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Welcome to Episode 196 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that goes behind the curtain and into the real life and history of William Shakespeare by interviewing the experts who know him best.

Body Language is the communication that happens on stage through gestures, positions, and symbols created with the actor’s body during performance. One of the most remembered examples of body language in Shakespeare’s plays comes from Romeo and Juliet when Sampson says “I bite my thumb at your sir!” This scene is often funny to us today, due in large part to the fact that we are removed from an understanding as to why someone would bite their thumb at all, much less at someone else.

We can tell from context that biting your thumb is meant to be an insult, but do you know why it was insulting? Culture of the 16th-17th century when Shakespeare wrote lines about biting thumbs or making figs were similar gestures to giving the finger, or even milder gestures like putting your hands on your hips to indicate impatience. We recognize the cultural gestures of our own lifetime like “hook ‘em horns” or the “A-ok” symbol, but Shakespeare had these same kinds of specific body language communications as well, and they were just as recognizable for his audience as a facepalm emoji might be for us today.

Shakespeare uses the word “gesture” at least 10 times in his works with phrases like “there was speech in their dumbness, language in their very gesture” from A Winter’s Tale, or when he writes in the stage directions of the Tempest that Alonzo should use “a frantic gesture” when he comes on stage. From Sampson biting his thumb in Romeo and Juliet to the unwritten motions characters would have used when delivering their lines to indicate sarcasm, grief, insult, or shame, physical motions of the characters on stage were often just as, if not more, important to understand than the words themselves. Our guest this week has researched 16th century gestures and body language extensively and written about them in her book titled “Shakespeare’s Body Language: Shaming Gestures and Gender Politics on the Renaissance Stage.” Dr. Miranda Fay Thomas joins us this week to discuss gestures like biting thumbs but also assumptions we make about “praying hands” or “palm to palm.” We are delighted to have her with us this week to explore gestures, symbols, and the culture of unspoken physical performance from Shakespeare’s lifetime.

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Dr. Miranda Fay Thomas is Assistant Professor in Theatre and Performance at Trinity College Dublin. They are the author of Shakespeare’s Body Language: Shaming Gestures and Gender Politics on the Renaissance Stage (Arden, 2019) and editor of The Tempest for Arden Performance Editions (2021). They have also written articles and chapters for The Palgrave Handbook of Theatre and Migration (Palgrave, 2022), Playfulness in Shakespearean Adaptations (Routledge, 2020), How and Why We Teach Shakespeare (Routledge, 2019),The Palgrave Handbook of Shakespeare’s Queens (2018), and Early Modern Literary Studies (2016). Current research projects include co-editing an essay collection entitled The Idea of the Shakespearean Actor and editing the anonymous play The Taming of A Shrew for the New Oxford Shakespeare: Alternative Versions.

In this episode, I’ll be asking Miranda Fay Thomas about :

  • When Sampson bites his thumb in Romeo and Juliet, is he just being rude or is this gesture akin to throwing down a gauntlet, meaning is he trying to start a fight with this gesture?
  • The phrase, “making figs” comes up in Shakespeare’s plays and this is known to be an obscene gesture, but Miranda, what would this gesture have looked like for someone to do? And why is it considered obscene?
  • In Macbeth, one of the most famous scenes is that of Lady Macbeth trying to wash away the blood from her hands. Miranda, I didn’t think of this as a significant gesture from a historical context until your book pointed that out. Why is Lady Macbeth washing her hands incessantly seen as a specific shaming gesture instead of just the natural ravings of a woman plagued with guilt?

… and more!

Books & Resources Miranda Fay Thomas Recommends

​​Farah Karim-Cooper, The Hand on the Shakespearean Stage: Gesture, Touch, and the Spectacle of Dismemberment (Arden Bloomsbury, 2016)

Darren Tunstall, Shakespeare and Gesture in Practice (Palgrave, 2016)

Ewan Fernie, Shame in Shakespeare (Routledge, 2001)

Miranda’s desert island book:

Evelyn Waugh, Decline and Fall.

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Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?Abraham

Romeo and Juliet (I.1)

Sampson Capulet, along with Gregory Capulet, biting his thumb at Abram Montague, along with other. (left to right: Montague Servingman, Abram, Sampson, Gregory) Public Domain. Source | This scene takes place in Act 1, Scene 1 of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

Biting Your Thumb

Biting your thumb was a kind of body language seen as a mild obscenity gesture for Shakespeare’s lifetime. At the beginning of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet the gesture is used in an entire scene where the characters cannot quite decide if they are going to have a fight, or not, based around the idea of no one wanting to admit they are biting their thumbs at the other person. Miranda explains the dynamic around the biting thumb gesture:

Great performative potential. Can be done over the top, or more discreetly. The debate between Sampson and Gregory upto this moment present them rather cowardly, hate Montagues, want to have a fight, but don’t want to start it. They are provoking a fight with this gesture. The discussion around it presents a sense of deniability, no one wants to be the one who began the fight. It is a strong act of bravado (as many vulgar gestures are), but you are gesturing towards an idea that you are not fully committing to. 

