A good insult is a thing of beauty. Nobody understood this better than William Shakespeare, whose biting wit was so memorable, it continues to shape how remember historical figures like Richard III — the short-lived King of England who reigned from 1483 to 1485.
Just a few weeks ago, the remains of Richard III were dug up under a parking lot in Leicester, England and identified using some pretty fancy DNA-based technology. The discovery has reignited the debate over who Richard III truly was — was he a villain, victim or tragic hero?
Some scholars say Richard III was the victim of a smear campaign — anti-Plantagenet propaganda commissioned by the Tudor Dynasty and perpetuated during their 120-year reign after Richard III’s death. Whether Shakespeare intended to portray Richard III as a villain or parody this overwrought propaganda is open to debate. But there’s no doubt that his play is a major factor in how we view Richard III today.
In honor of this major historical and literary discovery, we look at some of Shakespeare’s most brilliant insults — from Richard III as well as some of his other most beloved works:
1. Thou elvish-marked, abortive, rooting hog! Thou poisonous bunch-back’d toad!
Ouch. Your mama jokes have nothing on these insults used to describe Richard III, whose scoliosis gave him a hunchback and who was portrayed as being corrupt and vile.
2. Away, you scullion! You rampallian! You fustilarian!
This fine line comes from Henry IV, and boy is it a doozy. It basically means, “Get away from me, you menial servant! You scamp! You low-life stinkard!” Let that one sink in.
3. I do repent the tedious minutes I with you have spent.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is basically the world’s greatest insult factory. Remember that repenting in Elizabethan times meant you were really darn sorry you did something.
4. No longer from head to foot than from hip to hip: she is spherical, like a globe; I could find out countries in her.
Okay, Dromio of Syracuse, we get it … she’s a little rotund. This winner from the Comedy of Errors is a reminder of what not to say to or about, well, pretty much any woman ever.
5. [Thou art] a knave; a rascal; an eater of broken meats; base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy, worsted-stocking knave; a lily-livered, action-taking knave, a whoreson, glass-gazing, super-serviceable finical rogue; one-trunk-inheriting slave.
That’s only half of what the Earl of Kent says to Oswald in King Lear. Well, I guess don’t piss off the Earl of Kent. Let’s just say this quote speaks for itself, broken meats and all…
And with that, I leave you to create your own Shakespearean insults — because they’re so much better than any four-letter word. After all, being a master of witty insults is likely to make you a more memorable person. From Shakespeare to Thaddeus Stevens to Mark Twain, our favorite wordsmiths knew how to tell people off in style.
I think using a Shakespearean insult in the present day would cause someone to be so taken aback that they wouldn’t know how to react and would, instead, have a priceless look on their face. Great post.
Try calling someone a “swollen parcel of dropsies” at a party and see what happens 🙂
Old fashioned insults are the best for lots of reasons, one of them being that most people don’t know what’s being said to them. Just look at the dustup caused by the “mewling quim” line in last year’s biggest movie, “The Avengers.”
You insignificant, pubis hair louse! How dare you insinuate…that I, your better-no wanton slattern do thou gaze upon-should tolerate your lil-liveried, rot-cod, slime of snail & inferior mind & tongue! Take thyself to the gutter, lie amongst thy brethren-the rats, roaches & their own fleas as well! Lower than a fustilarian are thou!
Had forgotten about wanton slattern. So much more dignified than slut!