To ‘wear your heart on your sleeves’ seems is a very strange thing to say and, on the literal level, it makes no sense. And yet, ‘wear your heart on your sleeve’ it is one of the most expressive of English idioms, and one that is commonly used today.
Meaning of ‘heart on my sleeve’:
What is Shakespeare referring to when using this unusual phrase? Why the sleeve?
Long before Shakespeare, the heart was a symbol of several related things. Although just an organ that pumps blood through your body during the whole of your life, it was once thought to be the seat of human emotions.
It is a symbol of love, romance, courage, and, generally, of any emotion. It is one of the most frequently used symbols used by poets to express any or all of those things, and the image of the heart is everywhere. So to wear that symbol of the emotions on one’s sleeve is to expose one’s emotions for everyone to see, instead of keeping them concealed.
But why the sleeve? If it’s used as a badge or a brooch wouldn’t it be more usual and fitting to wear it on the front of the garment?
Shakespeare used the sleeve in the original expression of the idea and so it has become the form of words that make up the modern idiom, just as is always the case with Shakespeare.
Origins of the phrase ‘heart on my sleeve’:
Shakespeare’s most likely source for ‘wear heart on sleeve’ is one of the traditions of the medieval sport of jousting.
When a knight took part in a jousting tournament it was customary to dedicate his performance to a particular lady. He would become her ‘champion’ (which is where the word originated). He would ride up to where she was sitting in the spectator area and she would give him a personal item, usually a scarf, which he would tie around his arm. Choosing that lady would be a message to her about his feelings about her and so, as he went into the list (the ropes off jousting area), perhaps to die there, he would be defending her honour and publicly demonstrating his romantic intentions – wearing his heart on his sleeve.
So when we go around proclaiming our romantic feelings about someone, or indeed any emotion, we are wearing our heart on our sleeve like the knight in the jousting tournament.
Shakespearean context of ‘heart on my sleeve’:
In Othello one of his most destructive and sociopathic villains, Iago, teaches us how to be a villain by confiding in us, and sometimes in his sidekick, Roderigo, revealing his tactics to us while hiding them from the other characters.
In this extract (Othello, Act 1, Scene 1, 56–65) he says:
‘It is as sure as you are Roderigo,
Were I the Moor, I would not be Iago.
In following him, I follow but myself;
Heaven is my judge, not I for love and duty,
But seeming so, for my peculiar end;
For when my outward action doth demonstrate
The native act and figure of my heart
In compliment extern, ’tis not long after
But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve
For daws to peck at. I am not what I am.’
Iago is confessing to treacherous acts and saying that by wearing his heart upon his sleeve, or truly exposing himself, opening himself up, he would be inviting crows to peck away at him. So he will keep his true emotions and intentions hidden.