Curses and Insults
In Shakespeare's Plays

Home: Shakespeare Index

See Shakespeare Study Guides in Kindle Format
With Complete Annotated Texts

Shakespeare's Characters Use Words as Whips
By Michael J. Cummings...2012 ©

Shakespeare's extraordinary writing ability manifests itself in expressions of love, admiration, joy, sorrow, triumph, pride, humility, greed, disappointment, regret, remorse. It also manifests itself in curses and insults that strike with the force of a mule kick. The invective of his characters can be short or long, as the following two examples from Timon of Athens demonstrate:
Example 1

Would thou wert clean enough to spit upon! (4.3.341)

Example 2

Plagues incident to men, 
Your potent and infectious fevers heap 
On Athens, ripe for stroke! Thou cold sciatica, 
Cripple our senators, that their limbs may halt 
As lamely as their manners! Lust and liberty 
Creep in the minds and marrows of our youth, 
That ’gainst the stream of virtue they may strive, 
And drown themselves in riot! Itches, blains, 
Sow all the Athenian bosoms, and their crop 
Be general leprosy! Breath infect breath, 
That their society, as their friendship, may 
Be merely poison! (4.1.23-34)
One of the most frequently occurring curse words in the plays is whoreson, a noun meaning bastard, contemptible person, knave, or scoundrel. Following are examples of sentences containing this word.
You peasant swain! you whoreson malthorse drudge! (The Taming of the Shrew, 4.1.62)

Down with them; cut the villains’ throats: ah! whoreson caterpillars! bacon-fed knaves! (Henry IV Part I, 2.2.43)

Thou whoreson zed! thou unnecessary letter! My lord, if you'll give me leave, I will tread this unbolted villain into
mortar and daub the walls of a jakes with him. (King Lear, 2.2.38)
A Plague on You

Another curse word that appears often is the noun plague. (Plague was one of the deadliest diseases in the time of Shakespeare.) Here are examples:
A plague upon him! . . . He can say nothing of me: hush, hush! (All's Well That Ends Well, (4.3.47)

A plague upon that villain Somerset,
That thus delays my promised supply
Of horsemen, that were levied for this siege! (Henry VI Part I, 4.3.11-13)

A plague of all cowards, I say, and a vengeance too! (Henry IV Part I, 2.4.50)
Sometimes a character simply strings together a series of insulting adjectives (as in the the first example below) or a series of insulting nouns (as in the second example)
Example 1: Adjectives

He is deformed, crooked, old and sere,
Ill-faced, worse bodied, shapeless everywhere;
Vicious, ungentle, foolish, blunt, unkind;
Stigmatical in making, worse in mind. (The Comedy of Errors, 4.2.23-26)

Example 2: Nouns

[Y]ou 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 tailor's-yard, you sheath, you bowcase; you vile standing-tuck! (Henry IV Part I, 2.4.103)
Cursing Machine

Occasionally a character's candor and outspokenness turn him into a cursing machine. Such is Thersites, a slave in Troilus and Cressida who runs errands for the Greek warriors. Ironically, this lowly fellow is the one character in the play who well understands the folly of the Trojan War and the inanity of its participants. Shakespeare makes him the conscience of the play—a sharp-tongued, often sarcastic conscience.

Time and again, Thersites openly insults the other characters. But his description of them as incompetents and nincompoops is generally accurate. In the presence of Ajax, he tells Achilles that Ajax's “pia mater is not worth the ninth part of a sparrow” (2.1.47) and that he “wears his wit in his belly and his guts in his head” (2.1.47). Then he turns on Achilles, telling him that “a great deal of your wit, too, lies in your sinews . . .” (2.1 66). 

