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Unit 1: Shakespeare Speaks
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Session 22

Old Mother Howard predicts the future, but William Shakespeare's daughter is confused! We'll help you use the phrase It's all Greek to me - and other idioms with nationalities or countries. Plus, we'll explore some great phrases to say "I don't understand!"

Session 22 score

0 / 20

  • 0 / 6
    Activity 1
  • 0 / 6
    Activity 2
  • 0 / 8
    Activity 3

Supernatural Shakespeare
William Shakespeare's plays are full of ghosts, witches, fairies and magic and most of his audience would have believed in the supernatural. It was common for people to visit fortune tellers and astrologers, and Queen Elizabeth even had her own personal astrologer!

To do

Shakespeare's daughter is having her fortune told by Old Mother Howard but why does Daughter not look happy? Has the fortune teller told her something terrible about her future? Watch the video to find out. (The answer's under the video – no looking!).

Watch the video and complete the activity

Show transcript Hide transcript

It’s October 1599. Shakespeare has finished writing his history play Julius Caesar and is visiting a fair in his home town of Stratford, with his daughter. She has just had her fortune told…

Now, dear daughter, what did Old Mother Howard say? What does the future hold for us, I wonder?

Oh father, Mother Howard talked a lot, but she had such a strange accent – I couldn't understand a word she said!

You're just like Casca in my play Julius Caesar.

Casca? He's one of the men that kills Caesar, the Roman general! How can you say that, father – I'm not a murderer!!!

Dear daughter, Casca was in a group of people who were listening to the great Roman speaker Cicero. But Cicero was speaking Greek, so Casca couldn't understand him.

Oh… why was Cicero speaking Greek?

That's what educated people spoke in Roman times. Casca says that some of the people listening to Cicero could actually understand him. Here are the lines: …those that understood him smiled at one another…

Thomas Swann as Casca
… those that understood him smiled at
one another and shook their heads; but, for mine own
part, it was Greek to me.

So Casca had no idea what Cicero was talking about. Just like me and Mother Howard!

We'll leave them there for now. Fortune tellers were common in Shakespeare's day, and they appear in many of his plays including Macbeth, the Comedy of Errors and Julius Caesar, in which the fortune teller warns Caesar to "beware the Ides of March" – the day on which Caesar was eventually assassinated by his closest friends. The phrase It was Greek to me has become It's all Greek to me in modern English, and it's used when something – not just a foreign language – is difficult to understand. For example, in a report about the 2015 Greek debt crisis, UK newspaper The Daily Telegraph carried the headline:

Clip 1
It's all Greek to me: a glossary of Eurozone crisis jargon

Clip 2
I'll never understand the rules of cricket: out for a duck, silly mid-off, googlies… It's all Greek to me!

Now tell me, daughter, did you understand anything Old Mother Howard said?

Yes! She talked about you, father. She said that you're going to be the most famous Englishman of all time! …but I think she was making it up.

Oh no, no, no… I'm sure she's absolutely right about that … She's obviously a very gifted woman. What shall we look at now, daughter?

Can we go to the gold stall father? Pleeeeeease???

I didn't need a fortune teller to predict that! To gold, or not to gold: that is the question.

Shakespeare's daughter is not looking sad because she had bad news about her future. She is confused because Old Mother Howard had such a strange accent so she couldn't understand anything she said!

To do

Hopefully you understood this video better than Daughter understood Old Mother Howard! Answer these questions about the video to check that you're not as confused as Daughter.

What does the future hold?

6 Questions

Answer these questions about this episode and the phrase It was all Greek to me

Congratulations you completed the Quiz
Excellent! Great job! Bad luck! You scored:
x / y

How did you do?
4-6 correct - congratulations, we predict you will do well in your English studies!
0-3 correct - oh dear, was that all Greek to you? We predict that you will go back and try again!


You now know how to use the phrase It's all Greek to me, but can you think of any other English idioms using nationalities, countries or cities? Click 'next activity' to learn six idioms using nationalities or places!

Session Vocabulary

  • For more great Shakespeare content visit our partner,The OU


    Greek to me

    The phrase It was Greek to me has become It's all Greek to me in modern English, and it's used when something – not just a foreign language – is difficult to understand. 

    Example sentence
    I'll never understand the rules of cricket: out for a duck, silly mid-off, googlies… It's all Greek to me!


    Extra vocabulary

    things that cannot be explained by science 

    fortune teller
    someone who tells you what they think will happen to you in the future

    have your fortune told
    have your future predicted

    someone who studies the stars and planets and uses it to tell people how it will affect their lives

    crystal clear
    very easy to understand

    get the gist
    understand the general meaning

    as clear as mud 
    very difficult to understand

    very difficult to understand (often because there are too many technical words)

    go over somebody's head
    be too difficult for someone to understand

    can’t make head nor tail of something
    can't understand something

    get the picture

    spoken or written words that have no meaning or are difficult to understand

    go Dutch
    agree to share the cost of something, especially a meal

    talk for England!
    talks a lot

    when in Rome...
    when you are visiting another country, you should behave like the people in that country

    an Indian summer
    a period of warm, dry weather that sometimes happens in the early autumn

    excuse my French
    sorry for using a word that may be considered offensive (said humorously)

    Dutch courage
    the confidence that some people get from drinking alcohol before they do something scary


    About Shakespeare Speaks

    Shakespeare Speaks is a co-production between:

    BBC Learning English

    The Open University


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