What better way is there to celebrate alongside Movember’s pogonophiles than by turning to the bearded bard himself? Shakespeare’s plays are full of references to beards; you can even purchase Shakespeare’s facial hair in a fine packet of celebrated literary moustaches.
Beards in Shakespeare’s day were more than a matter of fashion. In Rev. Thomas Firminger Thiselton-Dyer’s Folk-Lore of Shakespeare (1883), we learn that hair and beards of red or yellow were ‘regarded with ill favour’, and that the cut of one’s facial hair was often associated with a profession, giving rise to the glover’s beard and bishop’s or a cathedral beard. Thiselton-Dyer also notes that an abundance of hair on the head was suggestive of dull-wittedness, and an absence of hair on the chin, of dubious masculinity.
So it is no wonder that Shakespeare often draws attention to his characters’ facial hair: they stroke, observe, pluck and swear by their various beards. Benedick even shaves off his beard to signify the end of his bachelor ways.
A much discussed topic is the prevalence of facial hair in Elizabethan conceptualisations of masculinity. No facial fluff, no virility. We certainly lack no example of this in the plays. A beard is a man’s domain, and if not, then something is wrong. The witches are bearded; therefore, their collective danger is made explicit. Cessario’s youth is marked by the absence of a beard, signalling Viola’s gender, as well as providing a neat segue to her aside:
By my troth, I’ll tell thee, I am almost sick for one;
though I would not have it grow on my chin (Twelfth Night, 3.1).
Of course, the absence of women on the Elizabethan stage called for a clear visual signal of gender difference in performance. Costume aside, the presence and/ or absence of facial hair was an explicit and constant reminder of character gender. After all, Master Flute’s objection to playing the dainty Thisbe in the play-within-a-play in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, relates to his physical appearance:
Let me not play a woman. I have a beard coming (Midsummer Night’s Dream, 1.2)
Assuming that gender signalling is a given, what else is suggested about attitudes towards beards in Shakespeare’s works?
The connection between the player and the beard, for a start, is not restricted to gender. The choice of beard style was closely linked to personality. Mark Albert Johnston has examined historical attitudes towards facial hair, and notes that between biblical and literary depictions of bearded individuals, implicit cultural values were being placed on facial hair, linking beards to piety, virility and competency. Johnston also observes that portraiture after the Reformation shows a distinct fashion for beards up until the reign of James I. In addition, the Encyclopedia of Hair notes that 15th and 16th century European monarchs often influenced trends or fashions for facial hair, and even legislated on beard-cropping etiquette.
It’s no wonder, then, that beard styles carry so much weight in the plays. Bottom, when considering his costume for Pyramus, expostulates:
I will discharge it in either your straw-colour
beard, your orange-tawny beard, your purple-in-grain
beard, or your French-crown-colour beard, your
perfect yellow (Midsummer Night’s Dream, 1.2).
Beard-dying and false-beard wearing were, then, commonplace and nowhere more conspicuously so than on the stage where beard colour, shape and size were often as much a part of a character as his or her language.
So cultivate your beard or, failing that, purchase one, and join the world-wide celebration of facial hair this Movember. Shakespeare certainly would!
Are you growing a beard for Movember? Have you found any references to beards in Shakespeare’s works? Please leave your comments below.