6 Phrases and Idioms From the Renaissance

Polonius from 'Hamlet' doling out some advice.
Polonius from 'Hamlet' doling out some advice. / Justin Dodd (speech bubble), Culture Club/Getty Images (Polonius)

You know these sayings: They’re edgy, they’re current … just kidding. They’ve all been around for at least 400 years. Did you realize how many idioms commonly used today have their origins in Renaissance literature and culture of the 16th and 17th centuries? These trendy turns of phrase are the best things since sliced bread—and nearly half a millennium older.

1. The Face that Launched a Thousand Ships

Most people recognize this phrase as a description of the famous beauty Helen of Troy, over whom the Trojan War was fought. It was also invoked by the 1970s soft rock group Bread in the wistful love song “If.”

But some might be surprised to learn that the phrase has a demonic source. It was coined by 16th-century English playwright Christopher Marlowe, a contemporary of Shakespeare, in Doctor Faustus (c. 1592), a play about a magician who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for knowledge about occult magic. The play’s title character, Doctor Faustus, uses this line to describe a conjuring in the shape of  Helen of Troy sent by Satan to entertain him.

2. To Take Your Pound of Flesh 

This metaphor has its origin in the plot of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, in which the character of Shylock, a Jewish moneylender, invokes a clause in a contract that literally allows him to take a pound of flesh from Antonio, the merchant of the play’s title, when Antonio is unable to pay him back for a loan. Shylock’s bloodlust is bound up with the anti-Semitism the play depicts; there is an ongoing scholarly debate about whether the play itself is a “profoundly anti-Semitic work,” in the words of the late literary critic Harold Bloom (who argued that it is).

3. To Play Devil’s Advocate

Speaking of devils and the law: this idiom, meaning to perversely and deliberately argue the unpopular side of a debate or quarrel, is itself extremely popular today. But it was actually a role in the practice of 16th-century canon law. When considering a candidate for sainthood, the Catholic Church brought in a lawyer to play advocatus diabolus. This attorney’s job was to argue against the canonization by exposing the flaws in the candidate’s character.

4. Troubles Come in Threes (Or, at Least, in Multiples)

Anyone today reading or watching a production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet will recognize a version of this adage in this most unfortunate tragedy. Claudius—the king of Denmark who murdered his brother to ascend the throne—declares, when Hamlet’s love interest, Ophelia, goes mad at the murder of her father: “When sorrows come, they come not single spies / But in battalions.”

While it’s uncertain whether Shakespeare coined the phrase or merely used something already being said, it’s certainly at home in a play whose troubles encompass murder, madness, and the protagonist’s existential crisis.

5. Pie Crust Promises

“Easily made, easily broken.” This metaphor is sure to send the dulcet tones of Julie Andrews’s voice ringing through your head. But long before it was a practically perfect piece of life advice from Mary Poppins (1964), it was a complaint from an English political satire periodical: an issue of the late 17th-century Heraclitus Ridens . . . where many a true word is spoken in opposition to all libellers against the government (1681), sometimes attributed to English poet Thomas Flatman, features the line, “He makes no more of breaking Acts of Parliaments, than if they were like Promises and Pie-crust made to be broken.”

6. Be True to Yourself

This classic piece of wisdom, ironically, comes from the lips of one of the most buffoonish characters in Shakespeare’s Hamlet: Polonius, the father of Hamlet’s latterday love interest, Ophelia, gives his son, Laertes, a litany of advice when the young man departs Denmark for France, ending with the adage, “This above all: to thine own self be true.”

In its original context, coming from a long-winded character who is notorious for misunderstanding what is going on around him, this pearl of wisdom doesn’t sound perceptive. Instead, it comes across as self-important, ridiculous bluster. Ironically, Polonius’s words are often earnestly cited as sound advice today.