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shakespeare

Public domain (attributed to John Taylor)

Even 460 years later, Shakespeare's insults are zingers.


As history's most famous poet and playwright, William Shakespeare had a way with words. His sonnets have been memorized and recited by innumerable students—"Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?"—and his comedies and tragedies have been adapted and performed on stage and film countless times in the 460 years since his passing.

But one place Shakespeare's talent shines the most—or at least entertains the most—is in his insults. The colorful characters he created frequently throw verbal barbs across the stage at one another, and they're still epic zingers, even today.

Insults take many styles and forms, from friendly ribbing to subtle jabs to roundabout roasts to direct hits, and Shakespeare utilized them all. And the beauty of playing with The Bard's insults in the modern day is that you can use them to confound people you have a beef with as well as crack up your friends in playful banter.


Imagine telling the person who won't stop pestering you, "Away, you three-inch fool!" Or saying to your bestie who drank the soda you were saving, "You scullion! You rampallian! You fustilarian! I’ll tickle your catastrophe!” Or calling to your slowpoke kiddos in your best English accent, “Come, come, you froward and unable worms!”

There's just loads of fun to be had with Shakespearean insults, so choose some favorites to commit to memory and whip out unexpectedly when the occasion arises:

1. "How now, thou crusty batch of nature!"

– Troilus and Cressida (Act 5, scene 1)

2. “I’ll beat thee, but I would infect my hands.”

Timon of Athens (Act 4, Scene 3)

3. "Thine face is not worth sunburning.”

Henry V (Act 5, Scene 2)

4. “Thou lump of foul deformity”

Richard III (Act 1, Scene 2)

5. “Thou subtle, perjur’d, false, disloyal man!”

The Two Gentlemen of Verona (Act 4, Scene 2)

6. “Thou whoreson zed, thou unnecessary letter!”

King Lear (Act 2, Scene 2 )

7. “That poisonous bunch-back’d toad!”

Richard III (Act 1, Scene 3)

8. “Thou damned and luxurious mountain goat.”

Henry V (Act 4, Scene 4)

9. “Thou elvish-mark’d, abortive, rooting hog!”

Richard III (Act 1, Scene 3 )

10. “Thou sodden-witted lord! Thou hast no more brain than I have in mine elbows “

Troilus and Cressida (Act 2, Scene 1)

11. "Would thou wert clean enough to spit upon."

Timon of Athens (Act 4, Scene 3)

12. "You, minion, are too saucy."

The Two Gentlemen of Verona (Act 1 Scene 2)

13. "I do desire we may be better strangers."

As You Like It (Act 3, Scene 2)

14. "I am sick when I do look on thee."

A Midsummer Night's Dream (Act 2, Scene 1)

15. "Thou damned and luxurious mountain goat."

Henry V (Act 4, Scene 4)

16. "His wit’s as thick as a Tewkesbury mustard."

Henry IV Part 2 (Act 2, Scene 4)

"Thou leathern-jerkin, crystal-button, knot-pated, agatering, puke-stocking, caddis-garter, smooth-tongue, Spanish pouch!"

Henry IV Part 1 (Act 2, Scene 4)

17. "Thy tongue outvenoms all the worms of Nile."

Cymbeline (Act 3, Scene 4)

18. "Let’s meet as little as we can."

As You Like It (Act 3, Scene 2)

19. "He has not so much brain as ear-wax."

Troilus and Cressida (Act 5, Scene 1)

20. "Thou art a boil, a plague sore, an embossed carbuncle in my corrupted blood."

King Lear (Act 2, Scene 2)

21. "I do wish thou were a dog, that I might love thee."

Timon of Athens (Act 4, Scene 4)

22. "That kiss is as comfortless as frozen water to a starved snake."

Titus Andronicus (Act 3, Scene 1)

23. "Truly, thou are damned, like an ill-roasted egg, all on one side."

As You Like It (Act 3, Scene 2)

24. “You starvelling, you eel-skin, you dried neat’s-tongue, you bull’s-pizzle, you stock-fish–O for breath to utter what is like thee!-you tailor’s-yard, you sheath, you bow-case, you vile standing tuck!”

