Last night I saw Angus Jackson’s King Lear, now at BAM, with a spry, sturdy Frank Langella in the title role. Langella was astonishing—he does high dudgeon, he does piss and vinegar, he does grief, perplexity, and weariness. His rimy, bellowing voice belies a surprising range, especially in the later acts. Lear dodders around, benighted, mad, machinating and fulminating to no one.
I haven’t read Lear in a while, and I’d forgotten that it has some tremendous insults in it—as befits a play about a graying, cantankerous head of state. I have a thing for archaic insults. They carry all the rancor of their modern-day counterparts, and with the added advantage of unfamiliarity—you called me what? The result is pure, clean-burning rage. It’s not unlike seeing someone mouth off in a country where you don’t speak the language.
Shakespeare, being Shakespeare, really knows how to deliver a good tongue-lashing—the theater has always been an ideal venue to see people go off on one another, and accordingly his plays are zested with putdowns. These are, I think, great fun to try on your friends. (And then, later, once you’ve mastered them, on your enemies.)
Here’s Lear, red hot but ice cold, in act 1, scene 4, asking the heavens to rain suffering on his daughter Goneril, who has just put him out:
Hear, nature, hear; dear goddess, hear!
Suspend thy purpose, if thou didst intend
To make this creature fruitful!
Into her womb convey sterility!
Dry up in her the organs of increase;
And from her derogate body never spring
A babe to honour her! If she must teem,
Create her child of spleen; that it may live,
And be a thwart disnatured torment to her!
Let it stamp wrinkles in her brow of youth;
With cadent tears fret channels in her cheeks;
Turn all her mother’s pains and benefits
To laughter and contempt; that she may feel
How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is
To have a thankless child! Away, away!
That convey feels most damning—as if the gods would shuttle sterility into a womb on a wheelbarrow, or with some sort of pulley apparatus. Derogate sits so well as an adjective that I wonder why we ever let it fall into obsolescence, and if there’s not a metal band called Child of Spleen, well, I’ll start one.
But the most scalding torrent of invective in Lear belongs to Kent, who, a bit later on, gives Oswald one of theater’s greatest dressings-down:
Fellow, I know thee.
What dost thou know me for?
A knave; a rascal; an eater of broken meats; a
base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited,
hundred-pound, filthy, worsted-stocking knave; a
lily-livered, action-taking knave, a whoreson,
glass-gazing, super-serviceable finical rogue;
one-trunk-inheriting slave; one that wouldst be a
bawd, in way of good service, and art nothing but
the composition of a knave, beggar, coward, pandar,
and the son and heir of a mongrel bitch: one whom I
will beat into clamorous whining, if thou deniest
the least syllable of thy addition.
Why, what a monstrous fellow art thou, thus to rail
on one that is neither known of thee nor knows thee!
What a brazen-faced varlet art thou, to deny thou
knowest me! Is it two days ago since I tripped up
thy heels, and beat thee before the king? Draw, you
rogue: for, though it be night, yet the moon
shines; I’ll make a sop o’ the moonshine of you:
draw, you whoreson cullionly barber-monger, draw.
Should you deploy “whoreson cullionly barber-monger” at your next bar brawl, you’ll emerge victorious, guaranteed.
Not all the insults are so limpid, though. Earlier in the scene Kent says, “If I had thee in Lipsbury pinfold, I would make thee care for me.” I have no way of divining what “Lipsbury pinfold” might be—a wrestling variant, something akin to boxing’s Marquess of Queensberry rules? The New York Times says it means “between the teeth”; the Independent says it means oral sex; less reputable quarters of the internet say it’s “a very fine weave cloth, possibly with a narrow pinstripe on it.”
Still, “Lipsbury pinfold” has moxie—it pops. One imagines that, uttered with proper scorn, the term would still have the desired effect. There’s only one way to find out.