William Shakespeare certainly had a way with words. Indeed, the famous playwright’s influence on the English language is undeniable: He’s responsible for countless expressions we use today, including mortal coil, which first appeared in his work Hamlet sometime around the year 1600. What does this phrase mean? Let’s find out.
What Does Mortal Coil Mean?
As you’ll discover in a moment, the expression mortal coil comes from perhaps the most famous soliloquy (a monologue spoken to oneself) in all of Shakespeare’s plays. Every word and phrase in this soliloquy has been analyzed endlessly by literary scholars. And while some experts may differ in their interpretations of the text, there is a general consensus about what Shakespeare meant when he used the words mortal and coil together:
- The chaos and confusion, suffering and troubles of daily life
When used idiomatically in speech and writing today, this is the phrase’s definition. (As is often discussed here, idiomatic phrases have a figurative rather than literal meaning and don’t mean what they appear to mean.)
To arrive at this understanding of Shakespeare’s intended meaning, scholars have analyzed the word coil. When you hear this word, you probably think of something that’s been wound into a spiral shape or a series of loops. But it can also be used to indicate turmoil, and indeed, that’s what most people in Shakespeare’s day understood it to mean, as the ancient term had existed long before Hamlet. Previously spelled coyle or coile, back then, the noun was used to express hustle and bustle or a fuss, confusion, disturbance, or mess. In fact, Shakespeare used the term in this sense in one of his earlier plays, King John, writing, “I am not worth this coyle that’s made for me.”
In the phrase’s usage in Hamlet, the word mortal refers to being human; to being alive and, thus, being subject to death. (Mortal can also mean to cause or have caused death or relating to death in general; it can mean unrelenting hostility, as well.) Taken together then, the phrase mortal coil alludes to the everyday cares and worries of living and being alive. (Discover the specific troubles faced by the play’s main character, Prince Hamlet, who speaks the words mortal coil, below.)
While it doesn’t seem that coil has historically ever been used as a synonym for body, there are also experts who believe Shakespeare could have used mortal coil to mean the physical human body, as some say coil also had a definition of a case or wrapping, with our body being the case for our spirit. Keep reading to learn more.
The Origins of the Expression Mortal Coil
As already shared, the phrase comes from Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, a tragedy that tells the story of Prince Hamlet and his revenge against his uncle, Claudius, who murdered Hamlet’s father, the late King of Denmark, in order to marry Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, and become king himself. In other words, Hamlet faced lots of troubles in his daily life! While his specific difficulties may not have happened to Shakespeare’s audience, they could likely relate, as we can today, thanks to their own experiences of betrayal or family conflict.
Specifically, the words are spoken by Hamlet—aloud, to himself—in one of Shakespeare’s most famous soliloquies and excerpts, which contains many other well-known and oft-quoted lines. The soliloquy occurs in Act 3, Scene 1 of the play:
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—
No more—and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to. ‘Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep—
To sleep—perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.
Here, Hamlet is thinking about all the coils of mortal life: its heartaches and troubles, the things that make life simply unbearable and perhaps not worth living. It’s clear he’s contemplating death.
You can see that mortal coil occurs with the words shuffled off, which generally mean “to evade” or “get rid of” or “to go away/be pushed away.” Taken altogether as an idiomatic and euphemistic phrase, shuffle off this mortal coil means “to die.” Knowing this, perhaps that is why some literary critics believe mortal coil refers to the human body, the physical body of man. In this regard, some scholars think of the idea of coil as we know it today, calling to mind images of a coiled snake that sheds its skin, hence the idea of, in death, shedding our own skin/physical body as well as the troubles of the thing called life.
Hamlet ruminates on death throughout the play, and not just at this point. His father has died, and he’s considering avenging that death, an act that could cause him to meet his own fate. Specifically, in looking at the context given here, Hamlet is contemplating death by committing the act of suicide.
Interestingly, scholars have also looked to the word shuffle, with one philosopher in particular suggesting that perhaps it was a typo and that Shakespeare really meant to use shuttle, an implement used in the weaving process. Continuing the weaving metaphor, thread is coiled around a spool, and we reach death when our life has been unwound and uncoiled over time.
Other Shakespearean Sayings
Many common expressions used in modern English today come from the mind and work of Shakespeare, although you may not be aware that they do. Here are a few other popular idioms and proverbs to his credit:
- Kill with kindness
- Much ado about nothing
- Wild-goose chase
- Green-eyed monster
- Apple of my eye
- Break the ice
- Pure as the driven snow
- Brevity is the soul of wit
- It’s (all) Greek to me
- Love is blind
- All the world’s a stage
- Alas, poor Yorick
- Heart of gold
- All that glitters is not gold
- Too much of a good thing
- All’s well that ends well
- End all be all
- Wear one’s heart on one’s sleeve
For the figurative meanings of the idioms shared here, consult an idioms dictionary.
From mortal coil, you can form two anagrams (meaning you can transpose the letters of the words in the phrase to make new words):
- Microatoll, a colony of corals resembling a miniature coral island
- Collimator, a device for producing a beam of parallel rays, like light
Mortal coil is one of many well-known poetic terms from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It refers to the troubles and difficulties of human life—to the everyday chaos and mess that simply living can be. Indeed, when used idiomatically today, it means life’s everyday worries and cares. Prince Hamlet speaks the words in one of Shakespeare’s most famous soliloquies, saying, “For in that sleep of death what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil, must give us pause.” The longer idiomatic phrase shuffle off this mortal coil is used to mean the act of dying and leaving the worries and struggles of being alive behind.