10 Life Lessons Shakespeare Taught Us

There’s a reason why Shakespeare has gone down in history as one of the greatest writers and playwrights to have ever lived: and it doesn’t necessarily have to do with his legendary plots and characters (although, bless). In truth, his sonnets, plays, and even quotes are actually the fatherly advice we often seek for in life. Stuff that actually makes us step back and think, ‘wow, I can really relate to this’, or ‘this something I’ve learned the hard way,’ (bet you can’t compare that to a lot of other 16th century thought).

So we figured it would be apropos to collect that food for thought from some of the Bard’s greatest quotes, to give you a little step-by-step Shakespearean guide to some tough life lessons that we all are still learning.

1. “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” = Stop Overthinking

Hamlet, Act II, Scene II

So our tragic-hero Hamlet says this while speaking to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (say their names five times fast, I dare you) about one of his many plots to avenge his father’s death, and boy, was he onto something. It’s completely true if you think about it. How many times have you gone over a scenario in your head, thinking about the best and worst possible outcomes? If you’re anything like us, we’d guess A TON, which is completely normal and natural. But, Hamlet Jr. makes a good case here, if we think too much about something, it suddenly sets our expectations way too high or way too low. And as it turns out, it’s sometimes better to just let things happen. Overthinking is going to do nothing but drive you crazy, and no one wants go down Ophelia’s path of flowers.

2. “Wisely and slow, they stumble that run fast” = Believe It or Not, Slow and Steady Will Always Win The Race

Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene III

I like to call this lesson a motto for life: its okay to feel like you’re behind a little bit, in fact, it’s even better. Whether it’s fighting to hit that next hundred Instagram followers, or graduating college without your dream job in hand, just remember that slow and steady really does win the race in the end. Of course, that doesn’t mean you should wait for opportunities to just magically appear to you, it just means that sometimes taking the time to think about decisions as big as careers or as small as Instagram posts is totally okay, and will bring you further ahead than you think. Our society is obsessed with a fast-paced lifestyle with the constant bombardment of Snaps and Instagrams and Tweets, and sometimes, this isn’t the best thing. This lifestyle encourages the opposite of what we really want, by taking away quality and putting an emphasis on quantity, and quantity only. It’s important to step back and remind yourself: Rome wasn’t built in a day, and Shakespeare sure as hell didn’t write his work in a 24-hour news cycle.

3. “But love is blind, and lovers cannot see,”= Love blinds you in both good ways and bad ways

Merchant of Venice, Act II, Scene VI

Ah, Jessica says this to her forbidden lover Lorenzo in The Merchant of Venice. Luckily, they had a happily ever after, but Shakespeare’s hinting to a bit more in this quote then presumed. Directly from its context, Jessica is talking about the fact that although her love is forbidden due to her Jewish race, she is choosing to look past it and run away with Lorenzo. This is how love blinds one in the best way: loving someone for who they truly are no matter their gender, sexuality or race. But the subliminal message we also learn from this quote is that love can also blind you in a not so good way, hypnotizing you to look past red flags that are maybe not so peachy-keen. This is an excellent reminder to keep our wits about us, as blinding as love or lust can potentially be.

4. “Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind,” = You can’t trust everyone

Hamlet, Act III, Scene I

Ugh, we miss this Ophelia, the one who called Hamlet out on his B.S before he ultimately drove her mad. This quote teaches us something that we think every person will go through in their lives: realizing a friend is untrustworthy. Yeah, they may have gotten you Beyoncé’s new Ivy Park leggings set for your birthday, or they may have surprised you with those Adele concert tickets, but at the end of the day, their attitude towards you speaks more volumes than any dollar could ever buy. Shakespeare is reminding us here that sure, money can get you the glitz and glamour and fabulous Instagrams, but money can’t buy you a friend to be with on a day you have to go to get blood drawn.

