In this brave new world that has the internet in it, you can go online and log on to a “Shakespearian insult generator” which will condemn you voluminously and on demand. “She hath more hair than wit, and more faults than hairs, and more wealth than faults” comes from Two Gentlemen of Verona; “You scullion. You rampallian. You fustilarian” from Henry IV. Then there’s the “lily-liver’d… whoreson… finical rogue” speech from King Lear. It’s worth looking up when the standard of modern political insults starts to get you down.
Last week, Britain’s representatives in the so-called mother of all parliaments were competing to see how many times they can call each other “desperate” in a single press release. Apparently, Michael called Ed a back-stabber, and so Nick said David’s friends are swivel-eyed. Then someone else piped up that Nicola is “the most dangerous woman in Britain”; if anyone had seen Nicola, they couldn’t possibly be so silly.
When they could have been discussing policies, politicians were name-calling instead: fast and loose… self-indulgent… limping into office… should be ashamed… dragging the whole campaign into the gutter…. Well, we’re all in the gutter – as another great master of the put-down noted – but some of us are sick of hearing about it in bitchy comments that would demean a sixth-form common room.
We don’t have to look back as far as Shakespeare – or Wilde, even – to find a better class of abuse than this. Harold Wilson once compared Edward Heath to “a shiver looking for a spine to run up”. While Heath said of Margaret Thatcher: “In excluding me from the Shadow Cabinet [she] has chosen what I believe to be the only wholly honest solution…” Thatcher insulted most of her colleagues by saying: “If you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman.” Even Ann Widdecombe’s remark that Michael Howard had “something of the night about him” had enough wit to stick.
Last week on Newsnight, though, the political editor of The Sun called the Ed/David Miliband party leadership race “Shakespearian”. Mate, Shakespeare wrote a play about a man grinding up the bones of his nemesis’s children and feeding them to her in a pie crust; he did not write a play about two brothers applying for the same job and one of them getting it. And if he had, the most shocking part would not have been that the man has had five or more girlfriends. That would be the most boring Shakespeare play ever.
Boys, boys, if you can’t think of anything witty to say then don’t say anything at all. And if you won’t listen to me, take heed of Margaret Thatcher: “I always cheer up immensely if an attack is particularly wounding because I think, well, if they attack one personally, it means they have not a single political argument left.”