From the story of how Shakespeare died a nobody, then got famous by accident to a Shakespearean insults infographic, the Bard keeps fascinating me. Having died 400 years ago last week, as The Independent reminds us, the great William Shakespeare was quite creative when it came to insults.
“I was seeking for a fool when I found you,” says Jacques in Act 3 of As You Like It, and that’s probably the tamest of the Bard’s barbs. Here are some more for your enjoyment!
1. “Scurvy politician”
In King Lear, Act 4, scene 6, we find this gem: “Get thee glass eyes, and like a scurvy politician seem to see the things thou dost.”
Shakespeare’s scurvy means “contemptible” or “despicable”, while he used politician to mean a crooked plotter or schemer who, in this quote from King Lear, only chooses to see what best suits him.
2. “Thou damned and luxurious mountain goat”
In Henry V, Act 4, scene 4, a “luxurious mountain goat” might sound like something you’d want to pet, but back in Shakespeare’s day luxurious meant “louche” or “hedonistic”, and the randy behavior of goats was enough to transform this into an insult Pistol throws at a French soldier in Henry V.
3. “Thou damned doorkeeper to every custrel that comes inquiring for his Tib!”
In Pericles, Act 4, scene 6, we read this seemingly odd damnation of doorkeepers. Nothing wrong with being a doorkeeper of course—but when the door in question is the door to a brothel, things take a turn for the worse in Act 4 of Pericles. Custrel, originally just another name for a knight, is a 16th-century word for a scoundrel, while Tib was a byword for “a young of low or loose character.”
4. “Where got’st thou that goose look?”
After he’s called the servant bringing him news of an army of 10,000 English soldiers on their way north a “cream-faced loon”, Macbeth asks him “where got’st thou that goose look?” (Macbeth, Act 5, scene 3). In others words, “why do you look so stupid?”
5. “Base dunghill villain and mechanical”
In Henry VI (part two), Act 1, scene 3, Shakespeare uses “mechanical” to mean “a menial, unskilled worker,” so all in all a “base dunghill villain and mechanical” is the lowliest of the low.
In Troilus and Cressida, Act 5, scene 1, Thersites calls Patroclus a “finch-egg” in Troilus and Cressida, probably in the sense that it’s a fairly small, insignificant thing.
7. “You Banbury cheese!”
Banbury in Oxfordshire is well known for its rich, thick milk cheese, so calling someone a “Banbury cheese”, as Bardolph does in The Merry Wives of Windsor (Act 1, scene 1), is just another way of pointing out how stupid they are.
8. “You bull’s pizzle”
As well as calling him a “starvling”, an “elf-skin”, a “dried neat’s tongue” and a “stock-fish” (all metaphors for scrawny, shrunken next-to-nothings), Falstaff calls the young Prince Hal a “bull’s pizzle” in Henry IV: Part 1 (Act 2, scene 4). A pizzle is a penis, of course. Say no more.
9. “You scullion, you rampallion, you fustilarian!”
Falstaff continues to get creative with his insults in Henry IV (part two, Act 2, scene 1). After he has finished calling Mistress Quickly a “scullion” (a low-ranking drudge) a “rampallion” (a scoundrel) and a “fustilarian” (a Shakespearean invention probably meaning a fat woman), he shouts “I’ll tickle your catastrophe”—or, in other words, he’ll smack her on her behind.
10. “You whoreson cullionly barber-monger!”
Or so Kent calls Oswald in Act 2, scene 2 of King Lear, at the end of one of the most protracted slanging matches in literary history. As well as calling him a “cullionly barber-monger” (in other words, a vain rascal who spends an inordinate amount of time primping his appearance), Kent calls Oswald:
- “an eater of broken meats” (a scavenger),
- “a base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy, worsted-stocking knave” (a vain, scrawny, brown-noser),
- “a lily-livered, action-taking knave, a whoreson” (a litigious coward),
- “a glass-gazing, super-serviceable finical rogue” (another vain brown-noser), and
- “the son and heir of a mongrel bitch: one whom I will beat into clamorous whining, if thou deniest the least syllable of thy addition.”