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William Shakespeare Did It First!

He may not have been the Trope Maker, Trope Namer, Trope Codifier, or even the Ur-Example, but you can bet your bottom dollar that he did it before you! Whatever great invention, character or plot device you come up with, Shakespeare is always the guy who has already done it and done it better than you could ever hope to. Note that he wasn't the first to use a lot of these conventions, however he's the earliest writer most people know who used so many of them.

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His fans have been aware of this long before the Internet. Horace Walpole, widely recognised as the inventor of the Gothic Horror genre, proudly admitted he borrowed most of the ingredients for the Gothic recipe from his idol. Yes, even realising that Shakespeare did it first is something that has already been done long ago.

Shakespeare was not only the first to use many a trope, but the first troper. That is, the first to comment on it. Some examples:

  • Ambition Is Evil: Julius Caesar discusses Cassius:
    "Yond' Cassius has a lean and hungry look;
    He thinks too much; such men are dangerous[...]
    Such men as he be never at heart's ease
    Whiles they behold a greater than themselves."
(Much Ado About Nothing)
  • Belligerent Sexual Tension: Benedick and Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing.
  • Big Bad Slippage: Macbeth only gradually becomes the Villain Protagonist of the play.
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  • Buffy Speak (and Bread, Eggs, Breaded Eggs):
    "Come boy, come sir boy, come follow me sir boy!" (Much Ado About Nothing)
  • Character Shilling:
    "No more, I pray thee. I am half afeard
    Thou wilt say anon he is some kin to thee,
    Thou spend'st such high-day wit in praising him!"
    (The Merchant of Venice)
  • Everything's Deader with Zombies: Prospero in The Tempest boasts about being able to make dead people walk:
    "...graves at my command
    Have waked their sleepers, oped and let 'em forth
    By my so potent art."
  • Eye Scream:
    "Out, vile jelly! Where is thy lustre now?" (King Lear)
  • Fatal Flaw:
    "So, oft it chances in particular men,
    That for some vicious mole of nature in them...
    Carrying, I say, the stamp of one defect,
    Being nature's livery, or fortune's star,
    Their virtues else (be they as pure as grace,
    As infinite as man may undergo)
    Shall in the general censure take corruption
    From that particular fault."
    (Hamlet)
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  • Foregone Conclusion: Shakespeare coined the phrase.
    "But this denoted a foregone conclusion: 'Tis a shrewd doubt, though it be but a dream." (Othello)
  • Go Out with a Smile: As Mercutio lays dying from a stab wound in Romeo and Juliet:
    'Tis not as wide as a barn door, nor as deep as a well, but look for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man.
  • The Grotesque:
    "Deformed, unfinished, sent before my time
    Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
    And that so lamely and unfashionable
    That dogs bark at me as I halt by them—
    Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
    Have no delight to pass away the time,
    Unless to see my shadow in the sun
    And descant on mine own deformity."
    (Richard III)
  • Hamming It Up:
    "Nor do not saw the air too much with your hands, but suit the action to the word, the word to the action." (Hamlet)
  • I Banged Your Mom/Your Mom note :
    Demetrius: Villain, what hast thou done?
    Aaron: That which thou canst not undo.
    Chiron: Thou hast undone our mother.
    Aaron: Villain, I have done thy mother. (Titus Andronicus)

    Painter: Y'are a dog.
    Apemantus: Thy mother's of my generation. What's she, if I be a dog? (Timon of Athens)
  • Leaning on the Fourth Wall
    "If this were acted upon the stage I would condemn it as an improbable fiction." (Twelfth Night)

