English is a metaphorical language where it would be almost impossible to have a conversation without using metaphors. When we’re very cold we many say that we’re freezing, when hot, that we’re boiling, when hungry that we’re starving. We may say that we’ve been battling against a neighbour for weeks, that we’re chasing after a solution, that we’re dying to know who won a match, that our parents pounce on us when we do something wrong. When someone talks nonsense we say they babble, when something starts to happen we say it’s taking off, when something has ended we say it’s dead.
All of those things are normal, everyday utterances in English speaking and as soon as children begin talking they start using metaphors. Without them our language would be poverty-stricken and severely limited.
One of the things we have to thank Shakespeare for is the extent to which he enriched the English language. So many of our everyday expressions are metaphors first used by Shakespeare. Can you describe trying to find a solution or an answer to a problem that is likely to prove fruitless, rendering all your efforts a waste of time? Why not just say that it’s a wild goose chase? That phrase was first used in Romeo and Juliet. How would you talk about someone whose health or behaviour or financial situation has declined? What about saying that he has seen better days, from As You Like It? Or that something seems that it will last forever expressed as forever and a day, also from As You Like It? Or about someone whose departure is welcomed, as good riddance, from Troilus and Cressida.
Shakespeare’s texts are mainly written in verse, and are almost completely metaphorical, as is his prose. Here is a selection of twenty of his best metaphors:
- But, look, the morn, in russet mantle clad,
Walks o’er the dew of yon high eastern hill – Hamlet
- “Look, love, what envious streaks
Do lace the severing clouds in yonder East:
Night’s candles are burnt out, and jocund day
Stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops – Romeo and Juliet
- His face is all carbuncles, and whelks, and knobs, and flames of fire; and his lips plows at his nose, and it is like a coal of fire, sometimes blue, and sometimes red; but his nose is executed, and his fire is out. – Henry V
- Thou sure and firm-set earth,
Hear not my steps, which way they walk, for fear
The very stones prate of my whereabout,
And take the present horror from the time,
Which now suits with it. – Macbeth
- For his bounty,
There was no Winter in’t; an Autumn ’twas
That grew the more by reaping: his delights
Were dolphin-like; they show’d his back above
The element they liv’d in: in his livery
Walk’d crowns and crownets – Antony and Cleopatra
- Death, that hath suck’d the honey of thy breath,
Hath had no power yet upon thy beauty:
Thou art not conquer’d; beauty’s ensign yet
Is crimson in thy lips and in thy cheeks,
And death’s pale flag is not advancèd there.
Why art thou yet so fair? shall I believe
That unsubstantial Death is amorous;
And that the lean abhorrèd monster keeps
Thee here in dark to be his paramour? – Romeo and Juliet
- O, then th’ Earth shook to see the heavens on fire,
And not in fear of your nativity.
Diseasèd Nature oftentimes breaks forth
In strange eruptions; oft the teeming Earth
Is with a kind of cholic pinch’d and vex’d
By the imprisoning of unruly wind
Within her womb; which, for enlargement striving,
Shakes the old beldame Earth, and topples down
Steeples and moss-grown towers. At your birth,
Our grandam Earth, having this distemperature,
In passion shook – Henry IV Part 1
- Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of Hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor Heaven peep through the blanket of the dark,
To cry Hold, hold! – Macbeth
- Heaven’s cherubin, hors’d
Upon the sightless couriers of the air,
Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye,
That tears shall drown the wind. – Macbeth
- It is suppos’d,
He that meets Hector issues from our choice:
And choice, being mutual act of all our souls,
Makes merit her election; and doth boil,
As ’twere from forth us all, a man distill’d
Out of our virtues. – Troilus and Cressida
- 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. – Hamlet
- O thou day o’ the world,
Chain mine arm’d neck; leap thou, attire and all,
Through proof of harness to my heart, and there
Ride on the pants triúmphing! – Antony and Cleopatra
Shakespeare is at his best with the extended metaphor, which begins with an idea, expressed as a metaphor, which is explored and developed with more metaphors. Look at this example from Richard II, in which John of Gaunt makes a patriotic speech, praising England.
- This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm this England….
This is about as good as Shakespeare’s use of metaphors gets. He piles on the metaphors. England is a throne; a monarch holding a sceptre; the headquarters of the god of war; the Garden of Eden; a fortress with the Channel being a moat; a whole world, a precious stone. The speech goes on with further metaphors developing the idea of England as a place that only superlatives can describe.
Here are more extended metaphors:
- 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,
His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans taste, sans eyes, sans everything. – As you Like It
- I wasted time, and now doth time waste me;
For now hath time made me his numbering clock:
My thoughts are minutes; and with sighs they jar
Their watches on unto mine eyes, the outward watch,
Whereto my finger, like a dial’s point,
Is pointing still, in cleansing them from tears.
Now sir, the sound that tells what hour it is
Are clamorous groans, which strike upon my heart,
Which is the bell: so sighs and tears and groans
Show minutes, times, and hours. – Richard II
- Like to the Pontic sea,
Whose icy current and compulsive course
Ne’er feels retiring ebb, but keeps due on
To the Propontic and the Hellespont,
Even so my bloody thoughts, with violent pace,
Shall ne’er look back, ne’er ebb to humble love,
Till that a capable and wide revenge
Swallow them up – Othello
- But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?
It is the East, and Juliet is the sun!
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief
That thou her maid art far more fair than she.
Be not her maid, since she is envious.
Her vestal livery is but sick and green,
And none but fools do wear it. – Romeo and Juliet
In Sonnet 18 the poet compares his lover to a summers day.
- Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date;
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
In Sonnet 73 the poet, contemplating old age, compares himself to winter.
- That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west;
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed, whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well, which thou must leave ere long.
Shakespeare’s wonderful Sonnet 130 concludes this collection. In this poem he makes fun of the way poets use metaphors to praise their mistresses.
- My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red, than her lips red:
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound:
I grant I never saw a goddess go,
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet by heaven, I think my love as rare,
As any she belied with false compare.