‘Away, you mouldy rogue, away!’ and other Shakespeare swears

Published 6:11 pm Friday, April 23, 2021

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The latter part of April always gets me thinking about William Shakespeare. While no one knows his exact date of birth, he was baptized on April 26, 1564 and later died on April 23, 1616. Those two anniversaries make this the perfect time of year to commemorate his numerous contributions to the English-speaking literary world.

I’ve written a column before about lines from his plays that are now common phrases we use in everyday life centuries after he first came up with the words, or at least popularized them for all eternity. You probably don’t even think about the origins of “wild goose chase” (from “Romeo and Juliet”), “good riddance” (from “Troilus and Cressida”), or “in a pickle” (from “The Tempest”).

But Shakespeare’s responsible for them all.

“The Bard”, as he’s been nicknamed, was really great at fooling around with language. He was a master of wordplay and puns and all sorts of double meanings. Plenty of academics have analyzed his plays and poems over the years, and plenty of students have been intimidated by his sometimes too-outdated-to-understand prose. (I’ll admit I used to be one of those students.)

But one of the most fun things about reading Shakespeare is that he excelled when it came to thinking up insults. Modern day curse words and other insults are just plain white bread compared to some of Shakespeare’s swears.

Here are some of his best ones, as compiled in neat categories by the website litcharts.com. I’ve picked out the ones that I think are the funniest, just in case you want to add some lighthearted teasing to your conversations. (But I don’t condone actually being mean to people!)

“His wit’s as thick as Tewkesbury mustard” comes from “Henry IV, Part 2.” This is an oddly specific reference, but according to various sources on the internet, Tewkesbury was a town in England renowned for its very fancy, very thick mustard condiment which is still in existence today.

In the play “As You Like It”, there is “your brain is as dry as the remainder biscuit after voyage.” Ah, imagine being so frustrated with someone that you basically say their head is full of dry, stale biscuits!

Here are some colorful descriptions from a character in “Henry IV, Part 2” who’s ranting angrily about another character: “I scorn you, scurvy companion. What, you poor, base, rascally, cheating lack-linen mate! Away, you mouldy rogue, away!”

If you really want to emphasize that someone has a bad habit of being untruthful, try this line from “All’s Well That Ends Well”: “he’s a most notable coward, an infinite and endless liar, an hourly promise-breaker, the owner of no one good quality.” (This one is particularly funny with context because the character speaking prefaces this description by basically saying in modern terms “no offense but…”)

Shakespeare used plenty of very random animal-based insults. My personal favorites are Macbeth calling someone a “cream-faced loon” and a character from “Henry V” calling someone a “luxurious mountain goat.” I’ll admit that neither are the first animals which come to mind when trying to think up some insults.

I don’t really like insults based on a person’s appearance, but these are all fictional characters and even Shakespeare managed to coin a few funny ones. You know a person must be really ugly when someone says “the tartness of his face sours ripe grapes” (from “Coriolanus”). And then there’s this lovely description from “Much Ado About Nothing”: “you have such a February face, so full of frost, of storm and cloudiness.” (As someone born in February, I’m torn between feeling insulted and feeling astonished by how accurate this description of the wintry month is.)

Lastly, here’s another one from “Henry IV, Part 2” (which I think might just be 85 percent insults). These words are particularly fun to say: “You scullion! You rampallian! You fustilarian!”

Merriam-Webster’s website has a nice blog post explaining the meaning of those now out-of-date words. Scullion was a common insult in Shakespeare’s day, referring to the person who did the grunt work in the kitchen. Rampallian is a little more confusing. Apparently, it might have been a combination of the word “ramp” (to move threateningly) and rapscallion (a scoundrel). And then there’s fustilarian, which originates in several words that mean “clumsy person.”

There are plenty more clever insults Shakespeare came up with during his writing career, but a lot of them don’t make sense without context or are too inappropriate to be printed in the newspaper!

So the next time you want to express your frustration with something or perhaps add some creativity to your trash talk while watching sports, try a few of Shakespeare’s own insults!

Holly Taylor is a Staff Writer at Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact her at holly.taylor@r-cnews.com or 252-332-7206.