10 Shakespearean insults that work better than modern ones

'You scullion, you rampallion, you fustilarian!'

Paul Anthony Jones
Sunday 24 April 2016 13:44
Shakespeare died 400 years ago this week. Honour him by calling your friend a 'Banbury cheese'
Shakespeare died 400 years ago this week. Honour him by calling your friend a 'Banbury cheese'

“I was seeking for a fool when I found you.” Or so says Jacques in Act 3 of As You Like It.

The great William Shakespeare died 400 years ago this week, so in honour of his quardicentennial, here are ten of the Bard’s best barbs.

1. “Scurvy politician”

King Lear, Act 4, scene 6

“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. And you can provide your own example of that.

2. “Thou damned and luxurious mountain goat”,

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 behaviour 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!”

Pericles, Act 4, scene 6

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” according to the OED.

4. “Where got’st thou that goose look?”

Macbeth, Act 5, scene 3

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?” In others words, “why do you look so stupid?”

5. “Base dunghill villain and mechanical”

Henry VI (part two), Act 1, scene 3

Shakespeare used mechanical to mean “a menial, unskilled worker,” so all in all a “base dunghill villain and mechanical” is the lowliest of the low. Speaking of dunghills, a bonus fact: Voltaire referred to the few verses and scenes of Shakespeare that he actually admired as “a few pearls which I had found in his enormous dunghill.”

6. “Finch-egg!"

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!”

The Merry Wives of Windsor, Act 1, scene 1

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, is just another way of pointing out how stupid they are.

8. “You bull’s pizzle”

Henry IV (part one), Act 2, scene 4

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. A pizzle is a penis, of course. Say no more.

9. “You scullion, you rampallion, you fustilarian!”

Henry IV (part two), Act 2, scene 1

After Falstaff 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!”

King Lear, Act 2, scene 2

Or so Kent calls Oswald in Act 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.”

Paul Anthony is a writer and author of Word Drops - A sprinkle of linguistic curiosities

Follow him on Twitter.

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