His poetry and plays offer a wonderful insight into the power of words. They can be used to woo, amuse, deceive, express inner turmoil and even insult. In fact, when it comes to witty and acerbic insults, Shakespeare was something of a master.
Often, modern English simply does not provide the right words, inflection and delivery to compose an ingenious insult. However, Shakespeare offers some of the finest invectives ever written. The following are just some of the best Shakespearean insults.
Best Insults from Shakespeare’s Comedies
“For I must tell you friendly in your ear,/Sell when you can: you are not for all markets.” - As You Like it (III.v) Spoken by Rosalind to Phebe.
In this scene, Phebe is ungracefully and cruelly shunning the advances of young Silvius, who is passionately in love with her. Rosalind (dressed as Ganymede), who overhears the conversation, insists that Phebe is no ‘looker’ and, therefore, should take an offer of love wherever she can get it.
“Come, you are a tedious fool. To the purpose.” - Measure for Measure (II.i) Spoken by Escalus to Pompey.
Sometimes the simple ones really are the best. In this scene, Pompey has a case of verbal diarrhoea. So, Escalus, in no uncertain terms, tells him to cut the drivel and get to the point.
| Beatrice (Emma Thompson) loves to insult|
Benedick (Kenneth Branagh ) in Much
Ado About Nothing (1993)
Similar to Escalus’ quote above, here Beatrice is enquiring as to why Benedick is still talking, as nobody cares to listen.
This is the first quarrel between the two characters and sets the tone for the wonderful ‘thrust and parry’ verbal jousting that the pair shares.
“You peasant swain! you whoreson malt-horse drudge!” - The Taming of the Shrew (IV.i) Spoken by Petruchio to Grumio.
This line beautifully demonstrates the point made above concerning the differences between modern English and Elizabethan English.
Words, such as “swain” “whoreson” and “malt-horse” provide a deeply offensive, but wonderfully mellifluous insult.
Best Insults from Shakespeare’s Tragedies
“Thou lump of foul deformity” - Richard III (I.ii) Spoken by Lady Anne to the Duke of Gloucester (who later becomes Richard III).
In this scene, Lady Anne is mourning the death of her husband (Henry VI), who was murdered by Richard in the field of battle.
While grieving over the dead body of her husband, Richard enters and begins to woo her. Understandably, she is none too pleased with his advances. However, it should be noted that, by the end of the scene, she dramatically changes her tune.
“They have a plentiful lack of wit.” - Hamlet (II.ii) Spoken by Hamlet to Polonius while reading about old men.
Like many great insults, the genius of this is in its simplicity. The oxymoron “plentiful lack” is what makes this insult clever and humorous.
|Hamlet (Laurence Olivier) doesn't have the highest |
opinion of women (1948)
Hamlet is dismayed that not only has his mother married so quickly after the death of his father, but she has married her brother-in-law, which would have been seen as an incestuous relationship at the time.
In his frustration, Hamlet concludes that women, as a sex, are simply weaker than men.
These are, of course, only some of Shakespeare’s best insults. Many more can be found throughout his plays.
This article was originally published by the author on Suite101.
If you'd like to learn more about Shakespeare's ingenuity with words, take a look at What's It All About Shakespeare? An Introduction to The Bard of Avon.