5. “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?” = Everyone is a human being and should be treated as such

Merchant of Venice, Act III, Scene I

This is a quote we cannot emphasize enough. Shakespeare’s Shylock says this while in court defending his Jewish race. Even though the guy was a little off his rocker (you know, since he wanted Antonio’s POUND OF FLESH), the court basically decided to force him to convert to Christianity in the end, because that’s what they apparently did back then and thought it was okay. Point being, the fact that Shylock even had to defend himself arguing that he’s a human too is absolutely astounding. Certainly, we can see this as an issue in the 16th century, but it’s even more astounding that this quote can continue to be relevant today on a national and global scale.

6. “The Miserable Have no other Medicine but Hope,” = Having Hope and Faith That Everything is going to be okay is vital

Measure for Measure, Act III, Scene I

Although this quote seems to pertain to only “the miserable,” we like to think it means, “when one is upset, or miserable.” And Shakespeare is correct here, that the only way to cure oneself of something bad that happens is to have hope that it will be better. And spoiler alert: it will get better, and better. Life isn’t just about going through the mundane cycle, it’s about having achieving little goals here and there, and having faith that your existence and place on this earth means something.

7. “The Devil Can Cite Scripture For his purpose” = People are manipulative, unfortunately

Merchant of Venice, Act I, Scene III

Going along with that untrustworthy friend you might come across is also the possibility of getting manipulated by people. Again, we encourage you take this quote with a grain of salt — we certainly think Shakespeare isn’t calling people “the devil!!” but frankly, it rings kind of true sometimes in hurtful words and actions. What’s worse, you may not even recognize that those words or actions are hurtful, because that’s how manipulative people can be. Shakespeare reminds us here to be cautious in who we place our trust in, because we don’t always know what their motives are.

8. “Look Like An Innocent Flower, but be the serpent under ‘t” = Sometimes It’s Okay to be Selfish

Macbeth, Act I, Scene 5

We know this one completely appears to contradict the one above it, but stay with us here for a second. Of course, this quote was said by the dame of murder herself, Lady Macbeth, telling her husband to hide his ambition from the court of Scotland so no one will accuse him of killing Duncan and attempting to steal the throne. While Shakespeare definitely illustrates how god-awful it is to be over zealous and selfish (I mean, do you even KNOW how many people died in Macbeth?! There were like 9, 10 deaths) in the entire play, this quote does stick out because it reminds us that sometimes we should be a little selfish (definitely not anywhere close to Macbeth level, though, please). It reminds us to be sure of what we want, and be careful about how we go about wanting it. Being a little selfish can actually make us wiser in the long run.

9.”To mourn a mischief that’s past and gone, is the next way to bring new mischief on, What cannot be preserved when fortune takes, patience her injury a mockery makes, the Robbed that smiles steals something from the thief, he robs himself that spends a bootless grief” = Letting Go Is The Only Way To Move On

Othello, Act I, Scene III

We understand if you have to read this one a few times, the rhyming is sure fun (kudos to Shakes in that case), but it definitely takes a little high-school close reading to get to the bottom of its message. Basically, the Duke is giving Brabantio some great advice here: the only way to get on with your life, is to let go of things. If you’re mourning over something that happened a while ago, it’s never going to go away, if you can’t change fortune, you only make it worse by complaining about it, and if you can smile about being robbed (not sure if Shakespeare would have this same opinion today if it was his iPhone), you in turn, actually steal something from the thief. Point being, life is about letting go of unpleasant things that happen.

10. “Nothing will come of nothing”= In Order to be successful, do something about it

King Lear, Act I, Scene I

Although this quote comes from a scolding (and kind of weird) moment where Lear reprimands his daughter Cordelia for not being able to say she loves him, it rings very true to just about anything in life, that doesn’t have anything to do with creepy Lear. It’s as simple as it is: nothing will come of nothing. If you don’t try things, work hard, or take risks, no success (or even failure!) will come your way. Our human purpose here is to take action and do things– this is absolutely vital to living a full life, and we have Shakespeare to thank for this reminder.

Alanna Martine Kilkeary

Contributing Editor, Fordham University Graduate Major: English, Fashion Studies Her heart belongs to: The chaos of Manhattan and the musings of Sir William Shakespeare You can find her: Sketching at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or making her way into every NYFW show... Take her away to: The Swiss Alps, a Wes Anderson Universe, the Valley of the Kings, and Outer Space

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