10 of the Most Famous Shakespeare Quotes

One of the First Editions of Shakespeare's Works
Imagno / Getty Images

William Shakespeare was the most prolific poet and dramatist the Western world has ever seen. His words have staying power; they have remained relevant and moving to readers for more than 400 years.

Shakespeare's plays and sonnets are some of the most quoted in all of literature. A few quotes stand out, whether for their wit, the poetic elegance with which they ponder love, or their heartbreakingly accurate depiction of anguish. 

of 10

"To be, or not to be: that is the question." — "Hamlet"

Hamlet ponders life, death, and the merits and risks of suicide in one of the most famous passages in the history of literature. It's no wonder this soliloquy is universally admired: The themes are crucial to all people and the phrasing of his opening question is stark and original.

"To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?"
of 10

"All the world's a stage ..." — "As You Like It"

"All the world's a stage" is the phrase that begins a monologue from William Shakespeare's "As You Like It," spoken by the melancholy character Jaques. The speech compares the world to a stage and life to a play. It catalogues the seven stages of a man's life, sometimes referred to as the seven ages of man: infant, schoolboy, lover, soldier, judge (one having the ability to reason), Pantalone (one who is greedy, with high status), and elderly (one facing death). 

"All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players.
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts"
of 10

"O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?" — "Romeo & Juliet"

This famous quote from Juliet is one of the most misinterpreted of all quotes from Shakespeare, mostly because modern audiences and readers don't know their Elizabethan or early Modern English very well. "Wherefore" did not mean "where" as some Juliets have interpreted it (with the actress leaning over a balcony as if searching for her Romeo). The word "wherefore" means "why" in early Modern English." So she wasn't looking for Romeo. Juliet was actually lamenting about her beloved's name and that he was among her family's sworn enemies.

of 10

"Now is the winter of our discontent..." — "Richard III"

The play begins with Richard (called "Gloucester" in the text) standing in "a street," describing the accession to the throne of his brother, King Edward IV of England, eldest son of the late Richard, Duke of York.​

"Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour'd upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried."

"Sun of York" is a punning reference to the badge of the "blazing sun," which Edward IV adopted, and "son of York," i.e., the son of the Duke of York.

of 10

"Is this a dagger which I see before me..." — "Macbeth"

The famous "dagger speech" is spoken by Macbeth as his mind is being torn apart with thoughts as to whether he should murder King Duncan, on his way to do the deed. 

"Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.
Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
To feeling as to sight? Or art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation,
Proceeding from the heat-oppressèd brain?
I see thee yet, in form as palpable
As this which now I draw."
of 10

"Be not afraid of greatness..." — "Twelfth Night"

"Be not afraid of greatness. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon 'em."

In these lines from the comedy "Twelfth Night," Malvolio reads a letter that is part of a prank played upon him. He lets his ego get the best of him and follows the ridiculous instructions in the letter, in the comic plotline of the play. 

of 10

"If you prick us, do we not bleed?" — "The Merchant of Venice"

"If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?"

In these lines, Shylock speaks of the commonality between peoples, here between the minority Jewish population and majority Christian population. Instead of celebrating the good that unifies peoples, the twist is that any group can be as hurt or as vengeful as the next.

of 10

"The course of true love never did run smooth." — "A Midsummer Night's Dream"

Shakespeare's romantic plays typically have obstacles for the lovers to go through before reaching a happy ending. In an exaggerated understatement, Lysander speaks these lines to his love, Hermia. Her father doesn't want her to marry Lysander and has given her the choice of marrying another man whom he prefers, being banished to a nunnery, or dying. Fortunately, this play is a comedy. 

of 10

"If music be the food of love, play on." — "Twelfth Night"

The brooding Duke Orsino opens "Twelfth Night" with these words. He is melancholy over unrequited love and his solution is to drown his sorrows with other things: 

"If music be the food of love, play on.
Give me excess of it that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die."
of 10

"Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" — "Sonnet 18"

"Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate."

These lines are among the most famous lines of poetry and of Shakespeare's 154 sonnets. The person (the "fair youth") to whom Shakespeare was writing is unknown.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Jamieson, Lee. "10 of the Most Famous Shakespeare Quotes." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/famous-shakespeare-quotes-4159800. Jamieson, Lee. (2020, August 27). 10 of the Most Famous Shakespeare Quotes. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/famous-shakespeare-quotes-4159800 Jamieson, Lee. "10 of the Most Famous Shakespeare Quotes." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/famous-shakespeare-quotes-4159800 (accessed April 2, 2023).