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Shakespeare & Beyond

10 Shakespeare quotes about fear

The word “fear” appears about 1,000 times in Shakespeare’s plays and poems (although that includes three uses of “fearless,” which is really the opposite, when you think about it). As Halloween approaches, we dove into The Folger Shakespeare to find a few of the Bard’s best quotations about fear.

Of all base passions, fear is most accursed.

Henry VI, Part 1, 5.2.18

If anyone’s an authority on courage and fear, it’s got to be Joan of Arc, who speaks this line in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 1. 

Be wary, then; best safety lies in fear.

– Hamlet, 1.3.47

Laertes, who is about to leave for France, councils his sister Ophelia not to trust Hamlet’s promises of love. Ophelia, in turn, cautions Laertes against hypocrisy, giving us the famous image of the “primrose path”:

“But, good my brother,
Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven,
Whiles, like a puffed and reckless libertine,
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads
And recks not his own rede.”

Hamlet, 1.3.50

Our doubts are traitors
And makes us lose the good we oft might win
By fearing to attempt.

Measure for Measure, 1.4.85

Laertes suggests that fear will keep Ophelia safe, but not all of Shakespeare’s characters agree. In Measure for Measure, Lucio tells Isabella that our anxieties keep us from achieving the things we want. You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action.

Hamlet, 3.1.64

In his famous “To be or not to be” speech, Hamlet agrees with Measure for Measure’s Lucio: “conscience” (“knowledge” or “consciousness”) makes us fearful in ways that prevent us from acting.

But cruel are the times when we are traitors
And do not know ourselves; when we hold rumor
From what we fear, yet know not what we fear,
But float upon a wild and violent sea
Each way and move—

Macbeth, 4.2.21

Lady Macduff and Ross talk a lot about fear in this brief conversation in Act 4. Her husband, Macduff, has fled Scotland for England, where he tries to persuade Malcolm to return and overthrow Macbeth. Lady Macduff and Ross reflect that Macduff hasn’t committed treasonous acts, but that in fleeing Scotland, he is a traitor to his country and family (“When our actions do not, our fears do make us traitors”). Ross responds that the atmosphere of paranoia that pervades Macbeth’s Scotland has made Macduff act irrationally and turned him into a traitor, whether or not he has acted treasonously.

In time we hate that which we often fear.

– Antony and Cleopatra, 1.3.14

Here, Charmian uses “fear” to mean “mistrust.” Cleopatra commands her handmaiden to stoke Antony’s anxieties (“If you find him sad, / Say I am dancing; if in mirth, report / That I am sudden sick”). Charmian suggests that this will drive Antony away because we grow to hate things that we cannot trust.

O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.

Hamlet, 2.2.273

Sometimes, I dream that I have to go to work, but I can’t find my trousers. I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space if I could just stop having that lost-trousers dream.

I had else been perfect,
Whole as the marble, founded as the rock,
As broad and general as the casing air.
But now I am cabined, cribbed, confined, bound in
To saucy doubts and fears.

– Macbeth, 3.4.26

Here, Macbeth’s imagery is similar to Hamlet’s: Often, our fears make us feel small, hemmed in, or claustrophobic. Sam Gold, who directed Daniel Craig and Ruth Negga in Macbeth on Broadway, told us this was one of his favorite lines in the play.

For women fear too much, even as they love,
And women’s fear and love hold quantity,
In neither aught, or in extremity.
Now what my love is, proof hath made you know,
And, as my love is sized, my fear is so:
Where love is great, the littlest doubts are fear;
Where little fears grow great, great love grows there.

Hamlet, 3.2.182

The Player Queen gives this speech in the play that Hamlet stages to flush out Claudius. She suggests that women tend to experience love and fear in equal measure. What do you think? Is this experience of fear unique to women?

“O horror, horror, horror!
Tongue nor heart cannot conceive nor name thee!”

Macbeth, 2.3.73

This happens all the time in Shakespeare’s plays: Confronted with Duncan’s murder, Macduff essentially says, “I am speechless.” He then proceeds to speak about the event at great length and with lots of complex figurative language.

What’s your favorite quotation from Shakespeare about fear? What’s the scariest Shakespeare play you’ve ever seen onstage? Tell us in the comments!