A term meaning "to die."

It originates from Hamlet Act 3, Scene 1 in the famous "To Be or Not To Be" monologue - "When we have shuffled off this mortal coil..."

Since it is a phrase that is pushing 400 years old, it deserves a some in-depth discussion, methinks, as do many of the bards more esoteric phrases deserve.

The most explainable part of this sentence is the use of the word "coil". Most of us (21st century people) take the meaning of 'coil' as "A series of connected spirals or concentric rings formed by gathering or winding" (as lifted from the The American Heritage Dictionary).

However, in Shakespeares' time, 'coil' also had a somewhat different, although related, meaning. The meaning I am talking of, courtesy of our very own Webster, is "To encircle and hold with, or as with, coils". So with this definition taken into effect we realize that good William did not mean "a mortal loop of wire", but instead the inferred meaning of mortality wrapped around something.

The next article is the 'shuffle off' part. Shuffle, in this sense, means to do something slowly or unceremoniously (e.g. shuffling walk), and so "shuffle off" would be in the same realm of meaning as 'discard'.

So, putting all this together, we can give a fairly good (if longwinded) translation from Williams' middle-English to our modern tongue:

"to shuffle off this mortal coil"


"To remove the mortality that is bound around me, holding me to the world of the living."

Xunker points to the Webster definition in his explanation, but he selects a verb form of coil, rather than the noun form ("shuffle off this mortal {noun}").

The noun form of the archaic definition of coil reads: "A noise, tumult, bustle, or confusion." Below this definition is indicated Shak., that is, the Shakespearean definition (the man wrote well enough that that English is referred to today as Shakespearean English, by us 21st-century types).

But even Webster's definition isn't quite fair. The Shakespearean meaning of the word was most certainly its "primary" definition, primary inasmuch as the bard intended it, but we cannot disclude the other noun forms of the word, which have very different meanings. Afterall, can Webster really be sure that the poet Shakespeare intended this or that particular meaning of the word? We cannot be certain, as we can never be certain in such cases; indeed, one value of a given word invariably influences the other, and the two are ultimately linked.

n. 1. A ring, series of rings, or spiral, into which a rope, or other like thing, is wound.

The wild grapevines that twisted their coils from trec to tree. --W. Irving.

2. Fig.: Entanglement; toil; mesh; perplexity.


Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.