Bard's cheeky put-downs still sting

By Terry Sarten

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Shakespeare's put-downs have stood the test of time, as these students preparing for the annual Sheilah Winn Shakespeare Festival know.  PHOTO/FILE
Shakespeare's put-downs have stood the test of time, as these students preparing for the annual Sheilah Winn Shakespeare Festival know. PHOTO/FILE

I WAS reading some Shakespeare the other day and was reminded what a sharp one with the words he was.

His characters could proffer an insult with just the right mix of velvet and venom. He deserves a belated happy birthday. He was born in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564, 450 years ago last Wednesday. The English language has much to thank him for and with twitter providing the modern version of the pithy rhyming couplet, "to be or not to be that is the question" remains a very good question that has never been satisfactorily answered.

The line "You Scullion. You rampallian. You Fustilarian. I'll tickle your catastrophe" remains as devastating a put-down as ever there was. We may have no idea what it means but you can tell it's not flattering. These days we tend to go for coarse and uncouth with the "F" word as the fall-back position. I know some people who use it as verb, noun and adjective all in the same heated breath, but what else have we got?

Bill Shakespeare had "thou art a natural coward without instinct" which has the advantage as an insult in that the receiver would probably have to think about it before realising that the natural bit was not meant as a compliment.

Telling someone "thou art the best of cut-throats" is also likely to give you time to leave the room before the person has twigged. Mind you, if they are the cut-throat type they may regard this as a mixed blessing.

I can lay claim to one original but subtle insult. On encountering an acquaintance coming towards me on the street my first thought was that they looked good but on closer inspection were very much worse for wear. I decided "distance becomes you" was one way to describe them. I have never exercised this phrase on anyone but have told people who have tried it on someone and gleefully reported the response. Most on hearing it apparently looked pleased but after a few minutes said "hey, that's not very nice" by which time the insulter was already far away from the insulted and only heard this as a faint and distant cry.

I had not realised Shakespeare had a similar quip that went "I do desire we may be better strangers" which I can see would be useful in some circumstances as it does have the ring of a compliment on initial hearing, with the meaning only becoming clear in retrospect, by which time the speaker has long gone.

Some readers of a certain age may recall there was a brief but enlightened period when saying to someone who was bothering, annoying or otherwise being difficult the words "leap away" was deeply gratifying. It could be uttered without fear of offending because it sounded like "leaping away" might be fun rather than a challenge to verbal or physical combat. Sadly this expression has gone but, like the hippies who spawned it, their fashions have come back and so might "leap away".

The passing of 450 years has not dimmed Shakespeare's talent for putting a sting into a sentence and I will stop writing now, noting his advice that "Better a witty fool, than a foolish wit".

Terry Sarten is a word herder, musical adventurer and satirista.

Feedback: tgs@inspire.net.nz or www.telsarten.com/

- Wanganui Chronicle

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