The works of William Shakespeare are some of the world’s most beloved literature. Even today, on what would be his 448th birthday, his plays are still being performed, his poetry still read and studied. The tragedies, comedies, and sonnets have kept scholars and laypeople alike fascinated for centuries.
Here at Cambridge, we’ve recently been working on a re-release of titles in the New Cambridge Shakespeare series, as well as The Cambridge Shakespeare Guide, so I’ve found myself spending some time with my old favorites. Their stories are as impactful today as they were over 400 years ago and, I must admit, every time I see one of the newly rebranded covers (they’re gorgeous, by the way), I get just a little bit giddy. The source of my excitement, however, may not be what you’d expect. As a writer and a reader—and a former English major—I’m certainly no stranger to the enchantment of iambic pentameter, the beauty of symbolism, the intrigue of a complex character. But let’s be serious for a minute: It’s all about the insults.
Now, before anyone gets offended, I am by no means trying to downplay the Bard’s genius. Quite the opposite, in fact. While any Google search on the topic will turn up links to automated “Shakespearian insult generators,” the reality remains that no one, not even those armed with the best of thesauruses, can pull off verbal abuse like Billy Shakespeare. The man had a gift. Granted, to a modern-day culture in which threats and bullying have become a constant source of anxiety, many of these affronts would be considered downright unacceptable. But there’s something about their boldness that makes me think the characters of Shakespeare’s world may have had the right idea. Did Sampson and Gregory attack the Montagues’ self-esteem? Did Othello post a passive aggressive Facebook status about his belief that Desdemona was being “false as hell?” Was there ever, throughout the entirety of Macbeth, one single tweet hashtagged #lilylivered? Of course not. Because for all of their corset-wearing, lace-collared, oppressively structured social circumstances, these people were liberated when it came to confrontation. They got mad, and they did it right. If someone in the Forest of Arden ticked them off, they’d look the offending party straight in the eye and let them know just how scurvy a knave they were being.
Can you imagine having that kind of freedom in 2012? I mean, you can’t even honk a car horn in downtown Manhattan nowadays without risking a $350 fine. Wouldn’t you feel better if you were able to tell that guy who cut you off in traffic that “he has not so much brain as ear wax?” (You can thank Troilus and Cressida for that one.) And what if, when that unwanted admirer stumbled up to you at the local pub, you could simply say, “Thou art like a toad; ugly and venomous,” in the style of As You Like It? Think of all the time saved by shortening these interactions to a few choice words, without all the back-and-forth of contemporary social decorum. I’m not suggesting we all start being nasty to one another, but there is a certain allure to Shakespearean forthrightness (after all, Touchstone never thought he had a chance with Rosalind. I’m just sayin’). Maybe the world would be a better place if we had a little more adjective-heavy honesty and a little less muttering under our breath.
Or maybe not.
Either way, next time you’re at the theater, or curled up with the paperback version of your favorite play, it’s worth keeping an eye out for the insults. You never know—one of these days, all that thumb-biting might actually come in handy.
Want more books from the Bard? You could win one of our just-released editions of Shakespeare’s plays by entering our contest on Facebook. Stay tuned for more celebration of Shakespeare’s birth throughout this week.