"Screw your courage to the sticking place" is one of those phrases almost everyone has heard,
The phrase "screw your courage to the sticking place" is an idiom or expression used to encourage someone to be brave and steadfast, usually in the face of uncertainty.
It can also mean "to keep your nerve."
Examples in Sentences
Today, Shakespeare’s idioms are deeply embedded in the popular consciousness and often are better known to younger people from their borrowed context.
Screw your courage to the sticking place is one of these popular and oft-borrowed phrases. Readers may recognize it, if not from the original Shakespeare, then from Hamilton, where it appears in the song Take a Break.
Beauty and the Beast
But Hamilton isn’t the only musical to reference this famous line from Shakespeare.
Disney also borrows the line for its Mob Song in the film Beauty and the Beast. As in Macbeth, the line incites people into violence.
Origin of Screw Your Courage to the Sticking Place
The phrase "screw your courage to the sticking place" comes from William Shakespeare’s play Macbeth.
The quote occurs early in the play, in Act I, scene vii.
In this scene, Lady Macbeth tries to persuade her husband to murder the then-king of Scotland, Duncan, and seize the throne.
Macbeth has understandable misgivings about murdering his royal guests, but not because he thinks there’s anything wrong with murder. Instead, Macbeth worries they will fail or get caught.
"We fail?" says his wife. "But screw your courage to the sticking place/ and we’ll not fail."
What Is a Sticking Place?
But what exactly is Lady Macbeth talking about as she chivvies her nervous husband into action?
Earlier in the scene, Lady Macbeth disavows her inheritance as a mother. In an equally famous line, she demands of the universe, "unsex me here." That’s Act I, scene v.
That’s because when Lady Macbeth talks about sticking places, she’s using the masculine language of archery to nerve her husband for murder.
To operate a crossbow, you turn a screw to ratchet up the bow's tension before firing. The tighter you turn the screw, the more tension you create and the steadier the arrow is in its notch.
Specifically, the sticking place is the point on the bow where the tension forces the arrow into immobility until you’re ready to release it at your target.
Lady Macbeth wants her husband to torque and hold onto his courage in the same way. She needs him to fasten it in place and release it when called upon in the murder of King Duncan. If he does this, he will hit his target the same way a primed arrow hits a bullseye.
What Else is a Sticking Place?
But Shakespeare wouldn’t be Shakespeare if his lines didn’t have layers upon layers of meaning. So, it comes as no surprise archery isn’t the only thing Lady Macbeth is talking about.
The sticking place can also be the place where you strike to kill an animal in the hunt or when butchering.
In other words, Lady Macbeth insinuates that the only way their coup can fail is if Macbeth wounds King Duncan.
She’s saying be brave and strike to kill, and they’ll succeed.
Similar Idioms to Screw Your Courage to the Sticking Place
Various other idioms and expressions convey the same meaning as "screw your courage to the sticking place."
Some of these include:
- Hold your nerve
- Be of stout heart
- (Find out) what you’re made of
Hold Your Nerve
To hold your nerve is to be brave or courageous, often in the face of overwhelming odds.
It shares both the call to courage with Macbeth and also the implication that by seizing that courage, you can overcome adversity.
Be of Stout Heart
Like "screw your courage to the sticking place," the exhortation to be of stout heart is a call to bravery.
It urges the listener to find and utilize potentially untapped courage to achieve their goal.
(Find Out) What You’re Made Of
This is an expression encouraging the person on the receiving end of it to explore their full potential. In context, it urges someone to:
- Test their worth
- Realize potential
- Discover inner strength/courage
Correct Phrasing of Screw Your Courage to the Sticking Place
Like any well-worn expression, "screw your courage to the sticking place" has its share of misquotes.
Acceptable Alternatives / Similar Phrases
Perhaps the most common of these is the expression "screw your courage to the sticking point."
Equally common is "screw up your courage to the sticking place."
While not true to the play, neither reworking affects the overall meaning.
But as the old comedy sketch says, when you get it right and stick with "screw your courage to the sticking place," you’re quoting Shakespeare.