William Shakespeare's 450th birthday: The five best insults ever dished out by the Bard

From cream-faced loons to glass-gazing knaves; be sure to try these at home

On the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth there are more than a few laudatory speeches around praising the Bard. However, even a casual skim through Shakespeare’s plays reveals that the man himself enjoyed far more caustic words.

From the straightforward insults (“Thou art like a toad; ugly and venomous”) to the more obscure (“Your virginity breeds mites, much like a cheese”), Shakespeare dished out burns and put-downs with a zealousness that makes rappers seem timid.

So while many of us may be more familiar with the less-derogatory words and phrases that the Bard coined, it's only fitting to honour a man who sounded-off as if it was his mission in life to stick two-fingers up at the world with a choice selection of his best insults. Here’s some of our favourites:

“You scullion. You rampallian. You fustilarian. I’ll tickle your catastrophe.”
Falstaff, Henry IV part I; Act 2, Scene 2

Shakespeare has his fair share of simple zingers (“moldy rogue”, “carbuncle” and “cream-faced loon” are some notables) but this outburst from Falstaff in Henry IV part I deserves inclusion simply for it's joyful sounds.

‘Scullion’, ‘rampallian’ and ‘fustilarian’ may all mean pretty much the same thing (a servant or scoundrel) but try saying the words aloud and the subtle variety (all those trilling 'L's!) is much more apparent. As for ‘tickle your catastrophe’ – what better way of saying you’ll give someone a good spanking?

"No longer from head to foot than from hip to hip, she is spherical, like a globe, I could find out countries in her."
Dromio, The Comedy of Errors; Act 3, Scene 2

This one shows that even genius is not above milking a joke. This particular slight against the maid Nell is from one of Shakespeare’s most farcical plays (the whole plot revolves around two pairs of identically named, identical twins - I wonder what will happen?) but soom becomes a good excuse for some old-fashioned xenophobia.

When questioned on Nell's specific geography, Dromio responds by assigning various countries to her anatomy. He locates 'the Indies' on her nose (because it's covered with jewel-like pimples) and finds Scotland in the ‘barrenness’ of her calloused palms. Ireland’s location isn't nearly as nice however - click here to read it for yourself.

“Thou art a base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy worsted-stocking knave; a lily-liver’d, action-taking, whoreson, glass-gazing, superserviceable, finical rogue; one-trunk-inheriting slave; one that wouldst be a bawd in way of good service, and art nothing but the composition of a knave, beggar, coward, pandar, 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.”
Kent, King Lear; Act 2, Scene 2

Sometimes a single insult just isn't enough, as this glorious barrage from Kent in King Lear shows. At this point in the play the exiled Early is a picture of frustrated machismo, and takes out his anger on the obsequious steward Oswald.

He calls him out as someone who would rather complain in the courts than fight like a man (‘action-taking’), as a vain idiot obssesed with his reflection (‘glass-gazing)’, as officious (‘superserviceable’) and petty (‘finical’ – like our contemporary ‘finickety’). He finishes it off by reminding Oswald that he’ll beat him if he denies any of what he’s said. For another fantastic run of insults see this video from Henry IV, Part I.

"Drunkenness is his best virtue, for he will be swine drunk; and in his sleep he does little harm, save to his bedclothes about him."
Parolles, All’s Well That Ends Well; Act 4, Scene 3

The idea that the most harm you can do in life is wet the bed after a night of heavy drinking is probably still of some relevance in modern times, but in the context of the soldiers’ banter that takes up much of All’s Well That Ends Well it’s particularly damning.

 For the audience the utterance is ironic as well as Parolles, the man speaking, is a notorious coward who is far better at bluster than fighting. He himself is the target of some pretty good insults when the lord Lafeu describes him thus: "Thou art a general offence, and every man should beat thee.”

Demetrius: "Villain, what hast thou done?"
Aaron: That which thou canst not undo."
Chiron: "Thou hast undone our mother."
Aaron: "Villain, I have done thy mother."

Titus Andronicus, Act 4, Scene 2

Although it’s not the first ‘your mother’ joke that we know about (that honour goes to a 3,500 year old Babylonian tablet) it’s probably one of the least light-hearted, placed as it is in the middle of one of Shakespeare’s most brutal and unforgiving plays.

Chiron and Demetrius may be upset now that Aaron has been sleeping with their mother, but it’s only a minor slight compared to the play’s denouement which will see the pair baked in a pie and served up to their dear old mum. Shakespeare certainly wrote some great insults - but he had a pretty good appetite for the real blood-and-guts violence as well.

Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
Arts and Entertainment
TV
News
Graham Norton said Irish broadcaster RTE’s decision to settle was ‘moronic’
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
    Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

    What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

    Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
    The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

    Setting in motion the Internet of Things

    British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
    Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

    Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

    Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
    Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

    Cult competition The Moth goes global

    The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
    Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

    Pakistani women come out fighting

    Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
    Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

    Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

    The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
    LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

    Education: LGBT History Month

    Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
    11 best gel eyeliners

    Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

    Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

    After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot