Shakespearean Insults and Austen, by Riana Everly

Shakespearean Insults and Austen, by Riana Everly

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?

I do desire we may be better strangers – As You Like It

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.

I do not want people to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal. – Jane Austen in a letter to her sister, Cassandra, on December 24, 1798

“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!

* * *

He stopped in his tracks. “Elizabeth? Elizabeth Bennet staying here for some time?” Oh Good Lord! This was not good news at all. He stifled a groan.

“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.

 

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15 COMMENTS
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Buturot
Buturot
January 18, 2022 12:02 AM

Though a little hurtful… always loved Mr. Darcy’s comments in the original and the variation stories. The comments that you would like to roll eyes or strike him as Lizzy does. Thank you for sharing an excerpt, enjoying it.

Mirta Ines Trupp
AuAu
January 16, 2022 6:30 PM

Great post! Jane’s own form of wit and sarcasm is legendary and one of the reasons I love her work. Thanks for sharing and best wishes for continued success!

Jean Stillman
Jean Stillman
January 16, 2022 6:19 PM

Love this piece and the comparison! One of my favorite quotes from Jane Austen’s work comes from Elizabeth Bennet after Mr. Collins tells them that he likes to arrange little studied compliments, and Elizabeth’s zinger back to him is: “Oh, believe me, no one would suspect your manners to be rehearsed.”

Corrie
AuAu
January 16, 2022 2:16 AM

Oh, I love Much Ado about Nothing! This is a great idea!

DarcyBennett
DarcyBennett
January 14, 2022 4:02 PM

Not exactly a favorite insult but one that impacts me the most is Emma’s put-down of Miss Bates as I find myself tearing up every time I hear it as my heart goes out to Miss Bates.

Kirstin Odegaard
AuAu
January 14, 2022 1:15 PM

First rate insults from Shakespeare and Austen–and you! Great excerpt.

J. W. Garrett
J. W. Garrett
January 14, 2022 9:36 AM

I loved the movie Much Ado.. staring Kenneth Branagh & Emma Thompson. The above excerpt made me laugh. How on earth will these two combatants come together? I’m sure you will show us. I look forward to reading it. I wish you all the best in the launch and success of this work. Happy New Year.

cindie snyder
cindie snyder
January 14, 2022 6:37 AM

Great idea! I have to read this one and see how it all turns out!

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