How We Read Shakespeare's Language
Paula Blank




I. Introduction

Away, you scullion! You rampallion! You fustiliarian! I’ll tickle your catastrophe!

—Page, 2 Henry IV, 2.1.59–60

In the epigraph above, a saucy Page is shouting at Mistress Quickly because she wants to have his master, Sir John Falstaff, arrested for theft. We all recognize a Shakespearean insult when we see one. The Page’s tirade against her is hilarious. Yet we probably don’t understand a word of it.

Or barely a word, anyway. He’s apparently trying to get rid of Mistress Quickly (“Away!”), he is calling her names, (“You scullion!”) and he is threatening her in some way (“I’ll tickle your catastrophe!”). But the specific meaning of the terms he hurls at her remains hazy. Some might recognize the word “scullion” (kitchen menial), but I’m doubtful that anyone today can make much sense of “rampallion” (ruffian) or “fustilarian” (frowsy slut) without the kind of gloss I just provided. One might be able to tease out the idea that the word “catastrophe” has something to do with endings, and that the Page is thus threatening to tickle Mistress Quickly’s buttocks. But again, without a gloss—or, alternatively, a performance in which the Page gestures obscenely toward the Hostess’ posterior—it’s unlikely that we know exactly what he’s after. But the point, for Shakesplish, is that we don’t have to know precisely what the Page is talking about to find it funny today. For us, oddly enough, this particular kind of verbal humor is intensified, rather than diminished, by its obscurity.

There is a popular consensus about how funny such insults are, as the dozens of books on the subject now available on the topic from Amazon attest, not to mention mugs, refrigerator magnets, and online Shakespearean insult-generators. We like the outrageous sound of them; we mix and match their elements to make new insults. Shakespeare’s insults are funny for some of the same reasons that his interjections are (see Chapter 2, p. 33–34): as unfamiliar terms, they always sound somewhat formal. Their formality, combined with the fact that they convey an outburst of indignation, rage, repulsion, or contempt, creates an incongruity that tickles us. The more illegible, inscrutable, and opaque Shakespeare’s insults are, the greater the incongruity, and the funnier they seem to us now.

Crucially, this is the case no matter their novelty back then. With respect to the Page’s verbal assault on Mistress Quickly, we may be in sync to some extent with Shakespeare’s audiences, for whom “rampallion” (ruffian) and “fustiliarian” (frowsy slut) were new words or “neologisms,” known as “hard words” in the sixteenth century. “Scullion,” once a common word for kitchen menial, isn’t as common now, so the Page’s insult is “harder” for us than ever. But most Shakespearean insults make use of ordinary Early Modern English words. Consider, for example, Doll Tearsheet’s “[Y]ou basket-hilt stale juggler, you” (2 Henry IV, 2.4.131), or Prince Hal’s “[T]hou knotty-pated fool, thou . . . greasy tallow-catch” (1 Henry IV, 2.4.227–28), or Kent’s “[Y]ou whoreson cullionly barber-monger” (King Lear, 2.2.33). These are just as funny to us as the Page’s taunt. Although we know, from their contexts, they are low or common, we still experience them as “uncommon,” and therefore, paradoxically, as examples of Shakespeare’s “heightened” language. I’ll have more to say about Shakespeare’s insults later in this chapter.

Shakespeare’s comedies have actually become “harder” for us than Shakespeare’s tragedies. We may not want to believe this, as the idea is counterintuitive: since tragedies are more serious, contending as they do with the grandest and deepest of human aspirations, depravities, and suffering, they should by rights be “harder” than comedies. Samuel Johnson, writing in 1765, observed that Shakespeare’s humor has lost none of its impact, “The force of his comick scenes has suffered little diminution from the changes made by a century and a half, in manners or in words.”1 This is no longer this case, and I think many of us feel embarrassed about it. We think comedy should be—easy.

Of course, sometimes we don’t or can’t laugh at Shakespeare’s comedy because of the content of his humor, no matter what verbal form that content takes. This may be the case with some of Shakespeare’s physical comedy. We may no longer enjoy, quite as much, some of the slapstick in The Comedy of Errors, particularly when masters (the Antipholus twins) are beating their slaves (the Dromio twins). Sometimes we can’t relate to the psychological or sociological circumstances that animate Shakespeare’s jokes, again, no matter his words. It’s often been noted that we no longer “get” the countless jokes in the plays about cuckoldry. From their pervasiveness in Shakespeare’s plays, these jokes about husbands whose wives have sex with other men must have been extremely amusing to Renaissance audiences. Scholar E. A. Colman has summed up the situation today: “The joke is dead. Audiences that still laugh at it usually do so in a dutiful fashion: they have been studying footnotes or programme notes and are eager . . . to enjoy what their piety has brought them to witness.”2 I won’t be addressing Shakespeare’s humor in cases where language has no or very little role to play. But I’ve mentioned the particular case of cuckold jokes because I will be suggesting later how we might be able to reanimate them now, and laugh once again, in Shakesplish.

