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Learn English through Insults by Shakespeare


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Why do we cringe when we hear "Shakespeare?"

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If you ask me, it's usually because of his words.

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All those thines and thous and therefores

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and wherefore-art-thous can be more than a little annoying.

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But you have to wonder, why is he so popular?

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Why have his plays been made and remade more than any other playwright?

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It's because of his words.

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Back in the late 1500s and early 1600s,

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that was the best tool that a person had,

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and there was a lot to talk about.

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However, most of it was pretty depressing.

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You know, with the Black Plague and all.

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Shakespeare does use a lot of words.

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One of his most impressive accomplishments is his use of insults.

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They would unify the entire audience;

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and no matter where you sat, you could laugh at what was going on onstage.

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Words, specifically dialogue in a drama setting,

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are used for many different reasons:

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to set the mood of the scene,

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to give some more atmosphere to the setting,

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and to develop relationships between characters.

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Insults do this in a very short and sharp way.

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Let's first go to "Hamlet."

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Right before this dialogue,

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Polonius is the father of Ophelia, who is in love with Prince Hamlet.

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King Claudius is trying to figure out why Prince Hamlet is acting so crazy

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since the king married Prince Hamlet's mother.

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Polonius offers to use his daughter to get information from Prince Hamlet.

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Then we go into Act II Scene 2.

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Polonius: "Do you know me, my lord?"

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Hamlet: "Excellent well. You're a fishmonger."

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Polonius: "Not I, my lord."

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Hamlet: "Then I would you were so honest a man."

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Now, even if you did not know what "fishmonger" meant,

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you can use some contextual clues.

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One: Polonius reacted in a negative way, so it must be bad.

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Two: Fish smell bad, so it must be bad.

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And three: "monger" just doesn't sound like a good word.

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So from not even knowing the meaning,

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you're beginning to construct some characterization

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of the relationship between Hamlet and Polonius,

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which was not good.

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But if you dig some more, "fishmonger" means a broker of some type,

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and in this setting, would mean like a pimp,

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like Polonius is brokering out his daughter for money,

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which he is doing for the king's favor.

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This allows you to see that Hamlet is not as crazy as he's claiming to be,

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and intensifies the animosity between these two characters.

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Want another example?

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"Romeo and Juliet" has some of the best insults of any of Shakespeare's plays.

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It's a play about two gangs,

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and the star-crossed lovers that take their own lives.

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Well, with any fisticuffs

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you know that there is some serious smack talk going on.

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And you are not disappointed.

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In Act I Scene 1, right from the get-go

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we are shown the level of distrust and hatred

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the members of the two families, the Capulets and Montagues, meet.

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Gregory: "I will frown as I pass by, and let them take it as they list."

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Sampson: "Nay, as they dare, I will bite my thumb at them,

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which is a disgrace to them, if they bear it."

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Enter Abraham and Balthasar.

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Abraham: "Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?"

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Sampson: "I do bite my thumb, sir."

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Abraham: "Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?"

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Okay, so how does this development help us understand mood or character?

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Well, let's break it down to the insult.

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Biting your thumb today may not seem like a big deal,

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but Sampson says it is an insult to them.

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If they take it so, it must have been one.

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This begins to show us the level of animosity

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between even the men who work for the two Houses.

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And you normally would not do anything to someone

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unless you wanted to provoke them into a fight,

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which is exactly what's about to happen.

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Looking deeper, biting your thumb in the time in which the play was written

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is like giving someone the finger today.

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A pretty strong feeling comes with that,

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so we now are beginning to feel the tension in the scene.

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Later on in the scene, Tybalt, from the House of the Capulets,

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lays a good one on Benvolio from the House of the Montagues.

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Tybalt: "What, art thou drawn among these heartless hinds?

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Turn thee, Benvolio, and look upon thy death."

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Benvolio: "I do but keep the peace; put up thy sword,

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or manage it to part these men with me."

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Tybalt: "What, drawn and talk of peace!

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I hate the word, as I hate hell, all Montagues, and thee.

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Have at thee, coward!"

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Okay, heartless hinds.

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We know that once again, it's not a good thing.

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Both families hate each other, and this is just adding fuel to the fire.

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But just how bad is this stinger?

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A heartless hind is a coward,

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and calling someone that in front of his own men, and the rival family,

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means there's going to be a fight.

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Tybalt basically calls out Benvolio,

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and in order to keep his honor, Benvolio has to fight.

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This dialogue gives us a good look

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at the characterization between these two characters.

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Tybalt thinks that the Montagues are nothing but cowardly dogs,

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and has no respect for them.

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Once again, adding dramatic tension to the scene.

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Okay, now here's a spoiler alert.

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Tybalt's hotheadedness and severe hatred of the Montagues

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is what we literature people call his hamartia,

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or what causes his downfall.

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Oh, yes.

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He goes down at the hands of Romeo.

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So when you're looking at Shakespeare, stop and look at the words,

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because they really are trying to tell you something.

#II46leanenglishshakespeare

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