We are very economical insulters.
In contrast, Shakespeare was positively spendthrift in his offence. In King Lear alone he comes up with a menu of outlandish slurs. My favourite is: “You whoreson cullionly barbermonger”.
But even Shakespeare could have learned a thing or two from the preachers of his time. John Donne, the central character in my play Into Thy Hands, once opened a sermon with: “Men of this world, worms of this dunghill, you have no minds to change.” And then he got really nasty. At another time, he concluded with: “Between that excremental jelly that thy body is made of at first, and that jelly which thy body dissolves into at last, there is not so noisome, so putrid a thing in nature.” This was insult raised to the status of metaphysical art.
This is what we have lost today. The politician in Westminster, like an angry drinker, seeks only to affirm his own status and to humiliate his target. There is no further dimension. Sometimes this is true of characters in old plays, too, of course, but surprisingly often the insult is designed to make a bigger point about the corruption and inadequacies of the world. An insult today is almost afraid of imagination; it is a stiletto, made for a single job. Our renaissance forefathers were instead in the business of making connections, of widening their wits as far as they could go.
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