Why do we cringe when we hear "Shakespeare?"
If you ask me, it’s usually because of his words.
All those thines and thous and therefores
and wherefore-art-thous can be more than a little annoying.
But you have to wonder, why is he so popular?
Why have his plays been made and remade more than any other playwright?
It’s because of his words.
Back in the late 1500s and early 1600s,
that was the best tool that a person had,
and there was a lot to talk about.
However, most of it was pretty depressing.
You know, with the Black Plague and all.
Shakespeare does use a lot of words.
One of his most impressive accomplishments is his use of insults.
They would unify the entire audience;
and no matter where you sat, you could laugh at what was going on onstage.
Words, specifically dialogue in a drama setting,
are used for many different reasons:
to set the mood of the scene,
to give some more atmosphere to the setting,
and to develop relationships between characters.
Insults do this in a very short and sharp way.
Let’s first go to "Hamlet."
Right before this dialogue,
Polonius is the father of Ophelia, who is in love with Prince Hamlet.
King Claudius is trying to figure out why Prince Hamlet is acting so crazy
since the king married Prince Hamlet’s mother.
Polonius offers to use his daughter to get information from Prince Hamlet.
Then we go into Act II Scene 2.
Polonius: "Do you know me, my lord?"
Hamlet: "Excellent well. You’re a fishmonger."
Polonius: "Not I, my lord."
Hamlet: "Then I would you were so honest a man."
Now, even if you did not know what "fishmonger" meant,
you can use some contextual clues.
One: Polonius reacted in a negative way, so it must be bad.
Two: Fish smell bad, so it must be bad.
And three: "monger" just doesn’t sound like a good word.
So from not even knowing the meaning,
you’re beginning to construct some characterization
of the relationship between Hamlet and Polonius,
which was not good.
But if you dig some more, "fishmonger" means a broker of some type,
and in this setting, would mean like a pimp,
like Polonius is brokering out his daughter for money,
which he is doing for the king’s favor.
This allows you to see that Hamlet is not as crazy as he’s claiming to be,
and intensifies the animosity between these two characters.
Want another example?
"Romeo and Juliet" has some of the best insults of any of Shakespeare’s plays.
It’s a play about two gangs,
and the star-crossed lovers that take their own lives.
Well, with any fisticuffs
you know that there is some serious smack talk going on.
And you are not disappointed.
In Act I Scene 1, right from the get-go
we are shown the level of distrust and hatred
the members of the two families, the Capulets and Montagues, meet.
Gregory: "I will frown as I pass by, and let them take it as they list."
Sampson: "Nay, as they dare, I will bite my thumb at them,
which is a disgrace to them, if they bear it."
Enter Abraham and Balthasar.
Abraham: "Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?"
Sampson: "I do bite my thumb, sir."
Abraham: "Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?"
Okay, so how does this development help us understand mood or character?
Well, let’s break it down to the insult.
Biting your thumb today may not seem like a big deal,
but Sampson says it is an insult to them.
If they take it so, it must have been one.
This begins to show us the level of animosity
between even the men who work for the two Houses.
And you normally would not do anything to someone
unless you wanted to provoke them into a fight,
which is exactly what’s about to happen.
Looking deeper, biting your thumb in the time in which the play was written
is like giving someone the finger today.
A pretty strong feeling comes with that,
so we now are beginning to feel the tension in the scene.
Later on in the scene, Tybalt, from the House of the Capulets,
lays a good one on Benvolio from the House of the Montagues.
Tybalt: "What, art thou drawn among these heartless hinds?
Turn thee, Benvolio, and look upon thy death."
Benvolio: "I do but keep the peace; put up thy sword,
or manage it to part these men with me."
Tybalt: "What, drawn and talk of peace!
I hate the word, as I hate hell, all Montagues, and thee.
Have at thee, coward!"
Okay, heartless hinds.
We know that once again, it’s not a good thing.
Both families hate each other, and this is just adding fuel to the fire.
But just how bad is this stinger?
A heartless hind is a coward,
and calling someone that in front of his own men, and the rival family,
means there’s going to be a fight.
Tybalt basically calls out Benvolio,
and in order to keep his honor, Benvolio has to fight.
This dialogue gives us a good look
at the characterization between these two characters.
Tybalt thinks that the Montagues are nothing but cowardly dogs,
and has no respect for them.
Once again, adding dramatic tension to the scene.
Okay, now here’s a spoiler alert.
Tybalt’s hotheadedness and severe hatred of the Montagues
is what we literature people call his hamartia,
or what causes his downfall.
He goes down at the hands of Romeo.
So when you’re looking at Shakespeare, stop and look at the words,
because they really are trying to tell you something.