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The Best Quotes from Shakespeare Tragedies

Sophie Thomas
Sophie Thomas

William Shakespeare is perhaps the greatest British playwright of all time. Having written dozens of plays, his unique way with words has infiltrated through to the present day; phrases such as "vanish into thin air" and "wild goose chase" originate from Shakespeare plays.

Works by Shakespeare can be divided into three categories: comedies, histories, and tragedies. Plays such as Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth fall into the tragedy section, with deaths a common ending. Here's some of the best and most recognisable quotes from Shakespeare tragedies.

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Antony and Cleopatra

"My salad days, when I was green in judgement, cold in blood."
Antony and Cleopatra, Act 1, Scene 5

Yes, Cleopatra is likening herself to a salad dish. She's not directly calling herself a lettuce leaf, but she's suggesting that her younger years are like a salad; the amuse bouche before a glorious main course. Cleopatra's salad days are her youthful time, before she would go on to make substantial, life-altering decisions. Even Queen Elizabeth II has used the phrase "salad days" to describe her early reign. Do you think Cleopatra would be a caesar salad?

"I am dying, Egypt, dying."
Antony and Cleopatra, Act 4, Scene 15

In this section, Antony is literally dying, pleading with Cleopatra to listen to his final wishes before he passes away, dying in her arms. Their tumultuous relationship has been tested throughout, but even though Antony fears Cleopatra has betrayed him, their deaths ensure they remain together in the afterlife.

Coriolanus

"Nature teaches beasts to know their friends."
Coriolanus, Act 2, Scene 1

How do we know who to trust? Is it ma-nmade or natural instinct? In the wild, animals know which creatures to trust, so people should easily be able to apply this logic to forming alliances. Unfortunately, it's not this easy to do so, but this Coriolanus quote suggests individuals should trust their own gut instincts.

Hamlet

"This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man."
Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 3

If you're looking for guidance, Polonius shares this nugget of counsel in Hamlet. When wishing his son Laertes off, he wills him to always make decisions that are true to his beliefs, rather than being led astray by anyone else. It's clear, concise, and great advice.

"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: to die, to sleep."
Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1

Arguably one of Shakespeare's most recognisable soliloquies, this Hamlet monologue sees the title prince contemplating life or death. Opening Act 3, Hamlet ponders over the futility of life, likening death to sleeping. But, sleeping is an act which you can wake from, whereas death is a finite ending. Life may not be all that it seems, but death could be worse. It's in the unknown that questions arise and he speaks to himself. Today, "to be or not to be" is used as a phrase structure, with verbs replaced to reflect individual decision making.

"Alas, poor Yorick!"
Hamlet, Act 5, Scene 1

Growing up, Hamlet found the court jester Yorick entertaining; a source of light relief. So, when he looks at Yorick's skull in a graveyard, he's taken aback. But, having grown up, Hamlet can contemplate the meaning of life in a mature manner. We've taken the opening line from this soliloquy, in which Hamlet speaks of how a person's body and spirit will eventually end.

Julius Caesar

"Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once."
Julius Caesar, Act 2, Scene 2

In this quote, Julius Caesar states his thought that cowardice is weak, yet deadly. Consciously choosing to shy away is a figurative death waiting to happen, as the inability to make a decision chips away at your character. Instead, you need to in Caesar's words be valiant, commandeering in the face of adversity.

""Et tu, Brute?"
Julius Caesar, Act 3, Scene 1

Moments before Caesar's assassination, the Roman dictator looks in the eyes of one of his killers, Marcus Junius Brutus. This three word quotation isn't a throwaway question though. It's an indication that Caesar feels betrayed, lost by those he called acquaintances.

"Et tu, Brute?" features in multiple Shakespeare plays, including Henry VI. But, for its historical resonance, this line carries extra power in Julius Caesar.

King Lear

"Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise."
King Lear, Act 1, Scene 5

With King Lear aging, the Fool remarks on the King's mental state. According to the Fool, you can't grow old until you've gained a respected wisdom. The King replies by saying his ill-fated wish to remain sane, keeping madness at bay.

"When thou dost ask me blessing, I'll kneel down and ask of thee forgiveness."
King Lear, Act 5, Scene 3

Knowing of his mistakes and approaching death, King Lear looks for a blissful end to his life. Asking for forgiveness, he dreams of a happy afterlife, one that's rooted in joy.

Macbeth

"Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee!"
Macbeth, Act 2, Scene 1

Hallucinating a weapon in front of him, Macbeth asks himself whether he could use the dagger for selfish gain in this famous solioloquy. Brought into a force of darkness, Macbeth imagines holding this dagger, a powerful weapon which he could use to inflict fatal damage to King Duncan. Almost convincing himself to go through with his thoughts, this soliloquy reinforces just how powerful the senses are in Macbeth.

"Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble."
Macbeth, Act 4, Scene 1

The three witches utter this line multiple times throughout the play, so much so it's now become iconic in popular culture. Whenever this line is said, it's an allegory for evil, hiding the idea that life will get worse for humans. Something wicked this way comes!

"Out, damned spot! out, I say!"
Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 1

Throughout the play, Lady Macbeth's fearless decision making grows. But, in the final moments, as this quote suggests, she begins to show remorse for her actions. Disgusted by her own choices, she's now a broken woman, trying to wash the blood of sins off of her.

Othello

"O, beware, my lord, of jealousy! It is the green-eyed monster, which doth mock The meat it feeds on."
Othello, Act 3, Scene 3

Thanks to this Shakespeare quote, jealousy has now been personified as a green-eyed monster, an envious being that's seen as a part of someone rather than their whole identity. According to Iago, everyone should be wary of jealousy — being so consumed in someone else's behaviour can be dangerous.

Romeo and Juliet

"Good night, good night! parting is such sweet sorrow That I shall say good night till it be morrow."
Romeo and Juliet, Act 2, Scene 2

With Romeo and Juliet forced apart by their feuding families, the pair have to meet up in secret. So, as Juliet wishes her lover goodbye, she can't wait to see him once more. But, this happiness is tinged with betrayal, bittersweet in that she's going against her family wishes.

"O true apothecary! Thy drugs are quick. Thus with a kiss I die."
Romeo and Juliet, Act 5, Scene 3

Romeo and Juliet dying isn't much of a spoiler. But, their unrequited love to one another lasts to the very end. In fact, Romeo uses the drugs to poison himself in order to join Juliet in the afterlife. Or so he thinks.

When Juliet wakes up to see a dead Romeo, she cannot continue, choosing to kill herself with a dagger.

Titus Andronicus

Vengeance is in my heart, death in my hand, Blood and revenge are hammering in my head.
Titus Andronicus, Act 2, Scene 3

Plotting his next steps, Aaron is so consumed by his desire to kill in Titus Andronicus that he can't think of anything else to do. All he seeks is the blood of his enemies, wanting to convince others to join him. 

Photo credit: Trees in a forest (Photo by Hugo Clément on Unsplash)

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