Shakespeare Speaks

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Explore the English language through the phrases, plays and personality of William Shakespeare.

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Shakespeare Speaks is a brand new series of 20 animated shorts, each looking at a popular English phrase or expression, as coined by William Shakespeare yet still very much used today. The English language is brought to life, explained and practised by The Bard himself with the help of a cast of imagined characters including his actor friends and ditzy daughter. Modern day examples and celebrity quotes are showed alongside snippets from plays such as The Merchant of Venice, Othello, Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet as well as interesting information about Shakespeare's life and times. 

Watch the episodes | Discover Shakespeare's language

Each episode explains the meaning and use of a well-known modern English expression that appeared in Shakespeare’s work, such as: "The world’s mine oyster", "A tower of strength", "In a pickle" and "All that glisters is not gold". For non-native speakers of English, the series is particularly suitable for learners of English at intermediate level (CEF B1) and above.

Learning and teaching English as a second language - click to see more

What do these famous people have in common with William Shakespeare? Thierry Henry, Bob Marley, Liam Hemsworth. Copyrighted image Copyright: BBC Learning English Shakespeare Speaks is produced by BBC Learning English in partnership with The Open University, with a new episode made available every Friday for 20 weeks. Supplementary quizzes, games and activities that reinforce the educational aspect of the materials are provided on the BBC Learning English website, and OpenLearn will have exclusive additional content and behind the scenes video. Social media conversations give the chance to practice language in action using the #ShakespeareSpeaks hashtag on TwitterFacebook, Instagram and YouTube. 

Discover Shakespeare's language

Discover Shakespeare's language

English: past

English: present

Explore Shakespeare

Cruel to be kind

When and where

Friday, 20th May 2016 15:00 -

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It was a windy November day. William Shakespeare is at the palace of King James I. He's having dinner with the King and Queen.

King James
Mr Shakespeare, have some more wine. What's this? Water? Where's my wine?!

The Queen
Now dear, you know you mustn't drink too much wine. The doctor says it's bad for your health!

King James
No wine?! Madam, you are very cruel to me. Don't you agree, Mr Shakespeare?

Your Majesty, the Queen is being cruel, only to be kind, like my character Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark.

King James
Does Hamlet take away the King's wine?

No, no, your Majesty: Hamlet says cruel and terrible things to his mother, the Queen. He's angry because she married his uncle Claudius, very soon after his father's death. Hamlet suspects that his mother, or his uncle, or both of them, killed his father, so that they could marry each other.

King James
Well! No wonder he's saying cruel things. But how is he going to be kind, I wonder? Go on, go on…

Your Majesty. Hamlet tells his mother that he said these cruel and terrible things to shock her into realising that this marriage is wrong – it's a sin. But he says she can begin to make up for the sin and be a better person if she leaves her new husband. That's why he says 'I must be cruel, only to be kind'.

Robert Harley as Hamlet
So, again, good night.
I must be cruel, only to be kind:
Thus bad begins and worse remains behind.
One word more, good lady.

We'll leave them there for now. Shakespeare's audiences loved the violence and powerful emotions in his revenge tragedies. But Hamlet is not your typical revenge character. He's a thinker who becomes a man of action. In modern English, Shakespeare's phrase is usually shortened to I must be cruel to be kind. Or justcruel to be kind. People say it when they do something unkind that will actually benefit someone. It's the title of a song in the American movie 10 Things I Hate About You.

Clip 1
Cruel to be kind, it's a very good sign
Cruel to be kind, means that I love you, baby…

Clip 2
I know I upset her when I told her to get a haircut, but it was such a mess: I had to be cruel to be kind.

King James
Tell me Mr Shakespeare, does the Queen follow Hamlet's advice?

I'm afraid not, your Majesty.

The Queen
She should have listened to him.

King James
Quite right, quite right.

The Queen
And you should listen to me dear. No more wine!

King James 
Hmmm. To listen or not to listen, that is the question.

Episodes in this series

Episode Description
As dead as a doornail Who's dead?! Thomas Swann gets a shock... luckily, it's just a line from a play! Read more
I'll send him packing! Thomas, it's packing… I'll send him packing… Not packaged. You're not putting him in a box or parcel! Read more
All that glisters is not gold William Shakespeare’s daughter gets a shock when her finger turns green - and Will takes the opportunity to teach her... Read more
Strange bedfellows Music, magic and monsters! We learn how to use the phrase strange bedfellows from The Tempest - and lots of other... Read more
Though this be madness, yet there is method in't! Maggoty dogs and crabs walking backwards teach us about the phrase 'though this be madness, yet there is method in't'... Read more
Wild goose chase Are they chasing geese – or horses? We learn all about the phrase wild-goose chase from William Shakespeare's Romeo... Read more
What's done is done - get over it! Everyone's feeling guilty – except William Shakespeare. We show you how to use the phrase what's done is done from... Read more
The world's mine oyster Meet Queen Elizabeth, her favourite explorer and 'The Real Housewives Of Shakespeare Speaks' while you learn how to... Read more
A tower of strength What's in a name? We show you how to use the phrase a tower of strength - and bring you some useful phrases for... Read more
Spotless reputation Queen Elizabeth isn't very happy today! We show you how to use the phrase 'spotless reputation' from William... Read more
The green-eyed monster William Shakespeare and Thomas Swann are enjoying a drink - or three - in their favourite pub. While they get drunk,... Read more
In a pickle King James enjoys a bit of pickle with his dinner while he watches William Shakespeare's The Tempest. Read more
Forever and a day Everyone's in disguise in William Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew - but William's daughter isn't hiding her... Read more
Mum's the word Ssshhhh… it's a secret! It's William Shakespeare's birthday and there's a surprise in store for him. Read more
A pound of flesh King James needs to stay awake during this performance of The Merchant of Venice to find out why Shylock is talking... Read more
A fool's paradise Is Robert Harley really going to put a ring on Janet Bassett's finger? Or is Janet living in a fool's paradise? We'll... Read more
Not budge an inch William Shakespeare and actor Thomas Swann have a disagreement. Can Bess the barmaid make Thomas see sense, or will... Read more
Cruel to be kind The Queen is taking King James' wine away, but is she being cruel... or kind? Learn how to use the phrase cruel to be... Read more