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O excellent! I love long life better than figs.Chairman

Antony and Cleopatra (I.2)

Gesture fist with thumb through fingers. The “fig sign” is an ancient gesture with many uses, including fingerspelling the letter T in American Sign Language | For Shakespeare’s lifetime, to make this gesture at someone is akin to “shooting the bird” today. If you made this hand sign, and directed it at someone in particular, you were quite deliberately insulting them in a fierce and derogatory way.| Source | User Jeremykemp on en.wikipedia | Permission: Released under the GNU Free Documentation License.| This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Making Figs Hand Gesture

While the references to the fig gesture in Shakespeare’s plays are much more subtle than the overt insulting that happens with biting your thumb body language in Romeo and Juliet, Miranda explains that this fist-based hand gesture called “making figs” at someone was popular in the Renaissance period. However, unlike biting your thumb, this particular hand gesture was assocaited specifically with Spain. Miranda explains,

“Making figs” is similar to the thumb bite in that it is an antiquated gesture many modern audience members are not familiar with in terms of connecting the visual presentation. Put your thumb between the first and second finger. The thumb is potentially considered a fallic symbol, the association between putting your thumb between your first and second fingers [is a sexual reference] telling someone to go f-themselves.

The figs is an association with nakedness, and figs were used by teh Spanish to bump off their enemies, so the expression also….drop dead. 

Used in Dante’s Inferno, makes figs with his hands. Throws up both hands with figs “take that God, they’re aimed at you.” 

On a more digusting note legend of Barbarosta, humiliated the army by forcing the enemies to take the figs out of the anus of a mule with their teeth. 

Gestures accumulate meaning in a kind of collage over time, they build up to this overall picture. 

Appearing in a Shakespeare play does suggest it is English, but there aren’t many other English plays that use this gesture and in Romeoa nd Juliet it actually gets explained to be obscene, and that suggests the audience was not really understood in England as insulting. Might have been more continental (mainland Europe) gesture. There was also a reputation that italians were very gesture oriented and could have been included because the play is set in Italy, so it could have been included as part of a comment on the Italian rudeness through gesture, instead of being English. 

The fig was known as the Spanish fig, treated as a Spanish gesture used in English culture. Obviously, in this 1580s and 90s, Spain is the enemy, and [there would have been an opinion in England] that wanted to gesticulate back to them in insulting ways…. [Making figs gesture is] not uniquely English, far from it, Shakespeare’s appropriating gestures from other cultures firstly for the setting of his plays but also to bring in the idea of cultural unease in the face of the barbarous “other” of the Spanish.

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What is it she does now? Look, how she rubs her hands.Doctor

Macbeth (V.1)

Southampton portrait wriothesley

A portrait of Lady Macbeth, rubbing her hands with a cloth. Titled “Lady Macbeth” by Gabriel von Maxx (1840-1915), painting dated 1885. At the Hermitage Museum. The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei (DVD-ROM), distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. ISBN3936122202.| Source | Public Domain

Hand Washing as a Sign of Shame

In Macbeth, one of the most famous scenes is that of Lady Macbeth trying to wash away the blood from her hands. Lady Macbeth herself is performing the body language and her actions are narrated by the Doctor who is observing her. Lady Macbeth is frantically washing her hands and the audience is let in on the disturbed state of her mind by the Doctor who is presumed to be providing a professional medical opinion as he identifies Lady Macbeth’s handwashing to be obsessive. He declares Lady Macbeth to be suffering from a disease that is “beyond my practice” (Act V Scene 1). Miranda explains the historical context of this action in her book, and shares today the reason why Lady Macbeth washing her hands incessantly is seen as a specific shaming gesture instead of just the natural ravings of a woman plagued with guilt:

One phrase, “I wash my hands of this.” it is removing yourself from responsibility. If the hand is a symbol of agency, washing it ias getting rid of something you’ve done. Repeatedly washing your hands is referred in…1644, anthology of gestures, images of them [the gestures] and he describes hand washing as “A show of innocence gesture” the cleansing motion talks about it as a “heiroglyph of innocence”; comes back to the Bible. 

Many of these associations come back to Biblical provenances. Longevity of these stories and the way they make it into language and gestures itself and our associations with those actions. In those actions, Pilate condemns Christs to be crucified then he publicly washes his hands. Pilate didn’t want to condemn Christ to death, and there was a lot of pressure to convict him. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John all mention sp[ecifically Pilate washing his hands, Psalms mentions “wash my hands of innocence” 

Lady Macbeth is of course guilty, and her washing is an intentional gesture to try and appear innocent. The fiultuiy is that she is definitely guilt,y so her inability ot get clean reflects shame.

Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers‘ kiss.Juliet

Romeo and Juliet (I.5)

Newington Butts Present Day Photograph by Laurie Johnson

Act I scene 5: Romeo’s first interview with Juliet |  engraving by A. Smith (dates unknown, approx 1792) after painting by W. Miller (dates unknown) –Original Image | Source Image | Public Domain 

Palm to Palm Body Language

One gesture question that our listeners have submitted to the show several times that I’m grateful to Miranda for clearing up for us is what is actually happening when Juliet is talking to Romeo and says “For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch, And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.” I swoon over this entire exchange every time I see this play performed, but for the 16th century, there is a gestural significance to her word choice and the action of this scene.

Miranda explains why the symbol of praying hands here is considered romantic:

The book to go to on this one is Farah Karim Cooper, she talks about “love at first touch”, her focus on why this gesture happens is focused on tactility and intimacy. The palm in this period is one of the most intimate places of the body. Touching a woman’s palm is far more erotic than we think about today. Can reflect your inner thoughts. There’s also religious connotations and the hands are used in acts of devotion. Hands can relay spiritual acts.
She talks about kissing hands or lips is a relatively common practice, but what she observes, palm to palm touches only happens in court dances, and itsn’t mentioned in decorum books of the period. The threshold of intimacy has been crossed through what the hands have done. The kiss is confirmation of what the hands have already done.