BOTTOM: What beard were I best to play it in?
QUINCE: Why, what you will.
BOTTOM: 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. [a]
Although The Guardian confidently proclaimed we’d reached ‘peak beard’ two years ago – in fact exactly two years ago today [b] – I stopped shaving before Christmas. I’m far from a fashion victim: this was initially sheer laziness (I loathe shaving); now increasingly compounded by curiosity about exactly what I might grow. After nearly thirty years of a more-or-less maintained goatee, I’ve gone wild.
It’s a work in progress (and had to survive a pre-Portugal pruning by She Who Must Be Obeyed), but I’ve ended up with a hybrid: think the hirsute love-child of Hemingway and Fidel Castro … the addition of a very disreputable cap during my Easter hols jolly to the Algarve has added, I like to think, a revolutionary aura to the whole thing. Plus, some students have given it a name of its own, like a stray dog. So, the beard is staying – for now.
Naturally, this started me thinking about beards and the Bard …
A casual Google, not really expecting much, led me to the startling work of Rachael K. Warmington.[c] Just when you think there are no new ‘angles’ to take, you find a paper on the Early Modern culture of beards!
Subjectively, I’d have liked to have seen more direct connection to the plays, and with all due respect to Warmington, I think the paper goes round in ever-decreasing circles, repeating the same material: nevertheless, here are a couple of interesting nuggets:
‘Henry VI issued a decree in 1447 that outlawed the wearing of mustaches[sic]. The decree stated that the upper lip had to be shaved every two weeks. […] Henry VIII cut his hair short, kept his beard, and ordered his court to follow suit. Ironically, Peterkin states that in 1535, Henry VIII taxed citizens that were bearded even though he was bearded himself.’
During this [Early Modern] period women, boys, and men were considered to be three separate genders. The beard was one of the characteristics associated with adult males. […] most boys did not grow a beard until they were in their early twenties. Boys who could grow a beard were not permitted to until they established their place in society. […] I believe that the beard was as important as the genitals […]
The ultra-useful concordance at Open Source Shakespeare [d] tells me that the word ‘beard‘ appears 91 times in 81 speeches. The plays which use the word most are:
- As You Like It (7)
- King Lear (6)
- Much Ado About Nothing (6)
- Twelfth Night (5)
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream (5)
‘Bearded‘ appears another seven times, by the way … let’s not forget my absolute favourite:
That villainous abominable misleader of youth,
Falstaff, that old white-bearded Satan. [e]
Which is probably where I’m heading. Give me a few years.
Several things occurred to me.
Firstly, the preponderance of the beard in comedy is linked to youthful indiscretions and adventures in love, but also because they all feature disguise, mistaken identity, and/or gender fluidity. Next, I considered Lear simply as a play about growing old – which is why I don’t believe you can truly ‘get’ the play unless you are an aging parent yourself, or have one to deal with. That’s one for another day.
It also struck me that beards became a sort of extension of the Sumptuary Laws which lasted for several hundred years, providing a dress code which allowed you to visually discern who was who from a distance. It’s got me thinking about all the times I come across beards in the plays, all the times I don’t, and what that signifies. It also makes me think about the beards, or fashionably clean-shaven jawlines, we see on stage or screen. Peak beard has indeed been and gone.
Beards then, though, were clearly a sign that you had ‘made it’. They were something you seemed to have to earn, and which attracted respect. It seems that the beard maketh the man? I also love the fact that you – occasionally – see Shaxberd (which I choose to pronounce Shakes-beard) in the variations of Will’s surname. [f]
I’ll hang on to that in the mornings when I look in the mirror and am tempted to do away with it …
[a] William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Arden second edition, ed. Harold F Brooks), (Methuen Drama: London, 2007), I.ii.84-89
[b] The Guardian, ‘Fashion Conscious Men Warned We May Have Reached Peak Beard‘, 16 April 2016
[c] Rachael K. Warmington, ‘The Culture of Beards in Shakespeare‘ (2008), Theses, Paper 126.
[d] Open Source Shakespeare, accessed 16 April 2018.
[e] William Shakespeare, King Henry IV Part 1 (Arden third edition, ed. David Scott Kastan), (Cengage Learning: London, 2002), II.iv.450-451
[f] Shakespeare Authorship, accessed 16 April 2018.