Life Lessons From Shakespeare

by WiseFool

Shakespeare gave us some wise words to live by. Here are just a few of his most inspirational quotes.

People find inspiration and motivation from a number of sources: nature, religion, music. One of the most effective balms for my soul is literature, in particular the work of William Shakespeare. You might have heard of him.

I know that there are many people who would rather crawl over barbed wire than read Shakespeare, but there are many, many others who feel the way I do about the Bard. Quite simply, he was one of the finest literary minds the world has ever known.

He seemed to understand the human condition; the powerful and, sometimes, painful emotions that we all experience. And, more importantly, he was able to express those emotions in some of the most beautiful phrases that exist in the English language.

So, without further ado (you see what I did there?), here are some life lessons from the great man himself, Shakespeare.

Love Comforteth Like Sunshine After Rain

Taken from Shakespeare's poem 'Venus and Adonis', the full quote reads,

"Love comforteth like sunshine after rain,
But Lust's effect is tempest after sun;
Love's gentle spring doth always fresh remain,
Lust's winter comes ere summer half be done;
Love surfeits not, Lust like a glutton dies;
Love is all truth, Lust full of forged lies."

Reminding us of the difference between love and lust, Shakespeare points out that lust (that first rush of hormone-crazed emotion) is transitory. True love, on the other hand, provides a calming and everlasting comfort. The first might be more exciting, but the second is infinitely more soothing to the soul.

All That Glitters is Not Gold

Sometimes written, "all that glisters...", this quote comes from The Merchant of Venice. But the concept of the proverb was not quite coined by Shakespeare.

Nevertheless, the lesson is powerful: be mindful of things that seem flashy and/or expensive on the outside, because, in reality that thing might be worthless.

And, let's face it, those words of wisdom are just as pertinent in regard to people as they are to material things. 

It is Not Enough to Speak, But to Speak True

In the final scene of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Lysander says to Thesues, "A good moral, my lord: it is not enough to speak, but to speak true" as the pair mock Quince's dire, rambling and nonsensical prologue to The Mechanicals' performance of 'Pyramus and Thisbe'. 

The lesson to be learned here is: don't just talk for the sake of talking. It is far better to be concise and truthful.

Never Shame to Hear What You Have Nobly Done

Coriolanus is one of Shakespeare's lesser known plays, but was recently transformed for film by Ralph Fiennes.

And from it comes this pearl of wisdom, which tells us, essentially, to have the courage of our convictions.

In other words, if you have done something with the right motives, then you have nothing to be ashamed of.   

'Tis One Thing to be Tempted, Another Thing to Fall

In the context of the play (Measure for Measure), this line is incredibly ironic, because the speaker, Angelo, is about to find himself tempted and falling quicker than you can say, 'It's another thing to fall'.

Nevertheless, out of its context, the line reminds us that temptation, in of itself, isn't wrong; it's universal, we are all tempted (whether that's tempted by chocolate when we're on a diet or tempted by the attractiveness of someone who isn't our spouse, etc.) 

Temptation isn't anything to be ashamed of - giving into that temptation, however, is something else entirely.

This Above All, to Thine Own Self be True

Along with 'to be or not to be?', this is arguably one of the most famous lines from Hamlet. It's lesson is a fairly simple one: no matter what you do, be truthful with yourself, because as Hamlet's dialogue goes onto explain, "it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man."

What Shakespeare's telling us is, if we are honest with ourselves, we are less likely to be dishonest with other people. Lie to yourself, and you'll almost certainly lie to others.

The Fool Doth Think He is Wise, But The Wise Man Knows Himself to be a Fool

This is one of my favorite Shakespearean quotes, was the inspiration for my username and is, I think, one of the very best life lessons Shakespeare offers. 

From As You Like It and spoken by Touchstone, a fool (as with most Shakespearean fools, he speaks exceedingly good sense), the quote reminds us of the folly that comes with thinking too highly of ourselves, specifically of our intelligence, but it can also easily be applied to other aspects of life.

