Barbs from the Bard and Other Great Insults
     Victoria Grossack

This column is devoted to insults. You may wonder why a column should be devoted to this particular topic; how could the art of crafting a fine insult matter to the creation of a good story? We’ll first go into that, afterwards we’ll continue with a look at insults from both William Shakespeare and other masters of the English Language.

A note of caution: some of the insults, even from the great bard himself, are obscene. If the inclusion of these offends you, let me apologize in advance. I think they’re a part of a body of great literature but not everyone may agree with me.

In Defense of Insults

Seriously, good insults can greatly enhance your storytelling. Let’s consider some of the reasons why.

Demonstration of Wit

Insults give you the opportunity to display your wit by constructing wonderfully nasty or even elegant put-downs. Wit can show itself in many ways, such as with phrases that are altered slightly, so that they take a moment to register. Here are a couple of examples from Shakespeare, in which words are played upon, either by repeating the same words or the same sounds in words:

Believe me, I do not believe thee, man. King John, 2. 2

Idol of idiot-worshippers! Troilus and Cressida, 5.1

If you have an exchange between opposing parties, you can greatly expand the wit. Here’s an exchange between a pair of well-known erudite men from the early part of the twentieth century.

“I am enclosing two tickets to the first night of my new play; bring a friend... if you have one.” George Bernard Shaw to Winston Churchill

“Cannot possibly attend first night; will attend second... if there is one.” Winston Churchill, in reply to George Bernard Shaw

Note how Churchill’s reply parallels Shaw’s invitation, greatly increasing our enjoyment.

Drama & Conflict

If your characters are calling each other names, they’re probably not getting along with each other. It’s very important for the sake of conflict and moving the story along that your characters don’t get on with each other all the time. This can apply even to characters who are friends, and even sometimes to characters who are lovers, or characters who are in parent-child relationships. A few insults – or even some phrases which are mistaken for insults – can add to the tension greatly. Or, conversely, they can actually release some tension, when one character finally takes the time to tell another what she really thinks of him, as Elizabeth Bennet does in Pride & Prejudice, after Mr. Darcy’s first (and likewise insulting) marriage proposal to her:

“You are mistaken, Mr. Darcy, if you suppose that the mode of your declaration affected me in any other way, than as it spared me the concern which I might have felt in refusing you, had you behaved in a more gentlemanlike manner … From the very beginning – from the first moment, I may almost say – of my acquaintance with you, your manners, impressing me with the fullest belief of your arrogance, your conceit, and your selfish disdain of the feelings of others, were such as to form that groundwork of disapprobation on which succeeding events have built so immovable a dislike; and I had not known you a month before I felt that you were the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed upon to marry.”

Eliza Bennet’s words serve many purposes. First, they allow the character to vent her feelings. After Mr. Darcy’s behavior (which has been truly outrageous, and not to be recommended for a man in courtship), Eliza has a reason to feel angry. She finally lets him have it, and we, the readers have to rejoice as we feel her finally give voice to her feelings! Second, though, they serve the basis for Eliza’s angst throughout the rest of the book, for she comes to regret them. Perversely, after this exchange she falls in love with him, and would like nothing better than to marry him. But how can such a desire be fulfilled, when she has not only refused him, but refused him with such language?

Entertainment Value of Extremes

One of the advantages in literature your characters can call each other names, because this is a situation in which real people are (generally) not getting hurt. So your characters can indulge and go to extremes in their language.

Sometimes they will be obscene in their expressions. For an example from Shakespeare, consider:

Eat my leek. Henry V, 5.1

Or a character may vent anger with gusto and vile threats:

Horrible villain, or I'll spurn thine eyes
Like balls before me; I'll unhair thy head,
Thou shalt be whipp'd with wire, and stew'd in brine,
Smarting in lingering pickle. Anthony and Cleopatra, 2.5

These types of speeches often have great entertainment value. They spice up your writing and your characters. They also keep your readers enthralled, saying internally, “I can’t believe she said that!” – as they flip hastily to the next page, eagerly seeking the next thrill.

More Examples

As reading insults can be so enjoyable, I’m sharing a few more with you. The first examples are from the Bard himself, and the rest are from others.

From William Shakespeare

Her beauty and her brain go not together. Cymbeline, 1. 3

He is not the flower of courtesy. Romeo and Juliet, 2. 5

He will steal, sir, an egg out of a cloister. All's Well That Ends Well, 4. 3

Let vultures gripe thy guts! The Merry Wives of Windsor, 1. 3

Let the doors be shut upon him, that he may play the fool nowhere but in's own house. Hamlet, 3. 1

From Others

He is a modest little person, with much to be modest about. - Winston Churchill

I have never killed a man, but I have read many obituaries with great pleasure. - Clarence Darrow

He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary. - William Faulkner (about Ernest Hemingway)

“Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?” - Ernest Hemingway (about William Faulkner)

“Thank you for sending me a copy of your book; I'll waste no time reading it.” - Moses Hadas

“He can compress the most words into the smallest idea of any man I know.” - Abraham Lincoln

“I've had a perfectly wonderful evening. But this wasn't it.” - Groucho Marx

“I didn't attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it.” - Mark Twain

“He has no enemies, but is intensely disliked by his friends.” - Oscar Wilde


I hope that you will all see the value of “adding insult to injury” in your writing. A last piece of advice: your insults should fit your characters and your story. A mild-mannered character should indulge, perhaps, in understatement, while other characters should rage at the top of their lungs.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this lighter-than-usual column, my present to you for this holiday season. Let me thank you for all the attention, evidenced by the appreciative e-mails, which you have sent me during 2006. If you have questions or comments – or if you want to practice a few insults on me – you can write to me at Grossackva at Yahoo dot com. Otherwise, see you next year!

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About the Writer:

Victoria Grossack is, with Alice Underwood, the author of Iokaste: The Novel of the Mother-Wife of Oedipus, which, by the way, is an excellent example of a book with plot-driven chapters and cliffhangers. There's exciting news about Iokaste: even the Greeks are reading it! Learn more about Iokaste and other books in the series at Tapestry of Bronze

Victoria was a moderator of a critique group for Coffeehouse for Writers and teaches the From Leaves to Forests and Writing Historical Fiction workshops for Coffeehouse for Writers.