What does the world is your oyster mean, and where does it come from?

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    "The world is the mollusc of your choice." Pterry, Discworld, passim.
    – TRiG
    Commented May 6, 2011 at 16:54

7 Answers 7


"The world is your oyster" is a quote from Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor:

Falstaff: I will not lend thee a penny.

Pistol: Why then the world's mine oyster, Which I with sword will open.

Falstaff: Not a penny.

The original implication of the phrase is that Pistol is going to use violent means (sword) to steal his fortune (the pearl one finds in an oyster).

We inherit the phrase, absent its original violent connotation, to mean that the world is ours to enjoy.


How does one open an oyster? With a knife that is inserted into the opening between the shells and then twisted.

Does the oyster willing give-up whatever is inside? No, it must be pried apart and can often be very difficult to do so — especially as the size of the oyster increases. But, as the size of the oyster increases, so does the chance that any pearl contained therein will be larger.

In any given oyster, there is a chance — but no guarantee — that a pearl lays within. So, it is with life:

If Falstaff had lent Pistol the money, then Pistol would not have needed to seek his fortune (pearl) by going out into the world (the oyster) and using what he already had (his sword and his skills). His sword would be his means of making his fortune — just as it would be used to pry apart the shell of an oyster.

The double-meaning is a common literary device employed by Shakespeare. The use of an oyster as a metaphor for life, also has a double-meaning: The world holds the possibility of making a fortune, but it depends upon how hard one looks for and works at getting. It may take a lot of work and trying a lot of different things (i.e., prying open a lot of oysters) before one finally makes one's fortune (i.e., finds a pearl).

Violence does not necessarily have to be a part of it, but may. After all, the sword is nothing but a tool whose main use is as a weapon. It can, however, be used in peaceful ways, as well.

Pistol is placed in to position — as most young men and women are — of having to go out into the world and making something of himself and the opportunities at the start are limitless and can be a grand as one's dreams. Every oyster one picks up may hold a pearl, but most don't. Finding a pearl requires either opening a lot of oysters or having good luck — either will work.

Life is the same way: some people get lucky and make a fortune without seeming to work very hard or very long at it. But, most people either never make a fortune (settling instead for surviving off the meat of the oyster, but never finding that pearl) or have to work long and hard (be persistent) to gain their fortunes.

The luckiest never have to work at all: fortune is handed to them. Pistol asked Falstaff for his fortune and when Falstaff refused, he had no choice but to go out into the world and find it himself.

But, it was a world full of potential and all it took for him to find his fortune was hard work and persistence. He was young, so he had time, he wasn't locked down to any location or occupation, so he was free to seek his fortune where ever he wanted, and he had the tools necessary — his sword, his looks and his youth — to do it.

Therein lies the multiple meaning of Shakespeare's invented or borrowed metaphor — at least that is how I always understood it.

  • 2
    Might want to look at the editing help to see how to create new paragraphs.
    – MetaEd
    Commented Jul 5, 2013 at 17:49


THE WORLD IS AN (ONE'S) OYSTER - "If you have a lot of money, you can have anything you want. The proverb first appears in Shakespeare's play 'The Merry Wives of Windsor' (1600).'Falstaff: I will not lend thee a penny. Pistol: Why, then, the world's mine oyster, Which I with sword will open.' Act II, Scene II." From "Random House Dictionary of Popular Proverbs and Sayings" (1996) by Gregory Y. Titelman (Random House, New York, 1996).

: : A second reference says the phrase means: "All the pleasures and opportunities of life are open to someone because he is young, rich, handsome, successful, etc. Shakespeare invented or popularized this expression." From "Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins" by Robert Hendrickson (Facts on File, New York, 1997).

: : OK. I'm confused. Does "the world is my oyster" mean: : : a. I have money, therefore all the good things of the world are available to me. : : b. I don't have money, therefore the world is my oyster and I'm going to look for the pearl. OR : : c. I'm young and good-looking and my mama loves me, therefore even though I don't have money, all the good things of the world are available to me.

: : The world is yours for the taking; whatever you make of it.


It's a metaphor. A pearl is made from an oyster. Be the most valuable pearl you want to be, don't let anything stop you. The oyster nacre is your hard work; the more you produce the better quality potential of pearl you can become. Be the most valuable pearl you want to be out of your oyster.


I look at it this way:

The world is right there, your oyster. It will take your strength and your skill to get inside. Your work will earn meat, certainly, and maybe some riches if you are lucky. But without effort on your part it will remain closed to you.

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    This answer does not address the origin of the phrase, and it would be better if you could produce evidence for your interpretation of the meaning. Commented Apr 20, 2013 at 4:32

Based on the context of the dialogue between pistol and falstaf, the latter refused to give the former the money he was borrowing/asking for. Hence pistol quipped the world is my oyster blah blah... He just meant, why wont y wanna give me money? I can just go out there into the world and earn it myself and i will break it open (oyster/world), with a sword if need be, becoz I can!

  • This could be a good answer, but please format it nicely and correct your spelling. Commented Dec 31, 2013 at 16:34

You're all wrong. I think you'll find in actual the true meaning of this phase comes from the fact the ocean current pushes for the oyster the around the world. Hence why we say the world us your oyster.

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    The nautilus mollusc actually does sail: but that doesn't improve this answer. Commented Mar 1, 2013 at 23:03

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