The Bard’s Barbs

shakespeare's insultsAll the world’s truly a stage for William Shakespeare this month, with commemorations of the 450th anniversary of his birth taking place far and wide throughout April. From the birthday fireworks in his hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon taking place on the 23rd, to festivals and productions spanning the globe, the celebration of all things Shakespearean has many in a bardish state of mind.

I think it’s also a great occasion to remember the playwright’s inimitable talent for verbal abuse, which I recalled from an indispensable little book called Shakespeare’s Insults – Educating Your Wit, a tome that everyone should have at the ready when only the most perfect pejorative will do. Perusing it recently, I marveled again at both the juicy relish and often suave understatement of words sharply crafted to cut to the bone. One can be sure their targets didn’t know what hit them.

shakespeare insultsOld Wills had a penchant for certain aspersions (“whoreson” is one he uses repeatedly) as well as variations on the theme of “infection” (as in “the most infectious pestilence upon thee!”) Not surprisingly, many invectives are undisguisedly sexist (“wedded be thou to the hags of hell”), and he often tosses out allusions to the creature kingdom as the lowest blow (“toads, beetles, bats light on you!”)

Tough to pick from such a treasure trove of taunts, but the following pithy handful do stand out:

  • You scullion! You rampallian! You fustilarian! I’ll tickle your catastrophe! – Henry IV, Part 2
  • [Your] face is not worth sunburning. – Henry V
  • Thy mother’s name is ominous to children. – Richard III
  • Nothing in his life became him like the leaving it. – Macbeth
  • More of your conversation would infect my brain. – Coriolanus

And near the top of the list:

  • It is certain that when he makes water, his urine is congealed ice. – Measure for Measure

Incivility has never sounded so elegant.


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