10 of the Most Famous Shakespeare Quotes

One of the First Editions of Shakespeare's Works
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. After all, his words have survived for more than 400 years.

Shakespeare's plays and sonnets are some of the most quoted, and picking the top 10 famous Shakespeare quotes is no easy task. Here are a few that stand out, whether for the poetic elegance with which they ponder love or their sparing take on anguish. 

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

Hamlet ponders life and death in one of the most famous passages in literature: 

"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?"
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"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 Jaques. The speech compares the world to a stage and life to a play and 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"
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"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 don't know their middle 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." So she wasn't looking for Romeo. Juliet was actually lamenting why her beloved was among her family's sworn enemies.

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"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.

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

"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."

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. 

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"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, 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 it, in the comic plotline of the play. 

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"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 minority Jewish and majority Christian. Instead of celebrating what unifies peoples, the twist is that any group can be as evil as the next.

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

Shakespeare's romantic plays have obstacles for the lovers to go through before reaching a happy ending. In the understatement of the year, 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 whom he wants her to, be banished to a nunnery, or die. Fortunately, this play is a comedy. 

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

The brooding Duke Orsino opens Twelfth Night with these words, melancholy over unrequited love. His solution will be drowning 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."
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"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 lost to time.