Introducing children to Shakespeare by using insults.

Thou art a base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three suited, hundred pound, filthy, worsted stocking knave…” (King Lear)  I hope, dear reader, you don’t think I am referring to you.   Perish the thought, no, I simply wanted to grab your swan-like neck and swing it in my direction.  I don’t want to insult you but I do want to talk about insults and how they can be used to help children be comfortable with Shakespeare’s plays.

 Children love Shakespeare if they are introduced to his works properly.  Unfortunately, what should be an exciting journey with The Bard often becomes painful, embarrassing and boring.  I say painful, embarrassing and boring because if the background work is not done, Shakespeare’s language can seem unapproachable.  It then becomes embarrassing because the learner feels stupid.  We all know that feeling when something seems to be definitely “not for us”, we cut off and it becomes boring.  I am a great believer, therefore, of priming children with Shakespeare’s works well before they reach the teenage years.  Children who have been introduced to the stories   (it is important that children know what is happening in story form well in advance of reading a full blown play) and aspects of the language are ready to read one of Shakespeare’s plays.  It is thoughtless to expect teenagers who haven’t grown up in a literary atmosphere or a book loving household to embrace a sixteenth century play without any former grounding.  Fundamentally, I cannot stress the importance of introducing children to Shakespeare in a child friendly manner.

This is where insults are invaluable.  I first came across this exercise whilst doing a day long workshop with The Royal Shakespeare Company.  It was used as a warming up exercise to allow everyone to relax and clear out those dreadful inhibitions we can suffer from.  Everyone is given a piece of card with an insult written on it.  It can be something like this quotation from King Lear:

Thou art a boil, a plague sore, an embossed carbuncle in my corrupted blood.

Elizabethan music can be played whilst everyone swiftly marches or skips around the room.  When the music stops you turn to the nearest person to you and shout your insult out at the top of your voice.  They then shout their insult back at you.  The next time, it can be whispered in a sly manner. In essence, the insults can be said in many different ways e.g. angrily or with uncontrollable laughter. It is a very good drama exercise. The insult cards can then be changed around.  Incidentally, children, teenagers and adults love this as they are actually allowed to use insults without getting into trouble – it has that naughty, delicious edge to it which allows us to let off steam and then gives us the desire to learn.  It also gives Shakespeare a bit of street cred before he gets the label of boring.

As children love to be creative, I have added an activity so that they can create the insults themselves.


They need to take an insult from the first two sections below (both of these are adjectives) and then add it to the third section which is a noun.  Add ‘thou’ at the beginning and you have a lovely Shakespearean insult.

Section 1 – base, proud, shallow, beggarly, bawdy, filthy, coward, paunchy, gorbellied, puking, droning, dankish.

Section 2  worsted-stocking, pigeon-egg,  boil-brained, onion-eyed, elf-skinned, trunk-inheriting, clapper-clawed, milk-livered, lily-livered, doghearted, hundred-pound.

Section 3 knave, rogue, bladder, bugbear, pribbling, flap-dragon, boar-pig, barnacle, apple-john, maggot-pie, coxcomb.

For instance – Thou filthy, boil-brained boar-pig.

For any children who particularly enjoy the insults, I love Elizabethan insults so much that I have them all the way through my book Will Blyton and The Stinking Shadow.  Will finds Hamnet, a small boy trapped in a stone, who unfortunately hurls insults every time he opens his mouth.  He is, of course, from the Elizabethan period and has had a curse put upon him by the evil, Elizabethan magician Corpsehound.  His outrageous insults get Will into trouble everywhere he goes.

“Leave me be, thou fetid, old skanky breath,” says Hamnet.


So thou base, clapper-clawed rogue – I’m sorry it’s become a habit.  What I really mean is “until we meet again, dear reader.”


Filed under Creative Writing, Education, Literary Criticism, Parenting

19 responses to “Introducing children to Shakespeare by using insults.

  1. ‘Painful, embarrassing and boring’…that must be me you were talking about as that’s what it was like in school and I’ve never got over it! You are so right. This is brilliant. It reminds me of a tactic I was once taught to help children resolve fall outs. They had to sit down (with an adult) and get it off their chest by calling each other all the horrible names they could think of – it didn’t last long. They were laughing in no time and differences resolved! You’ve added a bit more ammunition now!

    • Thanks for the comment. I love your story of the resolving fallout tactic – in fact, I think that you have a strong idea for an article there. I know that I would like to know more about how you were taught this and how it was used. Parents get worn down daily by their children having a go at each other, as you know. I think parents all over the world would use this tactic if you wrote about it.

  2. I reckon you should add this as a resort to all the Primary Resources to be found on the web! Teachers might learn something!! x

  3. You are clearly a woman after my own heart! Yes, I wholeheartedly agree with the above – fortunately, I enjoyed a much better educational system than the British one. I grew up in continental Europe, Germany and while the German language sadly lacks in actual swear words, the use of sarcasm and irony is widespread and embraced by young and old insult hurlers equally. Hollywood likes to think that Germans only ever refer to each other and their foes/opponents as “Schweinehunde”, but “pig-dog” (literal translation) is such a harmless swearword that it only raises an eyebrow at such quaintness being used today, but hardly an angry fist. Schiller and Goethe are my favourite classic swear-masters, by the way…

    the good thing about teaching kids to swear in such a wordy and worthy manner is that they automatically learn to resolve their difference with language rather than violence. The spoken word and a withering look (think any character ever played by Dame Maggie Smith) can be so much more effective than a black eye!

    • Hi Maria Thanks for the comment. I adore the German sense of humour and use of language. Over the years, I have met quite a few German people through work and travel (although I am ashamed to say that I haven’t been to Germany but it is on my list) and shared some great times and laughs with them. To be honest, I have found their sense of humour and use of language very similar to my own. Of course the names Goethe and Shakespeare always go hand in hand. I am not au fait with Schiller but now that I have been directed there I can change that. It is so lovely to be in touch with you. Michelle


    • Hello Maria Thank you for the mention on twitter. Best wishes Michelle


    • Your comment on spiders has mysteriously disappeared overnight. I saw it briefly when I got back last night and then when I came to reply – whoosh – no more. Anyway, what I have to tell you is that my son and I love listening to Bowie, so you automatically come into my mind when we watch Ziggy Stardust – “so where were the spiders?” etc.. The moral of this story is be careful what you write about. Actually, thinking of it – I wonder how many people think of you now when they see Dracula.


  4. Great ideas… shame I don’t teach any more!
    When I was teaching Shakespeare, I rewrote Macbeth as a story about gang warfare – I changed all the names so Macbeth was Mick, Banquo was Ben etc. and only once the kids had got the story and the themes did we look at Shakespeare. After a few pages one of the students said “Hey, this is the story of Mick!”
    I hope lots of teachers have a look at this… thanks for sharing!
    By the way, my favourite insult is ‘thou pale face loon!’

    • I think that is wonderful. Children need fabulous teachers like you. They were lucky to have you. It really does make a difference when you teach Macbeth the way you taught it. I bet your pupils remember you for making them like and understand Shakespeare.

    • I’ve sent a reply and it disappeared so please don’t think I’m having a strange turn if you get two similar replies. I think it is wonderful that you taught Shakespeare in the way that you did. I am sure that your pupils will remember you for it. It is amazing how we never forget really good teachers who helped us understand and love literature.

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  10. Thanks for dropping by and liking my post. Be well.

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