‘Shuffle off this mortal coil’ is a phrase from what is perhaps the most famous soliloquy in all of Shakespeare’s plays or, in fact, any Renaissance plays. It is from Hamlet’s soliloquy ‘To be or not to be.’
Millions of words of explanation and interpretation of the soliloquy have been written by scholars and critics, but it seems that there is not yet any definitive interpretation of what Shakespeare meant by the phrase ‘Mortal coil’.
On one level it’s clear that Hamlet is referring to dying. After all, that is what the soliloquy is about. Hamlet is cataloguing the tedious things about life – the things that make life unbearable, or even irritating. Why suffer all that when one could put an end to it with the simple act of suicide?
One could simply say that shuffling off this mortal coil is leaving one’s human body, the assumption being that there is a better life in the hereafter which one can gain access to by transforming oneself by shedding one’s body.
However, the word ‘coil’ has never before Shakespeare, or since Shakespeare, been a synonym for ‘body.’ It is not a matter of Shakespeare adapting a word, using it for his own purposes and then the meaning given to it by it’s catching on and becoming part of the English language. It never has caught on, and ‘coil’ doesn’t mean body today.
To gain insight into the meaning of this phrase we have to look both at dictionary definitions of the word ‘coil’ and its context in the soliloquy.
Mordern dictionaries refer mainly to a modern idea of something metallic, like a wire, that is wound tightly around something. That isn’t exactly what Shakespeare had in mind, but hold on to that image.
We may well pass the phrase over as we watch or read the soliloquy, receiving it simply as shedding one’s body, but we should remember that this is Shakespeare, and Shakespeare never set a word down without precision, always using it to express what he intended it to express, including doing some pretty deep probes. And there are usually several meanings.
‘Coil’ is an ancient word, commonly used centuries before Shakespeare, and spelt ‘coyle.’ It was a noun and referred, for want of a better way of expressing it, to a mess – a mixture of messy things such as noise, confusion, uncertainty, bustle and so on. We don’t use it like that anymore but most of Shakespeare’s audience would have received it in that way. So what we have is Hamlet talking about is how one could relieve oneself of all the messiness of life by stabbing oneself with a bodkin (a large needle used for sewing sacks of flour). ‘Coil’ now makes sense.
But there is more, of course, as there always is with Shakespeare. He could have used a different word to mean the noise and confusion of life, so why, this word, ‘coil’?
There is the strong image of a snake. When ‘coil’ is used as a verb we have the picture of one of the characteristics of snakes. They coil themselves and, indeed, some snakes coil themselves around their prey. And snakes moult and shuffle themselves out of their old skin to emerge as something brand new, and they then go ahead with a new existence.
There is also the possible image of other moulting creatures, such as butterflies being tightly encased in cocoons and emerging as new and beautiful creatures that fly gracefully away, leaving their cocoons to decay. If you watch the process you will see the shuffling movement as a butterfly emerges.
The play is full of religious images and this is one of them, relating directly to the Christian idea of eternal life after death, and expressed, as is so often the case, in terms of the nature all around Shakespeare as he grew up in Warwickshire.
So there we have a possible explanation of ‘shuffle off this mortal coil.’