Answers and notes for teachers

Shakespeare can be heavy going for some students. The aim of this article about words and phrases is to stimulate curiosity, where literature becomes a stepping-stone to exploration of language, which in turn enhances literature.

Is it true that brevity is the soul of wit?

This is a pretty open-ended question, because it depends how we define "wit". If it is practical intelligence, then brevity is not necessarily at its core. If it is a general ability to make humorous associations, then it might be a gradual process including many amusing situations or building up to a funny conclusion. However, if we are referring to the repartee, then brevity is certain its soul.

What is the present-day form of "Though this be madness, yet there is method in't"?

Usually "There's method in my madness".

What are the "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune"? Have you been attacked by any of them in your life? Come to think of it, "fortune" means "luck. Is there such a thing as luck?

This is a topic for discussion. There is no "answer".

"The lady doth protest too much". What on Earth does this mean? Why would someone protest "too much"?

Someone who is accused of wrongdoing might attempt to defend themselves very strongly or loudly, in at attempt to hide the truth. There's another discussion topic here, and quite a controversial one: Do people who protest very loudly about an issue have something to hide?

What might happen at "the very witching time of night"? Would you like to be there to witness it?

This could well give rise to responses based on situations in recent or current television horror movies. What a wonderful opportunity, though, to introduce students to A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, or The Raven and The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe, and also Danse macabre by Saint-SaŽns, which conveys exactly what takes place at the witching hour, as much needed relief from the stereotypes of TV pap.

"Parting is such sweet sorrow" contains an oxymoron. An oxymoron is not a stupid cow. What is it, and can you come up with some more examples?

Several different dictionaries will give meanings and stimulate ideas. Some examples:

awfully sorry

terribly nice

cheerful pessimist

to make haste slowly

a living death

getting on like a house on fire

culture-vulture might be included

Toorak tractor

Collins Street cocky, Pitt Street farmer, Queen Street bushie

In the other examples given, to be cruel to be kind

In teenagespeak, the use of serious sometimes give rise to oxymorons, as in seriously funny. Students will no doubt be able to identify others.

Because words change in usage and meaning over the centuries, we tend to think of "exquisite" as denoting dainty or beautiful. It is, however, correct to say exquisite pain which appears to be another oxymoron. It's dictionary time again!

This is a good opportunity to discuss the difference between an oxymoron and a mixed metaphor.

How many words would you expect to find in the vocabulary of a present-day university lecturer?

A person such as a university lecturer nowadays has a vocabulary of 50,000 to 80,000 words, depending on how you classify groups such as go, gone, going.

What is a homily? What is the name of the art of presenting a homily, which must be studied first?

A homily is a sermon or short talk of a spiritually or morally uplifting nature. Preachers study homiletics.

How come Shakespeare used the name of another great writer, Charles Dickens, several centuries before he was born?

"What the dickens?" has nothing to do with the other great writer, Charles Dickens. "Dickens" here means "devil".

What is an eringo? Would you eat it?

An eringo or eryngo is a type of sea holly, the clusters of leaves of which were considered a delicacy with healthy and nutritious attributes, in the 16th century.

What is a comfit? Would you kiss one?

Centuries ago, a comfit was a nut or a seed preserved in a sugar coating. It could also be a pickle. A kissing comfit also contained a pleasantly perfumed ingredient for sweetening the breath. Whether or not you would feel the need to kiss one is a matter of personal taste ó the implication is that they helped to make kissing a more pleasant experience in an era when people had rotting teeth and bad breath.

Have ordinary, everyday forks always been eating utensils?

Forks were not used as eating utensils until about 100 years before Shakespeare was born. After all, who needs a fork when you can use your dagger or your fingers? They are still not "ordinary, everday" for many people. Some cultures around the world  do not use forks. There are also strict rules about which hand may be used for eating. More research is indicated!

Where did "lunch" come from? What was the midday meal called in earlier times?

Lunch is a shortened form of luncheon. In the late 16th century, luncheon meant a thick piece of hunk of something. It could therefore denote a chuck of meat or bread, which might form a light meal in the middle of the day. Scholars believe that the original word was nuncheon from 14th century nonechenche, which literally meant "noon pour out", in other words, a drink at noon.

What is a leviathan, and which famous book mentions them several times? For some of you, this is a book that you are very familiar with. For others, it will fairly irrelevant.

A leviathan was a great sea monster, perhaps an old word for a whale or, some scholars believe, a crocodile. It is mentioned five times in the Bible. In the Bible, a hippopotamus is called behemoth.See Job 40:15 and 41:1.

In one of Shakespeare's plays, who was derisively called a moon-calf?

Caliban, in The Tempest, The term was used in the 16th century to denote a monstrous aborted foetus.

Disposition looks like quite a modern word, relatively speaking. How many times do you think Shakespeare used it?

About 50 times. It was first used in English by Geoffrey Chaucer in about 1380 and so comes to us from Middle English.

How many times did Shakespeare use the verb "assassinate"?


Shank meant leg or lower leg, and was used four times. We still hear it occasionally in a colloquial phrase... but which one?

"Going by Shanks's pony" is a metaphor for "going on foot", simply walking.

What is "sans", and where does it come from? How many times do you think the Bard used it?

It is French for "without". He used it 16 times.

Which three singing children are referred to in "childish treble"?

Treble can refer to the soprano-like tone of a young boy's voice. Anyone involved with music will be familiar with the term. Shakespeare used the word about 15 times but only twice with this meaning. The others related to items in threes. Here we go again: out with the dictionaries! Why does the same word have two such different meanings? And, while we're at it, how about couple, duet, pair and twin(s) all meaning "two"?

Which member of your family might cheat you?

The answer lies in the word, which comes from the French word cousiner, which means to pretend to be someone's cousin so that you can take advantage of them and cheat them.

If you eat a posset at someone's house, will it make you sick?

The use of the same word for milk regurtitated by a baby did not appear until late in the 20th century. If you had lived in Shakespeare's time, you would have been accustomed to all kinds of food and drink that might today make you feel, or be, sick. A posset was a drink of warm milk curdled with ale and flavour with spices. You can make up your own mind about your answer.


Somebody is going to ask what this means. The only other time Shakespeare uses this term is in Loveís Labourís Lost, Act V, Scene 2, line 258. First used in the 16th century, from the Welsh meddyglyn, which comes from Latin medicus, from which we get medicine, plus Welsh llyn, liquor. It was the name of a spiced mead believed to have medicinal qualities.

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