At Readable, we encourage you to communicate in a positive tone to leave a good lasting impression on your reader. However, occasionally in life, a good putdown is exactly what is needed. William Shakespeare was deft with wonderfully worded insults in his works. Here are some of our favourites.
“A most notable coward, an infinite and endless liar, an hourly promise breaker, the owner of no one good quality.”
— All’s Well That Ends Well (Act 3, Scene 6)
You don’t have to be crass or shallow when insulting your opponent. Don’t go for the cheap shots. Instead, dig at the very core of their personality. Is there anything worse than being a coward? Not only that, but there is no ‘good quality’ to redeem this weakness of character. This one has got to hurt.
“More of your conversation would infect my brain.”
— Coriolanus (Act 2, Scene 1)
If everyone thought in the same way, life would be very boring. Then again, some people’s logic can be so different to yours that trying to talk sense into them leads you around in circles and you feel like your sanity is being mashed. This is the perfect response to that situation.
“Here is the babe, as loathsome as a toad.”
— Titus Andronicus (Act 4, Scene 3)
As a society, we have to concede that not everybody is or was a cute baby. As someone whose parents say I looked like Churchill when they get the baby photos out, maybe my experience is just different, but there is something refreshing about parents rejecting the false cooing behaviour toward all babies. Admitting that their own children weren’t the most precious-looking beings that ever graced the earth.
A thorough denigration
“Thou art a boil, a plague sore, an embossed carbuncle in my corrupted blood.”
— King Lear (Act 2, Scene 4)
According to Dr Catriona Wootton, Dermatologist at Queen’s Medical Centre in Nottingham:
“Elizabethan London was a melting pot for diseases such as plague, syphilis and smallpox. Many of the diseases of the time involved lesions or sores on the skin, so skin imperfections were seen as a warning sign for contagious disease. This was not limited to signs of infection, but to any blemishes or moles, which were considered ugly and signs of witchcraft or devilry. Shakespeare uses these negative undertones to his advantage, employing physical idiosyncrasies in his characters to signify foibles in their behaviour.”
There’s no better way to give a truly disgusting insult than by quoting a writer who lived in the shadow of the bubonic plague. Particularly impressive is the adjective ‘embossed’. It’s not enough to call someone a carbuncle - he’s emphasising that it’s raised.
“Let's meet as little as we can.”
— As You Like It (Act 3, Scene 2)
Our founder, Dave, picked this gem. In his words, “It sounds almost friendly, like one of those insults which takes a minute to register as an insult.” Try this one with your landlord.
“The rankest compound of villainous smell that ever offended nostril.”
— The Merry Wives of Windsor (Act 3, Scene 5)
There’s no nice way to call somebody out on being remiss about deodorant. It’s one of those awkward topics you’re hesitant about addressing, much like eating habits. At least with this incredibly harsh insult, they’ll take it on board and be more self-aware about their morning ritual.
“[Thou art] a knave, a rascal, an eater of broken meats; a base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy, worsted-stocking knave; a lily-livered, action-taking knave; a whoreson, glass-gazing, super-serviceable 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, pander, 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.”
— King Lear (Act 2, Scene 2)
Maybe you’ve tried all of the insults above and your opponent hasn’t batted an eyelid. No matter - this one ensures a thorough thrashing. Let’s break down the elements that aren’t self-explanatory:
- A knave. According to vocabulary.com, ‘it's an older word for a rascal, a scoundrel, or a rogue’. Shakespeare states ‘knave’ four times in this piece of dialogue, just to make sure it’s heard.
- An eater of broken meats. This is essentially calling somebody low-class, someone who eats leftovers from someone else’s feast.
- Three-suited. This doesn’t refer to an incomplete deck of cards, nor does it literally mean having three suits, which would actually be pretty complimentary. Three-suited actually means only having three sets of clothes. It’s another way of calling somebody a servant since servants were given three suits of clothes per year.
- Hundred-pound. This is puzzling on the surface. A hundred pounds is low in weight and, in Shakespeare’s day, a lot of money. So what does it mean? Well, hundred-pound, according to a Shakespeare glossary, means ‘contemptuous epithet for a pretender to the title of a gentleman (perhaps referring to a minimum property-qualification)’.
- Lily-livered. This means weak and cowardly.
- Glass-gazing. On top of everything else, the subject is vain.
- Trunk-inheriting. Presumably, this means everything the subject possesses could fit in a trunk. Moreover, their stuff isn’t really theirs.