Thersites reserves his most searing insults for Patroclus, who engages in a homosexual relationship with Achilles. Here is the conversation in which Thersites lambastes Patroclus:
    THERSITES...Prithee, be silent, boy; I profit not by thy talk:
    thou art thought to be Achilles' male varlet.
    PATROCLUS...Male varlet, you rogue! what's that?
    THERSITES...Why, his masculine whore. Now, the rotten diseases
    of the south, the guts-griping, ruptures, catarrhs,
    loads o' gravel i' the back, lethargies, cold
    palsies, raw eyes, dirt-rotten livers, wheezing
    lungs, bladders full of imposthume, sciaticas,
    limekilns i' the palm, incurable bone-ache, and the
    rivelled fee-simple of the tetter, take and take
    again such preposterous discoveries!
    PATROCLUS...Why thou damnable box of envy, thou, what meanest
    thou to curse thus?
    THERSITES...Do I curse thee?
    PATROCLUS...Why no, you ruinous butt, you whoreson
    indistinguishable cur, no.
    THERSITES...No! why art thou then exasperate, thou idle
    immaterial skein of sleave-silk, thou green sarcenet
    flap for a sore eye, thou tassel of a prodigal's
    purse, thou? Ah, how the poor world is pestered
    with such waterflies, diminutives of nature! (5.1.16-22)
Certain characters are targets of curses because of their heinous crimes or other nefarious deeds. Such a character is King Richard III, known as Gloucester before he murders his way to the crown. While viewing the corpse of King Henry VI, Lady Anne says of his murderer, Gloucester,
O! cursed be the hand that made these holes;     
Cursed the heart that had the heart to do it!           
Cursed the blood that let this blood from hence!           
More direful hap betide that hated wretch,           
That makes us wretched by the death of thee,            
Than I can wish to adders, spiders, toads,           
Or any creeping venom’d thing that lives!           
If ever he have child, abortive be it,           
Prodigious, and untimely brought to light,         
Whose ugly and unnatural aspect           
May fright the hopeful mother at the view;           
And that be heir to his unhappiness!           
If ever he have wife, let her be made      
More miserable by the death of him           
Than I am made by my young lord and thee! (Richard III, 1.2.16-30)  
Great Buys on the Following Items at Amazon.com

Cameras     Cell Phones and Accessories      Computers      Digital Music      Game Downloads       Jewelry
Kindle E-Readers      Musical Instruments       Men's Clothes       Women's Clothes       Handbags and Shoes

In the same play, Queen Margaret speaks the following lines about Gloucester (Richard) to the Duchess of York:

From forth the kennel of thy womb hath crept
A hell-hound that doth hunt us all to death:
That dog, that had his teeth before his eyes,
To worry lambs and lap their gentle blood,
That foul defacer of God's handiwork,
That excellent grand tyrant of the earth,
That reigns in galled eyes of weeping souls,
Thy womb let loose, to chase us to our graves.
O upright, just, and true-disposing God,
How do I thank thee, that this carnal cur
Preys on the issue of his mother's body,
And makes her pew-fellow with others' moan! (Richard III, 4.4.50-61)  

Queen Margaret later addresses Gloucester as,
Thou elvish-mark'd, abortive, rooting hog!
Thou that wast seal'd in thy nativity
The slave of nature and the son of hell!
Thou slander of thy mother's heavy womb!
Thou loathed issue of thy father's loins!
Thou rag of honour! thou detested— (Richard III, 1.3.233-238)

A Grab Bag of Insults

Following are additional examples of curses and insults that pepper Shakespeare's plays.

I do desire we may be better strangers. (As You Like It, 3.2.98)

Vile worm, thou wast o’erlook’d even in thy birth. (The Merry Wives of Windsor, 5.5.60)

Proper deformity seems not in the fiend 
So horrid as in woman. (King Lear, 4.2.69-70)

Foul-spoken coward, that thunder’st with thy tongue,           
And with thy weapon nothing dar’st perform. (Titus Andronicus, 2.1.63-64)

                              Blasts and fogs upon thee!           
Th’ untented woundings of a father’s curse           
Pierce every sense about thee! (King Lear, 1.4.217-219)

Thou art by no means valiant;           
For thou dost fear the soft and tender fork           
Of a poor worm. (Measure for Measure, 3.1.17-19)

O! that I were a god, to shoot forth thunder
Upon these paltry, servile, abject drudges! (Henry VI Part II, 4.1.109-110)

You are now worth another word, else I'ld [I'd] call you knave. (All's Well That Ends Well, 2.3.204)

Truly, thou are damned, like an ill-roasted egg, all on one side. (As You Like It, 3.2.21)

[Thou art] a knave, a rascal, an eater of broken meats; a base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited,
hundred-pound, filthy, worsted-stocking knave; a lily-liver’d, action-taking knave; a whoreson, glass-gazing,
superserviceable, finical rogue; one-trunk-inheriting slave; one that wouldst be a bawd, in way of good
service, and art nothing but the composition of a knave, beggar, coward, pandar, and the son and
heir of a mongrel bitch. (King Lear, 2.2.14)

