Shakespeare Can Save the World from the F-Bomb…

In English this quarter we are studying language. Yes, we study language all year long (it is English after all), but this quarter we are reading a play by Shakespeare so we are spending a lot of time looking at strong words, active verbs, and reasoning out how changing a word can change the meaning of a sentence.

We’ve talked about “connotation” and “denotation” and how a word can mean more than one thing, depending on whether someone understands the symbolism of a word or not. (Check out the poem “The Naked and the Nude” by Robert Graves for an example of this).

Anyone who has ever spent much time with a high school student knows that their use of profanity is ubiquitous. The f-bomb slips out on a regular basis at breaks and during lunch. [I wish I had a nickel for every time I corrected a student who dropped one…but that’s another story.] It may seem casual to them, or to those who don’t spend much time in the high school setting, but the cumulative effect of all those bombs being dropped is pervasive. It lowers the IQ of the entire building: limiting creativity, snuffing out discussion, and impeding participation. Each time the word is spoken, it impacts the people who hear it.

But one of the fun side effects of combining Shakespeare and the study of language is the opportunity to possibly stamp out profanity in our school.

One of my lessons focused on “Shakespearean insults”. There are lots of versions of handouts or books available with examples of the three-part style of insult that is common to Shakespeare’s plays. I have a handout and a book that we use to discuss how the insult can be an art. Calling someone a “foot-licker” as a way to imply that they are a sycophant is a lot more interesting than a common insult (you know the one – it rhymes with “mastered”). A “coxcomb” is a “foolishly vain or conceited person” – again a better option than almost any contemporary insult starting with ‘f’ (such as the one that rhymes with chukhar).

How about “measle”? That means that someone is a ‘diseased wretch’.

When you combine any of those insults with some descriptors, the insult can really be polished up and layered with meaning:

A “churlish, dirt-rotten foot-licker” becomes a rude, filthy sycophant.

A “deceptious, fat-kidneyed coxcomb” becomes a deceiving, gluttonous conceited person.

A “lubberly, logger-headed measle” becomes an awkward, stupidly blockheaded diseased wretch.

I don’t mean to imply that I advocate that my students throw insults on a daily basis. But, when they play with language of any kind, they start to expand their repertoire of words to use. If they actually slowed down enough to think about which insult is appropriate in the moment in which they want to insult someone, they might also think about what is specifically upsetting them. The reflection might interrupt the ‘fight or flight’ response that prompts the insult in the first place.

Hopefully using Shakespeare’s language sparks creativity and opens up discussions between people. At least it will save the world from being impacted by a few f-bombs.


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