Henry IV Part 1 (Act 2, Scene 4)

25. “Heaven truly knows that thou art false as hell”

Othello (Act 4, Scene 2)

26. “Out of my sight! Thou dost infect mine eyes.”

Richard III (Act 1, Scene 2)

27. “Here is the babe, as loathsome as a toad.”

Titus Andronicus (Act 4, Scene 3)

28. “Like the toad; ugly and venomous.”

As You Like It (Act 2, Scene 1`)

29. “I must tell you friendly in your ear, sell when you can, you are not for all markets.”

As You Like It (Act 3 Scene 5)

30. “Thou art unfit for any place but hell.”

Richard III (Act 1 Scene 2)

31. “Methink’st thou art a general offence and every man should beat thee.”

All’s Well That Ends Well (Act 2, Scene 3)

32. "Villain, I have done thy mother."

Titus Andronicus (Act 4, Scene 2)

(Yes, Shakespeare really did a "yo mama" joke.)

33. “Away, you three-inch fool! “

The Taming of the Shrew (Act 4, Scene 1)

34. “Come, come, you froward and unable worms!”

The Taming Of The Shrew (Act 5, Scene 2)

35. “You scullion! You rampallian! You fustilarian! I’ll tickle your catastrophe!”

Henry IV Part 2 (Act 2, Scene 1)

That William Shakespeare is the greatest writer in the history of the English language is basically a foregone conclusion.

His work is some of the most widely read in the world and has been translated into nearly every major language (including Klingon). Over his long career, he wrote dozens of plays and poems that were as varied as they were significant.


Photo by Graeme Robertson/Getty Images.

From gloomy, bloodstained tragedies about flawed, cold-blooded kings to countless quirky comedies about zany misunderstandings, laughable romances, and madcap heroes, the work of Shakespeare is monumental.

As an ode to Shakespeare's work and to commemorate the 400th anniversary of his death, Christie's will auction off four early editions of his collected work in a landmark sale.

The first of these four folios, which contains 36 of his plays, is expected to sell for a generous U.S. $5 million.

Not the most frugal purchase. But it holds some absolutely majestic allure, even for a jaded collector.

Photo by Chris Ratcliffe/Getty Images.

Shakespeare's first folio has been hidden from public view for over 200 years and contains some of the earliest editions of his plays, 18 of which had not been previously published. Owning the first folio is basically like owning an original Picasso with a Babe Ruth rookie card taped to it.

The folios toured New York in April and are currently viewable in England (Shakespeare's birthplace), where they will be auctioned off individually.

“It is deeply moving to handle the first printed record of his collected plays and to be reminded of their tremendous impact,” said Margaret Ford, international head of books and manuscripts for Christie’s.

The other three folios will probably have less obscene price tags, but all of them are extremely marketable. The third folio even has the iconic portrait of Shakespeare done by Martin Droeshout.

Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images.

William Shakespeare changed the English language forever, and his contributions still matter today.

Even if you’ve never read any of his plays or sonnets, you’re still probably familiar with his work. After all, "West Side Story" is based on "Romeo and Juliet," "The Lion King" is based on "Hamlet," and late '90s/mid-'00s teen flicks "10 Things I Hate About You" and "She's the Man" are based on "Taming of the Shrew" and "Twelfth Night," respectively. See? You're a Shakespearian and didn't even know it.

For centuries, Shakespeare has also been credited with inventing or popularizing thousands of words. While there is controversy about whether he actually coined all those words or that dictionary-writers just thought his works most prominently captured the vocabulary of the time, there is no doubt he has helped pepper our culture with some delicious vocables.

Wondering which ones?

Here's a hint: I've used 21 of them in this story alone. Check them out below, along with the first text in which they appeared:

Most Shared

A theater teacher played 'Hamilton' for a group of inmates. Their reaction was priceless.

These men are prisoners. But in 'Hamilton,' they saw themselves on stage.

I work with a group of men who aren’t used to seeing themselves in the narrative unless they’re portrayed as villains.

These men are prisoners. They understand that much of America thinks they’re monsters who deserve to be locked in cages. They are the bastard, orphan sons of … every kind of woman you can imagine. They are also beloved sons and husbands and part of close families who come to visit them every week.



Photo by the author, used with permission.

