Insults by Shakespeare


Translator: Bedirhan Cinar Why do we cringe
when we hear “Shakespeare?” If you ask me, it’s usually
because of his words. All those thines and thous and therefores and wherefore-art-thous
can be more than a little annoying. But you have to wonder,
why is he so popular? Why have his plays been made and remade
more than any other playwright? It’s because of his words. Back in the late 1500s and early 1600s, that was the best tool that a person had, and there was a lot to talk about. However, most of it was pretty depressing. You know, with the Black Plague and all. Shakespeare does use a lot of words. One of his most impressive accomplishments
is his use of insults. They would unify the entire audience; and no matter where you sat, you could
laugh at what was going on onstage. Words, specifically dialogue
in a drama setting, are used for many different reasons: to set the mood of the scene, to give some more atmosphere
to the setting, and to develop relationships
between characters. Insults do this
in a very short and sharp way. Let’s first go to “Hamlet.” Right before this dialogue, Polonius is the father of Ophelia,
who is in love with Prince Hamlet. King Claudius is trying to figure out
why Prince Hamlet is acting so crazy since the king married
Prince Hamlet’s mother. Polonius offers to use his daughter
to get information from Prince Hamlet. Then we go into Act II Scene 2. Polonius: “Do you know me, my lord?” Hamlet: “Excellent well.
You’re a fishmonger.” Polonius: “Not I, my lord.” Hamlet: “Then I would you
were so honest a man.” Now, even if you did not know
what “fishmonger” meant, you can use some contextual clues. One: Polonius reacted
in a negative way, so it must be bad. Two: Fish smell bad, so it must be bad. And three: “monger”
just doesn’t sound like a good word. So from not even knowing the meaning, you’re beginning to construct
some characterization of the relationship
between Hamlet and Polonius, which was not good. But if you dig some more, “fishmonger”
means a broker of some type, and in this setting,
would mean like a pimp, like Polonius is brokering out
his daughter for money, which he is doing for the king’s favor. This allows you to see that Hamlet
is not as crazy as he’s claiming to be, and intensifies the animosity
between these two characters. Want another example? “Romeo and Juliet” has some of the best
insults of any of Shakespeare’s plays. It’s a play about two gangs, and the star-crossed lovers
that take their own lives. Well, with any fisticuffs you know that there is
some serious smack talk going on. And you are not disappointed. In Act I Scene 1, right from the get-go we are shown the level
of distrust and hatred the members of the two families,
the Capulets and Montagues, meet. Gregory: “I will frown as I pass by,
and let them take it as they list.” Sampson: “Nay, as they dare,
I will bite my thumb at them, which is a disgrace
to them, if they bear it.” Enter Abraham and Balthasar. Abraham: “Do you bite
your thumb at us, sir?” Sampson: “I do bite my thumb, sir.” Abraham: “Do you bite
your thumb at us, sir?” Okay, so how does this development
help us understand mood or character? Well, let’s break it down to the insult. Biting your thumb today
may not seem like a big deal, but Sampson says it is an insult to them. If they take it so, it must have been one. This begins to show us
the level of animosity between even the men
who work for the two Houses. And you normally would not do
anything to someone unless you wanted
to provoke them into a fight, which is exactly what’s about to happen. Looking deeper, biting your thumb
in the time in which the play was written is like giving someone the finger today. A pretty strong feeling comes with that, so we now are beginning to feel
the tension in the scene. Later on in the scene, Tybalt,
from the House of the Capulets, lays a good one on Benvolio
from the House of the Montagues. Tybalt: “What, art thou drawn
among these heartless hinds? Turn thee, Benvolio,
and look upon thy death.” Benvolio: “I do but keep the peace;
put up thy sword, or manage it to part these men with me.” Tybalt: “What, drawn and talk of peace! I hate the word, as I hate hell,
all Montagues, and thee. Have at thee, coward!” Okay, heartless hinds. We know that once again,
it’s not a good thing. Both families hate each other,
and this is just adding fuel to the fire. But just how bad is this stinger? A heartless hind is a coward, and calling someone that in front
of his own men, and the rival family, means there’s going to be a fight. Tybalt basically calls out Benvolio, and in order to keep his honor,
Benvolio has to fight. This dialogue gives us a good look at the characterization
between these two characters. Tybalt thinks that the Montagues
are nothing but cowardly dogs, and has no respect for them. Once again, adding dramatic
tension to the scene. Okay, now here’s a spoiler alert. Tybalt’s hotheadedness
and severe hatred of the Montagues is what we literature people
call his hamartia, or what causes his downfall. Oh, yes. He goes down at the hands of Romeo. So when you’re looking at Shakespeare,
stop and look at the words, because they really are trying
to tell you something.

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