“Thou Naughty Knave” with a “Heart of Gold”– Phrases and Insults from Shakespeare


Amanda Platz

Shakespeare’s monologues have sparked the imagination of scholars, actors, and audiences alike. His characters bring audiences to the edges of their seats, make them weep and laugh, and even inspire them to fight for a nation they’re not even part of (lookin’ at you, Henry V). But his characters and stories, monologues and dialogues, are not the biggest contribution Shakespeare made to the English people. No, the biggest contribution Shakespeare made to the English people was in the realm of language. This uneducated genius from the 16th century added more to the language single-handedly than anyone would have ever imagined. He enriched the language with over 2,000 words—either that he invented, or that he heard in the language of the people and decided to use. Is it any surprise to anyone that in the massive influx of words Shakespeare brought to the English language, he brought a large number of very good insults? Shakespeare’s inventiveness changed the English language in ways we cannot even begin to imagine—the changes he made are so set in stone that it is hard to imagine a life without them. Such words as “emulate,” “demonstrate,” “dislocate,” “horrid,” and “vast” were popularized or invented by William Shakespeare. Now, this man also invented the word “honorificabilitudinatibus,” which supposedly means “with honor.” Try pronouncing that word, I dare you. This same man who bravely introduced a collection of words also introduced a happy collection of phrases and insults, many of which are even used today.

Shakespeare’s addition to the language was, well, magnificent. He brought thousands of words into the language by his own invention. According to Melvyn Bragg, author of The Adventures of English, “Over four hundred years ago, Shakespeare had a vocabulary of at least twenty-one thousand different words: some have estimated that with the combination of words, this could have reached thirty thousand” (135). His internal word-bank nearly doubled that of the average human today. He not only increased the vocabulary of the English-speaking people’s by about 2,000, he also added a multitude of expressions and phrases that we still use today. BBC America lists 45 phrases that Shakespeare coined in his immense collection of works, including “as luck would have it,” “break the ice,” “Dead as a doornail,” or “heart of gold.” We’ve all been subjected to the horrors of “icebreakers” (thanks, Shakespeare). I’m sure you can name at least one person that you would describe as having “a heart of gold.” Even Dickens quoted Shakespeare readily! Charles Dickens begins his famous A Christmas Carol by saying that Marley was “as dead as a doornail,” and then goes on to criticize the phrase, saying that

“Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.”

This is just one, rather humorous, example of the extent to which Shakespeare’s additions to English have influenced the people today.

            If you look at titles of books, movies, or any work of fiction, you are bound to see some reference to Shakespeare, even if the author does not quite know they are referencing the Great Bard. The title of David Foster Wallace’s massive monstrosity of a text, Infinite Jest, (my own copy is a whopping 1,079 pages) references Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Mumford and Sons album Sigh No More is a reference to Much Ado About Nothing. Look around you. You can probably find some other artists and authors who have directly referenced Shakespeare in their work. Just as there have been many film renditions of Shakespeare’s plays, or even many imitations like The Lion King or 10 Things I Hate About You, there are also a large pool of books, movies, musicians, and artists who in one manner or another reference Shakespeare’s magnificent works.

However, Shakespeare didn’t just introduce hordes of phrases and expressions to the language. He also introduced a large slew of insults. According to Melvyn Bragg, “His inventiveness was almost a disease. To take just one insult, ‘knave,’ Shakespeare produces fifty different instances of it in his plays” (141). One example is “The lyingest knave in Christendom.” Shakespeare’s various uses of one insult alone is remarkable, and the variety he gives it with each descriptive word adds a flare of color and drama to such profanities. All you have to do is google “Shakespearean Insults” and you will find entire pages dedicated to listing some of the most entertaining insults Shakespeare has offered our lovely language. Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1 contains some rather entertaining strings of insults. Act 2 Scene IV, for example, has Prince Henry referring to Fallstaff as “this sanguine coward, this bed-presser, this horseback-breaker, this huge hill of flesh,–” essentially saying “you very fat man. Fallstaff’s quick retort begins by calling him thin and lanky and quickly devolves into things I shall not define, saying, “you starveling, you elf-skin, you dried neat’s tongue, you bull’s pizzle, you stock-fish! O for breath to utter what is like thee! You tailors-yard, you sheath, you bowcase; you vile standing-tuck.” Readers and audiences almost can’t help but laugh at the humorous exchange—as is intended. Shakespeare’s insults add humor and commonness to the sometimes royal tone of the plays—especially when reading history plays such as Henry IV. Other insults include “I am sick when I do look on thee,” “I’ll beat thee, but I would infect my hands,” and “more of your conversation would infect my brain.” All one would have to do to find Shakespearean insults is search Google. There are even “Shakespearean Insult Generators,” which enable people to create their own insults in the vein of Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s insults are witty, cutting, and remarkably funny, albeit wildly inappropriate at times (I have avoided the most inappropriate ones here. Shakespeare’s plays are not always ‘SWU appropriate’). Shakespeare had no fear.

Shakespeare’s wildly hilarious though sometimes inappropriate insults liven up his plays and entertained the masses, while the soliloquies and monologues appealed to the nobility and higher classes—the educated folks. But no matter who they appealed to then, Shakespeare’s phrases and insults have added much to the English language. His phrases flow into everyday speech—so much that we have almost forgotten where they came from. The words he coined or helped to popularize now are so much a part of our language that we forget there was a time when they weren’t here. Yet there was a time when we were strangely lacking such a vast array of words and phrases. And if ever the need arises and you should require an insult to throw in the general direction of some poor soul, I would suggest keeping with you and remembering some of Shakespeare’s insults—that way, not only can you insult someone, you can sound intelligent, while you’re really just calling someone stupid.references:

References: Bragg, Melvyn. The Adventure of English: The Biography of a Language. Arcade Publishing, 2011.