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The Queen is taking King James' wine away, but is she being cruel... or kind? Learn how to use the phrase cruel to be kind and expand your vocabulary by learning six synonyms of cruel - and the nouns that go with them.

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Cruel, mean, unkind, harsh!

Hamlet says cruel and terrible things to his mother
We asked you how many words you could think of with a similar meaning to cruel. Take a look at the image below. The adjectives on the left are all synonyms (or near synonyms) of cruel. The nouns on the right collocate with them, but do you know which nouns go with which adjectives?

To do

Match the adjectives on the left with the nouns on the right to make natural collocations. If you think there is more than one match for an adjective, try to choose the most common collocation. Then listen to the recording to find out if you matched the adjectives and nouns correctly. 

Do the activity

Hiển thị văn bản ghi âm (hay video) Giấu văn bản ghi âm (hay video)

1) They're trapped in a vicious circle, they can’t find a job because they’re homeless and they can’t find a home because they're jobless.

2) It’s important to use tough love with children – if they're allowed to do what they want they'll become spoilt.

3) Adam was a cold-blooded killer who showed no guilt for his crimes.

4) My boss didn’t say anything, she just gave me a nasty look and walked off – I think she knows that I lied!

5) Julie was given such a harsh punishment, I can't believe she was sent to prison - and for ten years!

6) I thought Anna was so kind, but she has a real mean streak.

Here are the collocations: mean streak, tough love, cold-blooded killer, harsh punishment, vicious circle and nasty look. Well done if you matched them all correctly.

To do

Now listen to the recording again while you read the transcript. Look at the collocations in bold. What do you think they mean?

Then try the quiz to find out if you are correct and to learn more about the meaning of the collocations.

Cruel cruel cruel

6 Questions

Complete the gaps in the phrases to check you've understood the collocations

Chúc mừng bạn đã hoàn thành Trắc nghiệm
Excellent! Bạn làm rất tốt! Bad luck! Điểm bạn đạt được:
x / y

How did you do?
Well done if you worked out the correct meaning of all the phrases. Now we’d like to hear about your kind actions.

Over to you

We asked you to tell us about a time you had to be cruel to be kind. Here are some of your stories:

Jean Marie

I used to be cruel to be kind with my children when they were growing up, Giving harsh punishment like a short privation of freedom, limitation to exercise their favorite hobby in favor of more ambitious readings they did not really appreciate. It was tough love for rmy children. Sure, they were upset and full of incomprehension and had often a nasty look at me, I was sad, regretful, but was conscious that I was preparing their future.


Ia, Georgia

When  was  the  last  time  I  was  so  cruel ?  Once  when  I  was  in  front  of  the  university ,waiting for my  friends . Out of  the blue, I saw one of  the students  who  seemed  to  be  feeling  blue. I  went  to her  to find  out  how   I  could  help  her. The  problem  was  that she didn’t  want  to  reply  to  my questions  and  looked  like  the  green-eyed   monster (she saw red). But  everything  isn’t  so  as  it seems  and  I  refused  to  budge  an  inch…After  a  while , it  was  clear  that   her  life  had  changed completely  since  her  mother’s  death .So  that  she  asked:” What  is  my  life  like?”.And  I  was  in  a pickle  because  it  was  hard  to  me  to  talk  to  her-I  had  to  find  the  right  words  to  make  her  happy  .I  might  have  said  so- just  her  mother’s  soul  would  be  a  tower  of  strength  and  what  she needed  was  to  send  all  her  fear  and  sadness  packing ….. Because  ‘’What’s  done  is done , you  know’’,I  said  to  her.

        Can  you  imagine  how  happy  I  was  when   I  noticed  a  big  smile on  her  face?  She  was  feeling good. Then  she  wrote  down   my  phone  number  and  wanted  to  get  in  touch  with  me. After  that, she  also  became  my  pen-friend .And  it  makes  me  feel  good  when  I  see  her  happiness  in  the pictures. (By  the  way , I nearly  forget  this  story).At  last, this  is  why  I  am  going  to  have  to be cruel to be  kind.


Melody, Taiwan

One morning, I found out my little brother took his girlfriend home and stayed overnight. I was really unhappy with them, they are teenagers! I know I upset them when I gave them a nasty look and told them their behavior is not acceptable, but they are too young to have a maturely relationship: I had to be cruel to be kind. And using tough love with my brother to help them would not be trapped in a vicious circle of being a teenager parents in the future.



I was cruel to be kind when my child was a teenager because he fail a test. I told with him and seid he didn’t play with his video games during a month. He said me that I was cruel with him, but I explaind that I only was cruel to be kind because I want that he was the best student on his class.

End of session

Did you enjoy learning about Hamlet? Make sure you watch Though this be madness, yet there is method in't! to find out more about the method in Hamlet's madness!

That’s all for now. But don't worry - we'll be kind - we'll be back soon to help you with your English. Return to these pages to find out more about William Shakespeare's life and work - and to learn a useful new English expression. In the meantime, go to our Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram pages for more fun with English!

Session Vocabulary

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


    I must be cruel, only to be kind

    In modern English, Shakespeare's phrase is usually shortened to I must be cruel to be kind. Or just cruel to be kind. People say it when they do something unkind that will actually benefit someone.

    Example sentence
    I know I upset her when I told her to get a haircut, but it was such a mess: I had to be cruel to be kind.


    Extra vocabulary

    listen (here)
    to pay attention to what someone tells you and do what they suggest

    the natural way words go together

    put down (an animal)
    kill in a humane way

    a vicious circle
    a repeating situation in which one problem causes another problem that makes the first problem worse

    tough love
    a strict way of dealing with someone who has a problem

    a cold-blooded killer
    a killer who shows no sympathy

    a nasty look
    looking at someone in a unkind way

    a harsh punishment 
    make someone suffer in a cruel way for something bad that they have done

    a mean streak 
    unkind behaviour which is part of someone's personality


    About Shakespeare Speaks

    Shakespeare Speaks is a co-production between:

    BBC Learning English

    The Open University


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