20 Epic Shakespeare Insults Every Drama Geek Should Know

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May 22nd, 2011

Few have ever matched the epic power and grace of the insult like Shakespeare. Whether you're pursuing a degree in drama, English or just can't get enough of the Bard, it can be enlightening and entertaining to learn a few of the barbs that pepper these Elizabethan classics. Here are a few of the best, bawdiest and most vicious of Shakespeare's insults you can hurl at those around you or use for a good literary laugh.

  1. "You should be women and yet your beards forbid me to interpret that you are so." from Macbeth. Shakespeare uses this line to showcase just how unattractive the witches in the story truly are, withered, wrinkled and apparently quite hairy. So unattractive are they, that both Macbeth and Banquo jokingly question whether they are really human at all.
  2. "There's small choice in rotten apples." from Taming of the Shrew. Here's a Shakespearean gem that you can apply to contemporary life. Keep it in mind the next time you have to vote in an election or are trying to pick a favorite reality TV star.
  3. "Methink thou art a general offence, and every man should beat thee. I think thou wast created for men to breathe themselves upon you." from All's Well That Ends Well. This harsh criticism is doled out on Porolles by Lafeu in this Shakespearean tragi-comedy, perhaps justly so because he is a bit of a scoundrel. You might know a certain someone in your life who could quite aptly be applied to this quote.
  4. "I desire that we be better strangers." from As You Like It. This polite little barb is the perfect way to suggest that you spend less time together, as Orlando and Jaques would like to do in this play. The interplay between them, with insults firing back and forth, is well worth a read for any literature lover.
  5. "Thou art a boil, a plague sore, an embossed carbuncle in my corrupted blood." from King Lear. Well, tell us how you really feel King Lear! Oddly enough, after calling his daughter a disease and a boil, he tells her he will not chide her. Though one has to wonder what he considers the words he just said.
  6. "Tempt not too much the hatred of my spirit, for I am sick when I do look on thee." from A Midsummer Night's Dream. Ah, unrequited love. Shakespeare deals with it in a humorous, though somewhat pathetic, manner in this interplay between Demetrius and Helena. Of course, his rebuttal of her feelings is easily applicable to just about anyone you are loathe to spend time with.
  7. "Four of his five wits went halting off, and now is the whole man governed with one: so that if he have wit enough to keep himself warm, let him bear it for a difference between himself and his horse; for it is all the wealth that he hath left, to be known a reasonable creature." from Much Ado About Nothing. Forget about half-wits, this man gets by with only a fifth! This brutal exchange takes place between Beatrice and a messenger who believes Signor Benedick is quite the man, but she sets him straight in a moment.
  8. "Foul spoken coward, that thund'rest with thy tongue, and with thy weapon nothing dares perform." from Titus Andronicus. As Shakespeare's bloodiest play, Titus Andronicus is packed full of insults like this one, declaring someone all talk and no walk in a much fancier, more literary way. Perfect for challenging others to duels and feats of strength, if you're into that sort of thing.
  9. "She hath more hair than wit, and more faults than hairs, and more wealth than faults." from Two Gentlemen of Verona. She may be dumb and full of faults, but if she's wealthy, Launce sees this woman as a good match. This humorous exchange shows that male or female, modern or ancient, people have always been goldiggers.
  10. "No longer from head to foot than from hip to hip, she is spherical, like a globe, I could find out countries in her." from The Comedy of Errors. If this Elizabethan barb doesn't bring a smile to your face, nothing will. Save, of course, the ensuing discussion between Dromio and Antipholus about where each country is located on her body. A bit gross, but not nearly as sexual as it sounds.
  11. "It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." from Macbeth. This famous quotation from Macbeth is one you should know just to know, not just for insulting nature of it. Here, Macbeth uses it to describe the futility and ephemeral nature of life itself but it is often used in popular literature to take a shot at those seen to be full of hot air.
  12. "Away, you three inch fool!" from Taming of the Shrew. Nothing cuts someone down to size like, well, accusing them of being small. And three inches is pretty darn small.
  13. "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." from All's Well That Ends Well. In this scene, Captain Dumain's character is given a once over by Parolles, who isn't such a nice guy himself, and perhaps doesn't have much room to talk. Nonetheless, the implication that someone is at their most pleasant when passed out and wetting themselves has some serious power to damage a man's self-esteem.
  14. "You are now sailed into the north of my ladies opinion, where you will hang like an icicle on a Dutchman's beard." from Twelfth Night. The imagery in this insult is priceless. Not only will this poor fellow be looked upon coldly from here on out, but he'll also have the displeasure of hanging out in a Dutchman's beard. Who doesn't love a good jab at the Dutch?
  15. "I do wish thou were a dog, that I might love thee something." from Timon of Athens. When Timon is moping about, he declares his hatred for mankind and wishes that his friend might instead be a cute little furry companion instead. Out of context, this makes for an even more potent insult.
  16. "If you spend word for word with me, I shall make your wit bankrupt." from Two Gentlemen of Verona. In a battle of wits, some people are simply ill-equipped to fight, which is what is suggested in this Shakespearean quip. Memorize it, and you'll be better armed to fight your own battle of words.
  17. "You have such a February face, so full of frost, of storm and cloudiness." from Much Ado About Nothing. Telling someone they look absolutely miserable sounds a bit nicer when you phrase it as a simple case of "February face" like Shakespeare did in this encounter between Benedick and Don Pedro.
  18. "I'll beat thee, but I should infect my hands." from Timon of Athens. Followed up with gems like, "Were I like thee, I would throw away myself" and "Would thou were clean enough to spit on" this exchange is insult gold and well worth a read if you're looking for a laugh or something to match your sour mood.
  19. "I must tell you friendly in your ear, sell when you can, you are not for all markets." from As You Like It. Those who didn't make out the best in the looks department may not be able to be quite so choosy when it comes to finding a mate, a fact which Shakespeare points out quite adroitly and humorously here. This is one you might want to just think instead of saying out loud, as it could make you a new enemy.
  20. "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 mungril bitch." from King Lear. If this isn't the king of all insults then it would be surprising to see what could possibly be worse. This rant from Kent insults just about every facet of the character of Oswald and can't possibly have left much more than a shred of dignity to his name.

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