My new novel, Much Ado in Meryton, is a Pride and Prejudice variation that borrows heavily from Shakespeare’s biting play, Much Ado About Nothing. In that play, protagonists Beatrice and Benedick are constantly bickering and throwing insults at each other, until their friends decide to take matters into their own hands. Since Lizzy is my Beatrice and Mr. Darcy is my Benedick, they also had their share of snarky exchanges.
For research, I got to dive deep into Shakespeare’s treasure trove of rather nasty insults. There are whole books written on the topic, and more than a few “do-it-yourself” Shakespearean insult charts out there, so I will delight you with just a few. Have you seen any of these plays? Did the zingers make you laugh or cringe?
More of your conversation would infect my brain – Coriolanus
The tartness of his face sours ripe grapes – The Comedy of Errors
He has not so much brain as ear-wax – Troilus and Cressida
Her face is not worth sunburning – Henry V
Away, you starvelling, you elf-skin, you dried neat’s-tongue, bull’s-pizzle, you stock-fish! – Henry IV Part 1
I must tell you friendly in your ear, sell when you can, you are not for all markets – As You Like It
Thou lump of foul deformity – Richard III
You are as a candle, the better burnt out – Henry IV Part 2
Out of my sight! Thou dost infect mine eyes – Richard III
No longer from head to foot than from hip to hip, she is spherical, like a globe; I could find countries in her – The Comedy of Errors
Coming back to Jane Austen, we so commonly think of her as genteel and ever-so-nice, but she could certainly throw her own shade, and lots of it! The shades of Pemberley had nothing on the Shade of Austen herself. In her letters, her short stories, and her novels, of course, she insulted with an elegant and genteel blade that sliced deep.
I seldom read more than a page of her books without finding a sentence that makes me think, “ouch!”
Here are a few examples.
“Miss Morland, no one can think more highly of the understanding of women than I do. In my opinion, nature has given them so much that they never find it necessary to use more than half.” – Henry Tilney, Northanger Abbey
“Ah! ma’am, but there may be a difficulty. Pardon me–but you will be limited as to number–only three at once.” – Emma, in Emma (speaking to Miss Bates, about saying three very dull things indeed)
He had, in fact, though his sisters were now doing all they could for him, by calling him “poor Richard,” been nothing better than a thick-headed, unfeeling, unprofitable Dick Musgrove, who had never done any thing to entitle himself to more than the abbreviation of his name, living or dead. – Persuasion (As an aside, as well as being a nickname for Richard, Dick also meant an idiot.)
His wife was not always out of humour, nor his home always uncomfortable! – Sense and Sensibility
‘I have a high respect for your nerves. They are my old friends. I have heard you mention them with consideration these last twenty years at least.” – Mr. Bennet, Pride and Prejudice
“Every savage can dance.” – Mr. Darcy, Pride and Prejudice
Elinor agreed to it all, for she did not think he deserved the compliment of rational opposition. – Sense and Sensibility
“Actually to discover that Mr. Knightley is a gentleman! I doubt whether he will return the compliment, and discover her to be a lady.” – Emma, in Emma (Talking about Mrs. Elton)
Mr. Knightley seemed to be trying not to smile; and succeeded without difficulty, upon Mrs. Elton’s beginning to talk to him. – Emma
“If this man had not twelve thousand a year, he would be a very stupid fellow.” – Edmund, Mansfield Park (thinking about Mr. Rushworth)
Do you have a favourite zinger from Jane Austen’s pen? Please share it with us. We promise not to take offense!
Here is an excerpt from Much Ado in Meryton. There are a few insults flung around here, as elsewhere in the book. These two did not get off on the right foot!
* * *
“You will try to be polite, will you not?”
The majestic head shook in offence. “I? Not be polite? I am a gentleman, the grandson of an earl. I am always polite.”
Bingley cocked his head and raised his eyebrows.
“Well, almost always. Bingley, that woman tears at me as if her words had claws. I cannot look upon her but feel the barbs in my skin. I often check my arms to ensure they are not bleeding when I leave her presence. She scolds like a fishwife.”
“Come, the wind is colder than I like. Let us return to the house. I do not understand you at all, my friend. I find her absolutely charming.”
“Charming? Hah! I would as soon call her a wit!”
The words were out before he could stop them, but that same shiver that had bothered him earlier thrilled through him now. She had a great deal of wit, that annoying creature. It was barbed and aimed at his pride, but she was clever and quick. And too pleasant to look upon for his comfort. He snorted again.
They had reached the terrace, and only now did Darcy notice that the window to the parlour was open. Was she still inside at her book? His answer came at once as her voice penetrated the air.
“Indeed, Mr. Darcy knows all about wit. He has a plentiful lack of it by the quality of his slander.” Bother. She had heard him, and he had insulted her again. Now she would, of course, let fly all her arrows straight towards him. Would there be no end of trouble with this annoying woman?
There was movement inside and in a moment she stood at the window, the better to hear and be heard.
“Please, Miss Bennet, do not vex my friend. He is not always at his finest in new company.” Poor Bingley sounded rather desperate and had Darcy not been so irritated at Elizabeth, he might have laughed.
“I shall stand down, Mr. Bingley. I have little desire to spar with Mr. Darcy, for his conversation has little of merit to it. I have better ways to pass my time.”
Darcy began to see red. He fought to keep his temper under regulation. “Really, lady, I must protest this constant harassment! Have you nothing better to do than throw your crude insults my way?”
“Perhaps, sir, you would do better to find better places to be than where you may hear what I have to say. Others enjoy my company; if you find it objectionable, I suggest the fault lies with you and not with me.”
“Perhaps I merely have greater discernment than the crude type you are accustomed to consorting with.”
Things do get better between them, I promise!
If you wish to follow the rest of my blog tour for Much Ado in Meryton, please head over to my Facebook page where I’ll give a link to each day’s stop as we arrive. As part of the tour, I am doing a give-away as well, so please come, comment, and enter the draw. You can find me at https://www.facebook.com/RianaEverly/.
And, of course, you can find the book at your favourite bookseller.
I would love to hear your thoughts on Shakespeare, Austen, and verbal wars of wit in literature.