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Bard and wit

William Shakespeare remains one of the greatest wordsmiths the world of literature has ever seen. Besides giving many new words to the English language, this sorcerer of words has left behind a rich legacy of verbal slights. If one were to document the myriad Shakespearean insults, he or she will be struck by their sheer ingenuity, humour and brutal candour. Consider this from Henry IV Part One: “Thou art as fat as butter.” In its directness it appears like an innocent war of words between children. But if we mull over it a little, we will realise that beyond its obvious body shaming, the comparison of fatness with butter is based on a clever logic. Butter is not only thick in its consistency but also fattening for the body.

Lack of wit attracted some of the sharpest rebukes from Shakespeare’s characters. “Thou sodden-witted lord! Thou hast no more brain than I have in mine elbows.” This verbal whiplash from Troilus and Cressida can cut into the skin of anyone’s self-confidence while at the same time impressing them with its intelligence. Another similar gem of an affront is from The Two Gentlemen of Verona: “If you spend word for word with me, I shall make your wit bankrupt.” This one takes a monetary metaphor to sound out a warning. The speaker tells his verbal opponent that he could soon exhaust the latter’s bank of arguments and render his wit broke in no time.

Insults directed at the countenance of some character or the other in Shakespearean plays belong to a league of their own. “The tartness of his face sours ripe grapes” from The Comedy of Errors is acerbic! Yet another example from Henry V , “Thine face is not worth sunburning” takes nastiness to another level. The speaker in it means to say that the addressee’s face is too ugly for exposure to daylight.

The metaphor of disease is rife throughout the bard’s writings. Suffer this from Richard III: “Out of my sight! Thou dost infect my eyes.” It conveys the visual disgust of the speaker towards his listener. On the other hand, "More of your conversation would infect my brain", again from The Comedy of Errors, expresses the speaker’s mental disgust. “Thou art a boil, a plague sore” from one of Shakespeare’s four great tragedies, King Lear, is another roast garbed in the language of skin ailments.

Despite their blatant physiological references, all these insults were most often commentaries on the nature, personality, intellect or intentions of the characters. In Shakespeare’s times, external afflictions were considered reflections of mental and moral depravity. Moreover, they were more revealing of the speaker himself than of those addressed. Thus, reading them as mere physical snubs would not be fair. We do not know if Macbeth's murderous hands could have turned the green seas incarnadine, as he feared, but Shakespearean insults have definitely painted the English language in the most fascinating of hues.

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Printable version | Sep 24, 2021 11:33:00 AM |

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