mortal coil

Definition from Wiktionary, the free dictionary
Jump to navigation Jump to search



Alluding to Hamlet.[1] The two senses result from two interpretations of the word coil, one taking it to mean “tumult, confusion, fuss”, the other “case, wrapping”. In either case, the phrase “shuffle off this mortal coil” must mean “die”. Since "shuffle off" is generally taken to mean "get rid of" or "evade" it is likely that in the sense that Shakespeare used it, it was specifically referring to the act of suicide.


mortal coil (plural mortal coils)

  1. The chaos and confusion of life.
  2. The physical body of man (containing the spirit inside).
    • 1871, “T. A.”, “Polyxenes”, in J. E. Taylor et al. (editors), Hardwicke’s Science-Gossip for 1872, Robert Hardwicke (1873), page 32:
      [] [A black swallowtail] does not—as a true insect does—change from worm to grub, and from grub to his mature form, but simply “shuffles off his mortal coil,”—skin, hairs, and leggings all complete, now and then, [] . He then leaves his shuffled-off “mortal coil” hanging upon a fragment of dirty cobweb, as before described.
    • 1874, C. M. Ingleby, The Still Lion: An Essay Towards the Restoration of Shakespeare’s Text, Trübner & Co., page 87:
      Shakespeare represents the human body under various figures: a coil: a case: a frame: a machine: a vesture: a heft: a motion or puppet: &c. It has been contended that in Hamlet’s speech, the ‘mortal coil’ is the coil, i.e. trouble of turmoil, incident to man’s mortal state: but the analogies are too strong in favor of the ‘mortal coil’ being what Fletcher calls the ‘case of flesh’ (Bonduca, iv. 1).
    • 1918, Roy Chapman Andrews and Yvette Borup Andrews, Camps and Trails in China: A Narrative of Exploration, Adventure, and Sport in Little-Known China, D. Appleton and Company, page 151:
      His soul may have found rest, but “his mortal coil” certainly did not. Unfortunately [] the village “astrologer” informed them that [] they must dig him up, give the customary feast in his honor and have another burial site chosen.
    • 2003, R. A. Salvatore, Immortalis, Random House, Inc. (2004), →ISBN, page 114:
      She escaped her mortal coil and moved out, looking back at herself as she stood motionless, clutching the stone that had become the link between her body and her spirit.


  1. ^ William Shakespeare (c. 1600), “act III, scene i”, in Hamlet: “For in that sleepe of death, what dreames may come, / When we haue shuffel'd off this mortall coile, / Must giue vs pawse.”