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Quotations #19:  The Bard
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Quotations from William Shakespeare [1564-1616]

(264 entries, updated October, 2007)

With the exception of the Bible (which had a lengthy head start), Shakespeare's canon of works is doubtless the most quoted in all of western literature. It is certainly the most quoted body of work from a single author. It is also, of course, the most frequently parodied, 'altered', and used out of context.

When you look at his works as a whole, rather than at the course of a single play, you are amazed by both the number and quality of aphorisms (expressions of wisdom) he is credited with creating ("The better part of valor is discretion", "We have seen better days"), and by the depth of his wit and sarcasm ("Well said:that was laid on with a trowel","Comparisons are odorous").

The index below is in chronological order, quoting from the plays in the order in which they are believed to have been written. Quotes are arranged alphabetically by the name of the play, then by Act, Scene, and line number.


From the Plays: From the Plays: (continued) From the Poems:
  • Venus and Adonis [1592]
  • The Rape of Lucrece [1593-1594]
  • Sonnets [1593-1600]
  • The Phoenix and the Turtle [1600-1601]
(Index numbers after each quotation are the Act, Scene, and Line numbers for plays, or simply the line numbers for poems)

Suggested References:

Certainly any volume of the Complete Works is a convenient thing to have. There are also complete copies online at several universities. I use the Avenel edition, ISBN 0-517-163020, (published in 1975 by Crown.) The best cross-referenced book is probably A Dictionary of Quotations from Shakespeare by Miner and Rawson, ISBN 0-525-93451-0, (published in 1992 by Dutton), with over 3,000 passages from the plays and poems.

Bartlett's Familiar Quotations (I use the 13th edition, published by Little, Brown & Co. in 1955) devotes 88 pages to Shakespeare. A Dictionary of Quotations by Dalbiac (published by Thomas Nelson and Sons), while less well organized, has substantial citations.

If you ever have difficulty following the ongoing action in some of the plays, Irene Buckman's Twenty Tales from Shakespeare, (published in 1963 by Methuen & Co.) gives prose narratives of selected plays with photo illustrations from London stage productions - you can see a young John Gielgud, Peggy Ashcroft, Paul Robeson, and others.

Finally, I always prefer books of individual plays to reading the fine print out of a collection, and my favorites have always been the English Classics editions edited by William Rolfe. The originals ran a whopping 40 cents per volume for the 'cloth editions' published in the 1890's by Harper & Brothers. They include the play in decently large print, a detailed introduction along with extensive notes, and plentiful engraved illustrations. These were popular in US schools 'till about midcentury, and are frequently found at a decent used book store.

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