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‘Like a glover’s paring-knife’: Beards and Manly Professions

The importance of beards in Shakespeare


n celebration of World Beard Day on 6 September, our Lecturer in Shakespeare Studies Anjna Chouhan looks at how beards could give a clue to a man’s profession in Shakespeare's plays.

In the case of Shakespeare’s men, a beard is revelatory. According to Rev. Thomas Firminger Thiselton-Dyer’s Folk-Lore of Shakespeare (1883), beard names were derived from professions: the bishop’s beard, the glover’s beard, the general’s beard, the clown’s beard, and the citizen’s beard, to name only a few. If a type of beard signified a profession, this must have been incredibly useful on the stage, in a context where audiences were looking for visual clues about characters.

One useful function of a stage beard was its indication of masculinity or, more properly, manliness. In The Merry Wives of Windsor, for example, when the townsfolk are gossiping about Master Slender, they suggest that he has a ‘great round beard, like a glover’s paring-knife’. The shape, its density and suggested health of this beard set up the audience for a man in the prime of his manliness. Imagine the disappointment and hilarity for these people when they learn that in reality he has ‘a little wee face, with a little yellow beard’. Of course, the adjectives ‘wee’ and ‘little’ are derogative on various levels.

The absence of a beard suggests femininity and, more helpfully in the case of the plays, that the character is supposed to be a woman. Take Feste’s comment to Viola: ‘Now Jove, in his next commodity of hair, send thee a beard!’ Naturally, Viola is not a man and therefore needs no beard: not on her chin.

Because beards were symbolic of manhood, ‘to beard’, became an expression of hostility, which is why Hamlet considers an attack on his beard as a simultaneous attack on his integrity: ‘Who calls me villain? breaks my pate across?/ Plucks off my beard, and blows it in my face?

One important fact in Shakespeare’s plays is that a beard is uniquely a man’s domain. A woman with a beard is invariably dangerous. The witches in Macbeth, and the Witch of Brentford in Merry Wives, for instance, are unnatural, and their beards are the first indication that something is wrong.

Between biblical and literary depictions of bearded men as masculine archetypes, implicit cultural values were being placed on facial hair, linking beards to piety, competency and virility.

It is no wonder, then, that Shakespeare manly men all sport great big beards and that the poor Slenders of his canon, with their stubble and fair hair, are but ‘wee’ in every sense.