You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things! (Julius Caesar, 1.1.27)

You heedless joltheads and unmanner’d slaves! (The Taming of the Shrew, 4.1.103)   

You peasant swain! you whoreson malthorse drudge! (The Taming of the Shrew, 4.1.62)

                          Thou art a traitor, 
False to thy gods, thy brother, and thy father, 
Conspirant ’gainst this high illustrious prince, 
And, from the extremest upward of thy head 
To the descent and dust below thy foot, 
A most toad-spotted traitor. (King Lear, 5.3.155-160)

You have show’d a tender fatherly regard, 
To wish me wed to one half lunatic. (The Taming of the Shrew, 2.1.288-289)    

You are not worth the dust which the rude wind 
Blows in your face. (King Lear, 4.2.37-38)

Dissembling harlot, thou art false in all;
And art confederate with a damned pack
To make a loathsome abject scorn of me. (The Comedy of Errors, 4.4.89-81)

Andronicus, would thou wert shipp’d to hell,           
Rather than rob me of the people’s hearts! (Titus Andronicus, 1.1.216)    
Would the fountain of your mind were clear again, that I might water an ass in it. (Troilus and Cressida, 3.3.289)

                                  Not Hercules
Could have knocked out his brains, for he had none (Cymbeline, 4.2.152-153)

[The servant] is a whoreson, beetle-headed, flap-ear’d knave! (The Taming of the Shrew, 4.1.91)

What’s the matter, you dissentious rogues,           
That, rubbing the poor itch of your opinion,           
Make yourselves scabs? (Coriolanus, 1.1.130-132)

              [Y]our affections are       
A sick man’s appetite, who desires most that           
Which would increase his evil. (Coriolanus, 1.1.144-146)

I grant him bloody,  
Luxurious, avaricious, false, deceitful,     
Sudden, malicious, smacking of every sin     
That has a name. (Macbeth, 4.3.68-71)

Slanders, sir; for the satirical rogue says here that old men have grey beards; that their faces
are wrinkled; their eyes purging thick amber and plum-tree gum; and that they have a
plentiful lack of wit, together with most weak hams. All which, sir, though I most powerfully
and potently believe, yet I hold it not honesty to have it thus set down; for you yourself, sir,
should be old as I am if, like a crab, you could go backward. (Hamlet, 2.2.204)

What! you poor, base, rascally, cheating, lack-linen mate! Away, you mouldy rogue, away!
(Henry IV Part II, 2.4.45)

You blue-bottle rogue, you filthy famish'd correctioner, if you be not swing'd, I'll forswear half-kirtles.
(Henry IV Part II, 5.4.8)

What a brazen-fac'd varlet art thou, to deny thou knowest me! Is it two days ago since I beat thee
and tripp'd up thy heels before the King? [Draws his sword.] Draw, you rogue! for, though it be
night, yet the moon shines. I'll make a sop o' th' moonshine o' you. Draw, you whoreson cullionly
barbermonger! draw! (King Lear, 2.2.16)

That such a slave as this should wear a sword,
Who wears no honesty. Such smiling rogues as these,
Like rats, oft bite the holy cords atwain
Which are too intrinse t' unloose. (King Lear, 2.2.43-46)

You, rogue, will ensconce your rags, your cat-a-mountain looks, your red-lattice phrases, and your
bold-beating oaths, under the shelter of your honour (Merry Wives, 2.2.9)

Hang him, mechanical salt-butter rogue! (Merry Wives, 2.2.93)

That same Diomed's a false-hearted rogue, a most unjust knave; I will no more trust him when he leers
than I will a serpent when he hisses. (Troilus and Cressida, 5.1.65)

He is deformed, crooked, old and sere,
Ill-fac’d, worse bodied, shapeless every where;
Vicious, ungentle, foolish, blunt, unkind,
Stigmatical in making, worse in mind. (The Comedy of Errors, 4.2.23-26)

Not a more cowardly rogue in all Bohemia: if you had but looked big and spit at him, he'ld have run.
(The Winter's Tale, 4.2.34)

O thou caitiff! O thou varlet! O thou wicked Hannibal! (Measure for Measure, 2.1.110)

The devil damn thee black, thou cream-fac’d loon!  (Macbeth, 5.3.14)

There will little learning die . . . that day thou art hanged. (Timon of Athens, 2.2.89)
Bloody, bawdy villain!
Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain! (Hamlet, 2.2.414-115)