Before I turn to further examples of “funny” and “unfunny” effects of Modern English on Shakespeare’s comedy, I want to situate them in the context of several dominant, enduring theories of humor in the Western tradition. These theories provide helpful perspectives on why we laugh, or fail to laugh, at Shakespeare’s verbal humor today.

The oldest and most enduring are often known, collectively, as “superiority” theories of Western humor. These can be traced to Aristotle’s account of comedy in his Poetics. Aristotle defined all drama as the imitation of human action; comedies, he wrote, are dramas that imitate inferior people whose actions make them ridiculous. Like Plato before him, Aristotle suggested that an audience’s laughter is provoked by a sense of superiority over such characters. Because comedy draws on a kind of power play between audience and character, jokes are “a kind of abuse.”3

But most historians of humor trace modern “superiority” theories directly to Thomas Hobbes, the English seventeenth-century philosopher. In his Leviathan, Hobbes declares that laughter comes from a feeling of “sudden glory” caused by “the apprehension of some deformed thing in another, by comparison whereof they suddenly applaud themselves.” Hobbes is wary of people who laugh too much, saying that it is common among those “that are conscious of the fewest abilities in themselves,” and who can only “keep themselves in their own favor by observing the imperfections of other men.”4 Hobbes deduced his theory from literary works, especially the great Western epics, in which hero-warriors regularly laugh in triumph.

“Superiority” theories apply to many examples of Shakespeare’s verbal humor, but not always in the ways they originally did. One of the reasons we love Shakespeare’s insults is because they give us a vicarious feeling of superiority, as we channel the contempt and scorn of the characters who dish them out. But there’s more to this in Shakesplish. The obscurity of many insults, as with the obscurity of all of Shakespeare’s “hard words,” may make us feel a bit inferior, at first. We get, from their dramatic contexts, that they are either ridiculous or ridiculing or both—but if so, we should understand them easily, shouldn’t we? Because if we don’t, we might have to admit to ourselves that we are as stupid or unworthy as those being insulted. It’s no wonder that one of the most popular books currently available on the topic of Shakespeare’s insults is subtitled, Educating Your Wit.5 In our fetishization of Shakespeare’s insults, we are protesting too much, perhaps. But by collecting them and rearranging them on our refrigerators, we are able to laugh in triumph after all.

In Shakesplish, we mask a similar, underlying feeling of inadequacy in the pleasure we take in Shakespeare’s “low” or common vocabulary generally—whenever that vocabulary is archaic or obscure. Falstaff, for example, often uses rude-and-ready words, homely and common in Early Modern English, but unknown to us now. Here are some from 1 Henry IV: “If I be not asham’d of my soldiers, I am a sous’d gurnet” (4.2.12); “If I do, filip me with a three-man beetle” (1.2.228); “Quoit him down, Bardolph, like a shove-groat shilling” (2.4.192–93). We need the glosses in our Modern English editions to translate each of them, respectively, as “If I am not ashamed of my soldiers, I am a pickled fish”; “If I do, strike me with the weight of a sledgehammer requiring three men to wield”; and “Throw him down, Bardolph, like a shove-board [a game like our modern shuffleboard] groat [coin].” There are many Shakesplish words from the plays like these, including, “bawcock” (fine fellow); “brock” (badger); “drumble” (dawdle); “fadge” (succeed); “gad” (engraving tool); “hox” (cripple, disable); “neaf” (fist); “pate” (head, skull); “pilchers” (small fish related to herring); “spleet” (break up); and “tray-trip” (game of dice). But our amusement doesn’t depend on these translations. On the contrary, we enjoy them all the more without them. In Shakesplish we still find them earthy in their Saxon simplicity. They may give us a feeling of “slumming” with a lower class of language, but also nostalgia for a fellowship we no longer have with it.

Some of Shakespeare’s verbal comedy invited superior laughter in its own time, but we no longer accept the invitation. Shakespeare associated certain, “ridiculous” quirks of language not just with lower class people but also rural folks, foreigners, and uneducated people generally. As Mikhail Bakhtin has explained, in his classic work The Dialogic Imagination, “Making fun of the linguistic and speech manners of groups” both within one’s own nation and without, “belongs to every people’s most ancient store of language images.”6 One of the first English literary genres to incorporate dialect comedy was the early sixteenth-century jest book. Jest books were collections of funny stories and anecdotes, whose punchline sometimes hinged on hicks and foreigners unable to speak the “King’s English” properly. And what we now call “stage dialects”—linguistic caricatures with limited repertoires of form, that are easily recognized and imitated—can be traced to Renaissance drama.

Shakespeare’s contemporary Ben Jonson offers a representative example of Renaissance literary attitudes toward regional speech. Near the end of his play Bartholomew Fair, a group of characters join together in a spirited game of “vapours.” The object of this game, as Jonson’s stage directions explain, is “Nonsense. Every man to oppose the last man that spoke: whether it concerned him, or no.”7 The players include Puppy, a wrestler from southwestern English, Northern, a clothier from the northern shires, and Whit, an Irishman. The characters compete in their respective dialects:

Puppy. Why, where are you, zurs? doe you vlinch, and leave us i’the zuds, now?

