Many extol King Lear as Shakespeare’s greatest play. Some even vaunt it as the very height of the Western canon. For their claims, they point, inter alia, to the strength of the tragedy’s language.
Take the mad monarch as he roves the wild heath: “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!…Singe my white head!” (3.2.1-6). Or the broken father when he cradles his deceased daughter: “Thou’lt come no more,/ Never, never, never, never, never!” (5.3.306-07). The Bard’s language plunges us into the depths of Lear’s despair.
But King Lear doesn’t just feature some of Shakespeare’s strongest language. It also showcases some of his, well, strongest language. And when we give it a closer look, much of it is truly below the belt.
Here’s a puzzle: why can’t you say “abso-jesus-lutely”? (Recently brought to my attention by Leland Paul Kusmer.)
Let’s back up for a sec. The classic case of expletive infixation involves “fucking” or “bloody” as in abso-fucking-lutely, abso-bloody-lutely. And one syllable swears can’t infix: there’s no abso-fuck-lutely or abso-shit-lutely. But “Jesus” is two syllables, people swear with it, and it even has the same stress as the other two. Why doesn’t it sound right as an infix?
For all of its eternal damnation, hell can seem pretty weak when it comes to strong language. Fuck and bitch, say, can rain down some serious fire and brimstone, but hell? Religious-based swears may not bring the same heat they once did in English, but hell still hath a lot of fury if we look at the many ways it bedevils our tongue. From hell yes! to hell-to-the-no, let’s take a tour of some of the linguistic uses—er, circles—of hell.