Seven quotes (and a song) from Shakespeare for New Year’s


Glasses of champagne for New Year's Eve. Stock image.

New Year’s is about moving forward. Plenty of William Shakespeare’s plays and poems feature moments of redemption, transformation, or resolution—think about the changes that come over Prince Henry in the two Henry IV plays, or Leontes trying to right his past wrongs in The Winter’s Tale.

With a new year approaching, Shakespeare’s words can help us reflect on the past year, plan for the new one, or just impress friends or family with a well-placed quote in a New Year’s Eve toast.

Shakespeare only mentions New Year’s festivities once in his plays. In The Merry Wives of Windsor, Falstaff swears he’ll never be fooled again after he’s thrown into the river while escaping the wrath of Master Ford:

Well, if I be served such another trick, I’ll have my brains ta’en out and buttered, and give them to a dog for a New Year’s gift.

– The Merry Wives of Windsor, 3.5.6 

In Shakespeare’s England, gifts were often exchanged on New Year’s Day. The Folger’s collection includes six of Queen Elizabeth I’s New Year’s gift rolls. These enormous documents feature Elizabeth’s autograph signature and list all of the presents the monarch gave or received.

New Year's gift roll of Elizabeth I, Queen of England. Folger Shakespeare Library.
New Year’s gift roll of Elizabeth I, Queen of England. Folger Shakespeare Library. Z.d.16.

Even though Shakespeare didn’t mention New Year’s often, he has plenty of pertinent lines. Cassius, from Julius Caesar, has a mantra for all those making New Year’s resolutions:

I am fresh of spirit and resolved to meet all perils very constantly.

– Julius Caesar, 5.1.98

 Meanwhile, Much Ado About Nothing’s Don John has a retort for those who aren’t making resolutions (or who never bother keeping them anyway):

In the meantime, let me be that I am, and seek not to alter me.

– Much Ado About Nothing, 1.3.25 

Maybe your resolution is to get back to work and to be the best possible version of yourself, just like Prince Hal in Henry IV, Part 1:

I shall hereafter, my thrice gracious lord, be more myself.

– 1 Henry IV, 3.2.94

If you don’t think your buddy is going to stick to his pie-in-the-sky New Year’s resolution, King Richard II knows how you feel:

How high a pitch his resolution soars!

– Richard II, 1.1.113

Love’s Labor’s Lost ends with the perfect song for a merry party on a frigid evening:

Ink illustration of the song "Winter" from 'Love's Labor's Lost' by Byam Shaw.
Ink illustration of ‘Love’s Labor’s Lost’ by Byam Shaw. Folger Shakespeare Library. ART Box S534 no.20 part 7 (size S).

When icicles hang by the wall,
And Dick the shepherd blows his nail,
And Tom bears logs into the hall,
And milk comes frozen home in pail;
When blood is nipped, and ways be foul,
Then nightly sings the staring owl
“Tu-whit to-who.” A merry note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

When all aloud the wind doth blow,
And coughing drowns the parson’s saw,
And birds sit brooding in the snow,
And Marian’s nose looks red and raw;
When roasted crabs hiss in the bowl,
Then nightly sings the staring owl
“Tu-whit to-who.” A merry note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

– Love’s Labor’s Lost, 5.2.986

When “Dick the shepherd blows his nail,” it means that he’s breathing hot air on his hands to warm them—a familiar feeling around this time of year. “Keeling the pot,” like greasy Joan, means to cool its contents by stirring, skimming, or mixing in a colder substance.

On the other hand, maybe it’s just too cold to go out and celebrate at all. Hamlet knows how you feel:

The air bites shrewdly; it is very cold.

– Hamlet, 1.4.1

No matter what, we wish you the very best in the new year!

Joy, gentle friends! Joy and fresh days of love accompany your hearts!

– A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 5.1.29



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