Northern. I’ll ne mare, I’is e’en as vull as a Paipers bag, by my troth, I.

Puppy. Doe my Northern cloth zhrinke i’ the wetting, ha?

. . . .

Whit. Who dold dee sho? (Bartholomew Fair, 4.4.10–12, 19)

Jonson’s audiences probably didn’t understand this anymore than we do. They didn’t need to and weren’t supposed to. Jonson reimagines the Fair as a Tower of Babel, where linguistic difference causes comic confusion, or “nonsense.” The whole point of these stage dialects is to suggest that these characters speak “vapor,” “exhalation[s] of the nature of steam . . . fig. unsubstantial or worthless.”8

By comparison, Shakespeare’s dialect comedy has seemed to scholars more substantive, less derisive. A famous example is a long scene in Henry V, in which the British captains of the King’s army—Jamy, the Scotsman, Macmorris, the Irishman, and Fluellen, the Welshman—discuss the battle ahead:

Jamy. It sall be vary gud, gud feith, gud captens both, and I sall quite you will gud leve, as I may pick occasion; that sall I, mary.

Macmorris. It is no time to discourse, so Chrish save me. The day is hot, and the weather, and the wars, and the King, and the Dukes; it is no time to discourse. The town is beseech’d, and the trumpet call us to the breach, and we talk and, be Chrish, do nothing. ’Tis shame for us all. So God sa’ me, ’tis shame to stand still, it is shame, by my hand; and there is throats to be cut, and works to be done, and there ish nothing done, so Christ sa’ me law.

Jamy. By the mess, ere theise eyes of mine take themselves to slomber, ay’ll de gud service, or I’ll lig i’th’grund for it; ay, or go to death; and I’ll pay’t as valourously as I may, that sall I suerly do, that is the breff and the long. Mary, I was full fain heard some question ’tween you tway.

Fluellen. Captain MacMorris, I think, look you, under your correction, there is not many of your nation—

Macmorris. Of my nation? What ish my nation? Ish a villain, and a basterd, and a knave, and a rascal? What ish my nation? Who talks of my nation? (3.2.102–24)

Paraphrased, in Modern English, the passage goes like this: Jamy begins by saying he’s going to fight valiantly, and Macmorris responds by saying that this is no time to talk. An argument ensues. The dialogue ends up in a verbal duel between Fluellen and Macmorris about the latter’s nation, and who has the right to talk about it, “What ish my nation? Who talks of my nation?” Shakespeare didn’t record Fluellen’s use of the phrase “look you,” or Jamy’s mispronunciation of our “sh” for “s,” or Macmorris’s confusion of “s” for “sh,” “from the life” and nor did he make them up. His Welshman, Scotsman, and Irishman use all the stock phonetic and lexical “tics” that Renaissance English writers had conventionally attributed to such speakers since the early sixteenth century.

There is a great deal of contemporary scholarship about this scene, much of it focused on what it can tell us about Shakespeare’s views about relations between England and Ireland. I do not know any contemporary scholars, in fact, who any longer treat this scene as primarily comic, as a game of vapors, which is no doubt how Shakespeare’s audiences heard it. It just isn’t acceptable to mock people because they speak English funny, especially when they are fighting your wars. Of course, Shakespeare may well have written this scene with a double consciousness; that is, he may be provoking us to ask serious questions about politics and national identity via his comedy. But we go too far if we think that Shakespeare is not also making fun of them. From a Renaissance perspective, King Henry’s captains are only inadvertently raising serious questions, in the same way that the “rude mechanicals” of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, including Bottom, may stumble, unawares, onto serious questions about the nature of theater. Because stage dialects are “politically incorrect,” we can’t really laugh at the joke anymore, so we take Shakespeare’s consciousness to be more or less single here.


1. Samuel Johnson, Mr. Johnson’s Preface to his Edition of Shakespear’s Plays (London: J. & R. Tonson et al., 1765), xvii.

2. Colman, Dramatic Use of Bawdy, 43.

3. Aaron Smuts, “Humor,” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, January 8, 2018, (accessed March 27, 2018). The reference to Aristotle is from his Nicomachean Ethics, book 4, chapter 8.

4. Ibid.; Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. Richard Tuck, Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 43.

5. Wayne F. Hill and Cynthia J. Ottchen, Shakespeare’s Insults: Educating Your Wit (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1995).

6. Mikhail Bahktin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, ed. Michael Holquist, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982), 82.

7. Ben Jonson, Bartholomew Fair, in Ben Jonson, ed. C. H. Herford and Percy and Evelyn Simpson, vol. 6 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966), 4.4.30, s.d.

8. OED, s.v. “vapour.”