    "How many ages hence shall this our lofty scene be acted over in states unborn and accents yet unknown!" (Julius Caesar)
  • Major Injury Underreaction: Claudius, after being run through with a poisoned sword in Hamlet:
    "O, yet defend me, friends; I am but hurt."
  • Manly Facial Hair:
    "He that hath a beard is more than a youth, and he that hath no beard is less than a man;"
  • Manly Tears: Lampshaded by Macduff in Macbeth.
    Macduff: All my pretty ones? Did you say all? O hell-kite! All? What, all my pretty chickens and their dam at one fell swoop?
    Malcolm: Dispute it like a man!
    Macduff: I shall do so; but I must also feel it as a man!
  • Minimalism: Doubles as Hypocritical Humor when Polonius, whose major character trait is making overly-long speeches, makes the famous remark:
    "Brevity is the soul of wit" (Hamlet)
  • MST3K Mantra:
    "Do not infest your mind with beating on
    The strangeness of this business"
    (The Tempest)
  • Naughty Nuns in Measure for Measure
  • No Man of Woman Born: The Trope Namer, in Macbeth.
  • No, You: Hamlet does this to his mother.
    Queen Gertrude: Hamlet, thou hast thy father much offended.
    Hamlet: Mother, you have my father much offended.
  • Obfuscating Insanity:
    • Hamlet again, in (duh) Hamlet.
    • Where Hamlet went for making it ambiguous if Hamlet is playing at being insane or playing up his actual insanity, Titus Andronicus makes clear that Titus is insane... but has him pretend to be differently insane in a way seemingly more easy to fool or play tricks on — giving him an opportunity to set his revenge in motion.
  • Out, Damned Spot!:
    "Out, damned spot! Out, I say!" (Macbeth)
  • Pre Ass Kicking One Liner
    Macduff: Turn, hell-hound, turn! (Macbeth)
  • Pun: Far, far too many to count.
    Olivia: Dost thou live by thy tabour? note 
    Fool: No sir, I live by the church.
    Olivia: Art thou a churchman?
    Fool: No such matter, sir. I do live by the church; for I do live at my house, and my house doth stand by the church. (Twelfth Night)
  • Prophecy Twist: Two in Macbeth: He is told that he will be safe until Birnham Wood come to Dunsindane (it turns out to be enemy soldiers using forest camoflauge), and that he will never be killed by "any man of woman born." Unfortunately, Macduff was born by caesarean section.
    • Henry IV is told he will only die in Jerusalem. He dies in the Jerusalem Chamber of his palace.
  • Reality Is Unrealistic:
    "If this were play'd upon a stage now, I could condemn it as improbable fiction." (Twelfth Night)
  • Refuge in Audacity:
    "If we shadows have offended
    Think but this, and all is mended
    That you have but slumbered here
    While these visions did appear
    And this weak and idle theme,
    no more yielding, but a dream
    [...] Give me your hands, if we be friends
    and Robin shall restore amend."
    ' (A Midsummer Night's Dream)
  • Russian Reversal:
    "I wasted time, and now doth time waste me." (Richard II)
  • Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness: Osric speaks like this, which is promptly mocked and lampshaded in Hamlet.
    Hamlet: Sir, his definement suffers no perdition in you; though, I know, to divide him inventorially would dizzy the arithmetic of memory, and yet but yaw neither, in respect of his quick sail. But, in the verity of extolment, I take him to be a soul of great article; and his infusion of such dearth and rareness, as, to make true diction of him, his semblable is his mirror; and who else would trace him, his umbrage, nothing more.
  • Shaped Like Itself:
    Lepidus: What manner o' thing is your crocodile?
    Antony: It is shap'd, sir, like itself, and it is as broad as it hath breadth; it is just as high as it is, and moves with its own organs. It lives by that which nourisheth it, and the elements once out of it, it transmigrates.
    Lepidus: What color is it of?
    Antony: Of its own color too.
    Lepidus: 'Tis a strange serpent.
    Antony: 'Tis so. And the tears of it are wet.
    Antony and Cleopatra, Act 2, Scene 7

Quite possibly the ultimate proof of the truth of this law: Shakespeare has an example of a Sock Puppet in Julius Caesar. Yes, a character uses a made-up persona in a play set in ancient Rome and written in Elizabethan England. It's also used as an early example of Astroturfing.

For virtually all other professions, an appropriate substitution would be 'Leonardo da Vinci did it first'. Seriously, look the guy up. He did just about everything you can do except being an accomplished author or famous rock star, and that was just because getting a decent scribe to take down his lengthy fictional masterpieces for him would have been quite expensive in 15th-Century Italy.

Has nothing to do with Zeroth Law Rebellion.

Dedicated in memory of TV Tropes founder William Shakespeare, who started every page on this site.


Alternative Title(s): Zeroth Law

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