Slanging matches, drunken brawls and domestic bickering: we explore Henry IV’s finest insults

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“You whoreson upright rabbit!” (Henry IV Part 2)

In Henry IV (parts I and II) the action takes place across a wide range of society, perhaps more so than any other play, we see as much of the tavern life as we do the court, as much of the streets as the battlefield. As such the usual soaring speeches and funeral orations Henry IV is broken up with slanging matches, drunken brawls and domestic bickering.

“A weasel hath not such a deal of spleen as you are toss’d with” (Henry IV part I)

With books, calendars, tea-towels and mugs all dedicated to the art of the Shakespearean insult, it would seem this is a real fascination in modern audiences. When read or heard out of context these affronts seem like the stringing together of random words, rather like a clumsy macaroni necklace, but when tuned into Shakespeare-speak, and let’s be honest it normally takes until the end of Act 1 Scene II to have tuned your ear to the language and syntax of his plays, we see his skillfully constructed rhetoric.

“You are as a candle, the better part burnt out” (Henry IV, Part II)

The Elizabethans had a wonderful time playing with the English language as is testified by the songs, poetry and plays that remain from the era. Like the rest of their language the Elizabethan’s were inventive with their insults. A far cry from current four letter expletives, they attempted to squeeze as many undesirable words and unflattering comparisons into any one slur, let’s face it they had more time to throw around long insults than modern day life allows us.

“… you starveling, you elfskin, you dried neat’s tongue, you bull’s pizzle, you stockfish!” (Henry IV Part I)

The general formula for a Shakespearean insult is; pronoun + adjective + adjective + noun or (let’s have some fun here) [Thou] + Column 1 + Column 2 + Column 3
Column 1                Column 2                   Column 3

artless                      base-court                  apple-john
bawdy                      clay-brained                baggage
bootless                   beetle-headed            barnacle
Churlish                   common-kissing          canker-blossom
dissembling              dizzy-eyed                  coxcomb
errant                       dread-bolted              death-token
fawning                    hasty- witted               flap-dragon
jarring                       guts-griping               harpy
loggerheaded          half-faced                   hedge-pig
mammering              hedge-born               hugger-mugger
spleeny                    pox-marked               pignut
venomed                 toad-spotted              skainsmate
villainous                 tickle-brined               strumpet

Cursing like [an Elizabethan] sailor

Hang yourself, you muddy conger (Henry IV, Part II)

While today ‘cursing’ may be a synonym for expletives, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries contained much more superstition and notions of witchcraft that we are used to today. These supernatural ideas were not confined to specialist books and stories, ran through society like veins through the body. As such curses were more focused towards “A plague on both your houses” (Romeo and Juliet); and the promise of an illness, physical malady and eternities in fiery hell.

“A pox damn you, you muddy rascal” (Henry IV, Part II)

Henry IV parts I & II is noted amongst, fans, scholars, teachers and actors as having the most [inventive] insults amongst his cannon. So if you join us this autumn to see King Henry, Prince Hal, Falstaff and the rest of the company keep an ear out for the insults, you never know when you may need to recycle them.

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