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William Shakespeare

by Gordon Lamont

Suitable for Key Stage 3/4


To celebrate William Shakespeare and his powerful and varied use of words.

Preparation and materials

  • This assembly can be enlivened and added to in the following ways:
    – two students could read out the list of common phrases in Step 2 and the insults, perhaps saying them insultingly, in turn, as if arguing
    – if a class is studying a Shakespeare play, the students could prepare a short scene to show to the assembly as an illustration of Shakespeare’s use of language.
  • BBC Shakespeare Shorts has short excerpts from Shakespeare’s plays with introductions given by actors (at:


  1. Begin the assembly by saying the following.

    I’m probably going to make myself a laughing stock this morning and have you all in stitches. Perhaps my career as a teacher will be dead as a doornail – it’ll vanish into thin air and I’ll be a sorry sight. I’ll probably get myself in a pickle and might set your teeth on edge, but there’s method in my madness. All I ask is for fair play, come on: mum’s the word – don’t send me packing.

  2. Ask if anyone knows who created most of the common phrases you’ve just used. Explain that these words all come from the plays of William Shakespeare. If appropriate, give the names of the plays from which the phrases come, as follows:

    A laughing stock – The Merry Wives of Windsor
    In stitches – Twelfth Night
    Dead as a doornail – King Henry VI
    Vanish into thin air – Othello
    A sorry sight – Macbeth  
    In a pickle – The Tempest
    Set your teeth on edge – King Henry IV, Part I

    There's method in my madness – Hamlet
    Fair play – The Tempest,
    Mum's the word – King Henry VI, Part II
    Send him packing – King Henry IV, Part I.

  3. Point out that it is not known whether Shakespeare actually invented these phrases or they were already in use during his lifetime, but his plays make brilliant use of them and it is likely that he did make up some of them himself. His use of language was sparkling, surprising and dramatic, as illustrated by the insults his characters threw at each other:

    ‘Thou art like a toad; ugly and venemous’ – As You Like It
    ‘A most notable coward, an infinite and endless liar, an hourly promise breaker, the owner of no one good quality’ – All’s Well That Ends Well
    ‘You scullion! You rampallian! You fustilarian! I’ll tickle your catastrophe!’ – King Henry IV, Part II
    ‘There’s no more faith in thee than in a stewed prune’ – King Henry V
    ‘Thou cream-faced loon’ – Macbeth.

  4. Say that, even if we don’t understand words such as ‘rampallian’ and ‘fustilarian’, we can appreciate the writer’s love of playing with language and Shakespeare has many descendants today as new words and phrases bubble up from the street and find their way into rap and other music and drama. Language is a powerful tool and Shakespeare’s use of it continues to delight and amaze, more than 400 years after his death.

Time for reflection

Shakespeare understood the power of language to amaze, delight and entertain. He knew that words could challenge rulers, express love and tragedy and the depths of human experience. Can you find, like Shakespeare, different registers, different types of language for different situations and learn to use them effectively?

Publication date: April 2014   (Vol.16 No.4)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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