The Fault is Not in The Stars, But in Ourselves

Cassius, in Julius Caesar, is trying to shake Brutus out of his belief that destiny is a thing already determined. He convinces Brutus to seize an opportunity to alter the path of his life, much as the witches do for Macbeth. Of course, it doesn't end well for Macbeth, nor does it end well for Brutus (not to mention poor Caesar, who is stabbed in the back both literally and figuratively).

However, Shakespeare's life lesson is still a valuable one. He tells us that we can rail against the world for our misfortune, or we can accept that 'the stars' have nothing to do with our lives and take responsibility for our own destiny.

Love Sought is Good, But Given Unsought is Better

Spoken by Olivia in Twelfth Night, the countess is trying to woo the cross-dressing Viola. The quote simply means that to seek love is fine and dandy, but to receive it without looking for it is even better.

Of course, she's using this to argue that Viola (disguised as Cesario) should be thrilled by her advances even though she (he) did not ask for Olivia's affections. But it still holds true that to be loved without having to coax that affection from someone is far better than vice versa. 

Everyone Can Master a Grief But He That Has It

It's easy to look at someone who is distressed and wonder why can't they just snap out of it. Only, when we're faced with a grief ourselves, it ain't quite so easy, is it?

I think, as life lessons go, this one, from Much Ado About Nothing, is essential to keep in mind both when we are grieving something and when we encounter someone else who is grieving. If a friend has just been dumped, for example, it's easy to lay the cliches on thick - but know that no amount of common sense will be of help.

How Many Fond Fools Serve Mad Jealousy!

As mentioned elsewhere, there are often wise words to be found in Shakespeare's comedies and this is a fine example. The quote comes from The Comedy of Errors and is spoken by Luciana after listening to the jealous ramblings of her sister, Adriana.

And, let's face it, she's got a point. Jealousy, admittedly a difficult emotion to ignore, only harms those who feel it and it can turn them quite mad, as we known only too well from Othello

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The Empty Vessel Makes The Greatest Sound

Very much in the vein of "it is not enough to speak, but to speak true," this quote from Shakespeare's Henry V implies the louder something is expressed, the more likely it is to be hollow: this can be used in reference to shows of bravery, or professions of love or honesty.

It's a conviction Shakespeare alludes to again in Hamlet when Gertrude says, "The lady doth protest too much, methinks."

Love is Not Love Which Alters When it Alteration Finds

Taken from one of Shakespeare's finest sonnets (116: Let me not to the marriage of true minds), this quote examines the nature of love; true love, the everlasting kind that is spoken of when people vow to stick together in 'sickness and in health'.

"...Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken."

This vision of love is one that we probably all search for. And, in terms of this being read as a life lesson from Shakespeare, I think we should remember not only that this is the way to express our love, but also that we should not settle for a 'love' that is less than this. 

Updated: 02/25/2013, WiseFool
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Do You Have a Favorite Shakespearean Life Lesson Not Included Above?

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AngelaJohnson on 04/26/2013

I have never read Shakespeare, although I know the story lines of many of his writings. I've also heard many of these quotes, but didn't realize some of them belonged to Shakespeare.

WiseFool on 02/27/2013

Thank you very much, Mira. I agree, that's a very cute mug. I think designing something else along those lines would be a great idea!

Mira on 02/27/2013

I really enjoyed your article. Those were some great quotes and thoughts. :) Oh, and I love that "Shakespearean love mug." I'm thinking I may make another one like it when I have the time :). Great post!

WiseFool on 02/27/2013

Thanks, Abby. If you find the thought of reading Shakespeare a little unappealing, I highly recommend watching instead. Any of the Kenneth Branagh film versions are worth a look. I always think it's wise to remember they're plays, which were never really meant to be read. Don't get me wrong, I like reading them too, but it's certainly not how Shakespeare envisaged us enjoying them.

AbbyFitz on 02/26/2013

Very inspirational! I am ashamed to say I have only read the taming of the shrew, and that was as a teenager. I need to try out Shakespeare again.

WiseFool on 02/26/2013

Thanks, Katie! Glad to hear that you enjoy Shakespeare's work, too.

katiem2 on 02/26/2013

You've covered the vital lessons learned by Shakespeare. I've always enjoyed Shakespeare a great deal. I have the complete works of Shakespeare. I love theater and the plays are fabulous. :)K

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