Vulgar language seems to evolve more rapidly than common, cordial dialect. In reading Shakespeare, one encounters many instances of profanity that fall on unfamiliar ears. The words “knave,” “villain,” and “whoreson” appear often in the great playwright’s works, yet seem disconnected from contemporary vernacular. While knave and whoreson have all but disappeared, villain has taken on a stronger, criminal connotation. A villain, for Shakespeare, might suggest a mere rival or adversary. Whoreson seems autological; it means, in the literal sense, a whore’s son. But like today’s “son-of-a-bitch,” whoreson was another sharp insult in Shakespeare’s time. Knave, on the other hand, carried less venom, as it stemmed from a Germanic word for “boy.” But as the Oxford English Dictionary can attest, these words all carry an endearing connotation, as well.
Like the meanings of the plays themselves, the words within them transform with shifting cultures and geographies. This post will explore the origins and meanings of these words with especial regard to Shakespeare’s canon. The following two images illustrate these terms and their meanings, usage, and history. Click the links below them to view the full charts.