably still peerless.

Romantics and realists alike turn to his words on love for guidance through a realm of that baffles us all; parents drawn upon his cautions when bringing up their children; those in need of a moral compass find one in the pages of his plays; and “neither a borrower nor a lender be” remains the best excuse when your friend requests a bailout.

In need of some words to live by? Here are just a handful of Shakespeare’s most sagacious snippets:

On love

“Love is not love that alters when it alteration finds.”

“The course of true love never did run smooth.”

“Love is a smoke made with the fume of sighs.”

“Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind.”

“They do not love that do not show their love.”

“Love is merely madness.”

On friendship

“Friendship makes us fresh”

“Keep thy friend under thy own life’s key.”

“Friendship is constant in all things, save in the office and affairs of love.”

On marriage

“Hasty marriage seldom proveth well.”

“The instances that second marriage move are base respects of thrift but none of love.”

On jealousy

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

“When Envy breeds unkind division: there comes the ruin, there begins confusion.”

On adversity and moving on

“The robbed that smiles, steals something from the thief.”

“Let me embrace thee, sour adversity, for wise men say it is the wisest course.”

“Wise men ne’er sit and wail their loss but cheerily seek how to redress their harms.”

“What is past is prologue.”

On expectation

“Expectation is the root of all heartache.”

On integrity

“Honesty is the best policy. If I lose mine honour, I lose myself.”

“No legacy is so rich as honesty.”

“This above all; to thine own self be true, and it must follow as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.”

On nature

“The earth has music for those who listen.”

“One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.”

“This our life, exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything.”

On optimism

“True hope is swift and flies with swallow’s wings. Kings it makes gods and meaner creatures kings.”

On thinking before you speak

“Words without thoughts never to heaven go.”

“Mind your speech a little lest you should mar your fortunes.”

“Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice.”

On finding a job you enjoy

“To business that we love we rise betimes and go to’t with delight.”

On trust

“Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none.”

“Let every eye negotiate for itself and trust no agent.”

On patience

“How poor are they that have not patience! What wound did ever heal but by degrees?”

“Things done well and with a care, exempt themselves from fear.”

“Wisely, and slow. They stumble that run fast.”

“To climb hills requires a slow pace at first.”

On temptation

“’Tis one thing to be tempted, another thing to fall.”

On approaching enemies with caution

“Heat not a furnace for your foe so hot that it do singe yourself.”

On time

“Time and the hour run through the roughest day.”

On ambition

“Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.”

“It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves.”

“We know what we are, but know not what we may be.”

“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”

On death

“Golden lads and girls all must, as chimney-sweepers, come to dust.”

“We are time’s subjects, and time bids be gone.”

“The stroke of death is as a lover’s pinch, which hurts and is desired.”

On grief

“Everyone can master a grief but he that has it.”

“Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up the o-er wrought heart and bids it break.”

“To weep is to make less the depth of grief.”

On the importance of taking risks

“Our doubts are traitors and make us lose the good we oft might win by fearing to attempt.”

“Nothing can come of nothing.”

On reputation

“Reputation is an idle and most false imposition; oft got without merit, and lost without deserving.”

“How far that little candle throws its beams! So shine a good deed in a naughty world.”

“The purest treasure mortal times effort is spotless reputation - that away, men are but gilded loam or painted clay.”

On greener grass

“‘Tis better to bear the ills we have than fly to others that we know not of.”

On ignorance

“There is no darkness but ignorance.”

“Ignorance is the curse of God; knowledge is the wing wherewith we fly to heaven.”

“Better a witty fool than a foolish wit.”

On mercy

“Sweet mercy is nobility’s true badge.”

“The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath.”

On money

“Neither a borrower not a lender be; for loan oft loses both itself and friend, and borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.”

On the futility of life

“This life, which had been the tomb of his virtue and of his honour, is but a walking shadow; a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

“We are such stuff as dreams are made on; and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”

“When we are born we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools.”

On facing old age

“With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come.”

On the meaning of wisdom

“A fool think himself to be wise but a wise man knows himself to be a fool.”

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