The best Shakespearean Retorts

Now no-one is doubting the bard’s literary prowess, but often people will remember the “To be’s or not to be’s” as opposed to the “thou smell of mountain goat’s”, and that’s not right.

The man’s genius lies not only in his power to make a soliloquy, but also in his representation of the nastiness of certain human exchanges. In the interest of celebrating the catty and the creepy, I have compiled a list to show the playwright’s grasp of human’s potential vileness.

  1. If he were opened, and you find so much blood in his liver as will clog the foot of a flea, I’ll eat the rest of the anatomy – Sir Toby Belch, Twelfth Night.

Twelfth Night was my A-Level text so I shall always have a fondness, as well as an incredibly memory, for it, but even with my literary emotional bias I stand by this line as one of the best put-downs I have ever seen. Firstly, it rhymes, and that satisfying little aural trick just brings it to a new level. Secondly, it’s long – an entire narrative of dissecting and comparison between the man and the insect is told before we even reach the catty little punchline. We are talking three lines of build-up, which makes the ultimate pay-off – Andrew (the subject) is bloodless, cowardly – that much more satisfying. Belch doesn’t say this insult to the face of the insulted, and to be honest the craftsmanship of the diss’s form would probably be missed on poor Aguecheek. But that doesn’t mean you can’t – take this one home and use it in your next argument, and watch your opponent crumble under your verbal dexterity.

2. Queen Elizabeth: But thou didst kill my children.

Richard III: But in your daughter’s womb I bury them:

Where in that nest of spicery they shall breed Selves of themselves, to your recomforture – Richard III

I played Elizabeth (or as we liked to call her, Lizzie) in my second year at Cambridge, and to this day these lines haunt me. Richard is trying to convince a woman to persuade her daughter to marry him, but this woman is also the mother of two dead sons the same Richard arranged to kill. Her reservation as to this whole plan are perfectly summed up in that above half line: “thou didst kill my children”. His response shows not only a complete lack of emotional understanding (assuming grandchildren are a quick and equal replacement for murdered offspring) but his wording is disgusting. The dead babes “buried” in their of their sister. Not only is the marrying of the seat of life (the womb) with death (the children’s corpses) jarring and, one may well argue, perverse, but the whole image also feels incestuous. Also, describing the sexual parts of a girl as a “nest of spicery” to her mother just seems gross, somehow. The come-back does not, to me, feel convincing: either Shakespeare is showing a chink of Richard’s armour, a failure of his oratorical showmanship that has guided him through so far, or the King is using some very morbid humour indeed to trivialise the gravitas of his murders. Retort here is character-defining. As well as a bit queasiness-inducing.

3. Prospero: [I] lodged thee

In mine own cell, till thou didst seek to violate The honour of my child.

Caliban: O ho, O ho! would’t had been done!

Thou didst prevent me; I had peopled else This isle with Calibans – The Tempest

There are ways for an apologist to justify Caliban’s attempted “violation” – a savage, who lacked the knowledge of a civilised moral code easily accessible to those who have grown up within an established society, he acted according to his nature, not from cruelty but simply without knowing the law of God and man. This would make him less Caliban the vile rapist and more Caliban the ignorant. However, he does not respond to Prospero’s accusations with an attempt to explain and thus expiate his guilt. His malicious response is an attack on his master: a blatant show of disrespect to his authority. As Caliban has been reduced from self-sovereignty to abject slavery, and the one freedom left to him in his servile state is to curse his master: and curse he will. Prospero attempts to assert his moral authority by diminishing Caliban’s, but the slave does not cower and is not impressed. He laughs, like some “evil” sadistic figure, and commits himself to the role of antagonist. It is not a line that makes him likeable to an audience, but it allows him to establish a sense of self. Not a passive slave, a mere extension of his ruler, but an active individual, defined by his staunch opposition.

Another way this comment affronts Propsero’s dignity is through the suggestion of the possible blood-mingling. If Miranda, born of the master’s stock, has sex with Caliban, the slave, not only is she polluted by his touch but her own children will be corrupted by his blood, and the descendants of Prospero will also be the descendants of slaves. The offspring’s offspring, who should carry on the glory of Prospero and thus present a living legacy, will be overtaken by the subject: the children will not be Prosperos, but Calibans, and the “noble” line overwhelmed by the base. Thus Prospero’s lineage would be lost to the child of the devil’s dam.

Do you have a favourite nasty exchange not mentioned above?

Hopefully you do, as I only listed three. Send them over with your analysis, and we can make a dossier, and maybe publish some sort of book – there are a lot of collections of “Shakespeare’s Insults”, but not nearly enough “Literary Analyses of Shakespeare’s insults, come-backs and retorts”.

Adi Sen is the Content Manager for UniAdmissions which specialises in Medicine university admissions, mainly to Oxbridge. We have written 60+ books on admissions tests, run countless courses and provide a lot of free resources for applicants of courses which require admissions tests.

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