Maybe they understand Alexander’s words in the musical, "Hamilton": “Livin’ without a family since I was a child. My father left, my mother died, I grew up buckwild.” Many of them know all about living impoverished, in squalor, and about fathers who split. A few of them are in college, working on being scholars.

People look at them like they’re stupid. They’re not stupid.

Because our criminal justice system silences these men, I will be so bold as to tell (a little piece of) their story.

We make plays together at the Sing Sing Correctional Facility hidden away behind razor wire and 18-foot-high walls. We rediscover vulnerability and human connection behind faces masked for survival and inside guarded, broken hearts. We perform for the incarcerated population (please, not one more joke about the "captive" audience) and for a few hundred civilian guests.

Right now, we’re two weeks away from this year’s production, which is "Twelfth Night." We’re telling a story about losing a brother, about heartbreak, about discovering what it’s safe to reveal, and what one has to conceal in a strange and possibly dangerous new place. We’re telling a story about not knowing when the joke has gone too far and the consequences of that — a story about wrongful incarceration. We’re telling a story about recovering what one thought was lost forever.

Me and the men in my theater group. Photo by the author, used with permission.

I’ve written before about how theater can teach trust, empathy, compassion, peaceful conflict resolution, deeper cognitive thinking, delayed gratification and how it can create community and understanding.

The men in Rehabilitation Through the Arts have far fewer disciplinary infractions inside the facility and a dramatically lower recidivism rate upon release than the general population.

I often wish I could take the guys to the theater.

You may be able to imagine that a fair number of these men had no access to the arts as children. We make do with production photos and the occasional “adapted for television” viewings.

That is, until the cast of Hamilton beautifully and powerfully performed their opening number from the stage of the Richard Rodgers Theatre for the Grammy ceremony and then performed again at the White House.

The Hamilton Cast at the Grammys. Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images.

When Lin-Manuel Miranda freestyled in the Rose Garden with President Obama, I promptly burned the performance onto a DVD and waited for clearance to bring it into the facility.

We watched on video as Miranda performed a piece from his "concept album" at the 2009 White House Poetry Jam, and then we talked about how that audience received his work.

We talked about what happens when people laugh and you’re serious, about the decision to stand one’s ground and follow one’s purpose, which is a hot topic in our rehearsal room as we get closer to sharing our months of work with the population of the prison.

One of the men observed, “He gets more confident as he goes.” Some of the men worry the population won’t understand Shakespeare; some worry they will laugh at the serious parts. One of the elders in our circle said, “We have to tell the story.”

We watched a true Broadway show in the big house.

Well, four minutes of one anyway, in the form of the Grammy performance of “Hamilton” from the stage of the Richard Rodgers Theatre. Heads nodded to the beat; some of the men snapped along. “Can we watch it again?” We could. We did.

We talked about how "Hamilton" is performed on a bare stage, just like we’ll perform "Twelfth Night."

“No one laughed when he said his name this time.” We talked about how Miranda uses language, leverages rhetoric to find each character’s voice, just as Shakespeare did. We talked about working for six years on something you believe in, and we speculated about the long, uncertain nights he might have had somewhere in the middle of year three or year four.

These men know more than the rest of us can imagine about long, uncertain nights in the middle of a very long bid to survive.

Opening night at Hamilton. Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images.

We watched the cast perform “My Shot” at the White House. We whooped. We joyfully beheld the son of Puerto Rican parents and the first African-American president freestyle in the Rose Garden. We cheered. (One or two of us might have teared up, but we don’t need to discuss that.)

These gorgeous, thoughtful, wounded men rarely see themselves represented in the world.

As they fight to become the men they want to be, they still mostly see themselves in the narrative as junkies, dealers, thugs, or the latest black man brutally gunned down in the streets by the police. According to an Opportunity Agenda study, “negative mass media portrayals were strongly linked with lower life expectations among black men.”

"Who lives? Who dies? Who tells your story?"

But, in the midst of our shared creative endeavor, they saw themselves smack in the center of the narrative of creation, possibility, pursuit, and achievement.

Representation unabashedly made me weep as I watched a few of the men lean in.

Representation matters. Representation is beautiful.

And I am not willing to wait for it.