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Welcome to Episode 147 of That Shakespeare Life, the show that takes you behind the curtain and into the real life and history of William Shakespeare.

Shakespeare uses the word “beard” in his plays over one hundred times, and almost always as a way to indicate a man’s status, power, or authority. In Anthony and Cleopatra Caesar is referred to as “scarce bearded” as a slight against him by Cleopatra, several times the phrase “by my beard” is used in plays like Alls Well That Ends Well, as an oath, and in Henry V Gower refers to a specific style of beard being known as “the general’s cut.” Throughout the works of Shakespeare we see women swooning over men who have stylish beards, old men being cited for the grey or white color of their beards, and younger men with ambition referring to the presentation and style of their facial hair as an indication of their strength in battle as well as their position of authority. Portraits of men like Robert Devereux and Sir Walter Raleigh testify to intricate detail on a man’s face when it came to choosing, and maintaining a beard, but what exactly were the fashion normatives for men’s facial hair in the 16th century? When we say they “cut them” what did they use for that purpose? Here today to help us explore how men wore their beards, the various styles that were popular, and exactly what kinds of razors a man like William Shakespeare might use to acquire a style like the general’s cut to his beard, is our guest and author of Shaving and Masculinity in 18th century Britain, Alun Withey.  

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Alun Withey is a senior lecturer in history at Exeter University in the UK. He is an expert on the history of medicine and the body in the 17th and 18th centuries, and has just completed a major study of the health and medical history of facial hair in Britain. His new book Concerning Beards: Facial Hair, Health and Practice in England, 1650-1900 published in February 2021. He has appeared on a wide variety of TV and radio shows across the world, talking about his research, and also runs a blog (DrAlun.wordpress.com).

 

In this episode, I’ll be asking Alun Withey about :

  • Specific styles of beards, like the general’s cut mentioned in Henry V, sound almost like they would take an artist to accomplish. Alun, would a man like William Shakespeare have done his own facial grooming to achieve these styles or would he have gone into town to see a barber?

  • We know that barbers in the 16th century were often also medical professionals in their own right, performing surgeries to the point of being called “barber-surgeons” as a title. Alun, when a man during Shakespeare’s lifetime visited the barber, would he have gone there for any type of cosmetic shaving to improve his physical appearance beyond just needing to shave his beard?

  • In his work, Shaving and Masculinity in 18th Century Britain, Alun writes, “In 1653 John Bulwer had pronounced that shaving was not only an act of indecency, but also one of “practicall blasphemy most inexpiable against Nature, and God the Author of Nature, whose worke the Beard is.” For Bulwer, the beard was a natural symbol of the male, and one which differentiated him from women, investing the face with authority and power.” Alun, 1653 is close to 40 years after Shakespeare died and a great deal of cultural change took place in that time, so how reflective of Shakespeare’s time period is this perspective on beards? PLays like Antony and Cleopatra seem to indicate the beard was a symbol of power in the 16th century, but was Bulwer expressing a new cultural perspective when he wrote these statements or do they represent what someone like Shakespeare would have thought about shaving as well?

     

     


… and more!

Get the History Guide for Elizabethan Beards!

    This episode has a Complete Lesson Pack!

    Get the Basic History Guide PLUS 5 worksheets.
    What's inside:
    – Draw your own Beard Coloring Page
    – Play Review Worksheet for A Midsummer Night's Dream
    – Act It Out Activity (Test if Beards Make a Difference!)
    – Beard Styles Word Search
    – Writing Prompt for the History of Beards in Shakespeare's lifetime

    It shall to the barber's, with your beard.
    Hamlet

    Hamlet (II.2)

    witch feeding familiars 1604

    Detailed description of all classes on earth, high and low, spiritual and secular, all arts, crafts and trades … “from Jost Amman and Hans Sachs / Frankfurt am Main / 1568 / thanks to www.digitalis.uni-koeln.de | Image Source

    The Barber Surgeon Cut A Man's Beard

    The style of beards that were popular in Elizabethan and early modern England required the services of a skilled professional to accomplish. Alun explains,

    Some men might have used scissors, but it’s highly likely a barber would play a part if a guy was going to have a styled beard. Not many men have their own razors. Certainly in Shakespaere’s lifetime. The barber would handle it.

    We know that barbers in the 16th century were often also medical professionals in their own right, performing surgeries to the point of being called “barber-surgeons” as a title. When a man during Shakespeare’s lifetime visited the barber, he would have gone there for cosmetic and medical work to improve his physical appearance beyond just needing to shave his beard. Alun explains:

    Since the 16th century, the barber and the surgeon had come together and a barber was at this time a medical practitioner and an important figure. It’s the barber who does a range of tasks (hair and shave) but also body work tasks. Get earwax out, scrape your tongue, lance your boils, etc. The barber shop is an important place for men as a gathering place, as well as practical for the purpose they are there to have done. The man who went to the barber would go for a variety of things, not just the beard.

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    Shave the head, and tie the beard; and say it was the desire of the penitent to be so bared before his death
    Vincentio

    Measure for Measure (IV.2)

    william strachey mermaid tavern group

    Early 17th century portrait of Galileo (dated 1602-1607). Showing Galileo wearing a Spade beard style. Galileo Galilei, portrait by Domenico Tintoretto Image source

    The beard as a symbol of power

    In his work, Shaving and Masculinity in 18th Century Britain, Alun writes, “In 1653 John Bulwer had pronounced that shaving was not only an act of indecency, but also one of “practicall blasphemy most inexpiable against Nature, and God the Author of Nature, whose worke the Beard is.” For Bulwer, the beard was a natural symbol of the male, and one which differentiated him from women, investing the face with authority and power.” We see the perspective of considering the beard a symbol of power show up in plays like Antony and Cleopatra, indicating the beard was a symbol of power in the 16th century (as well as Bulwer's 17th century). Alun explains:

    Bulwer is sitting on the cusp of change. Things remained consistent well into the 17th century, but at the end of the 17th century things change. Beard styles get smaller, and then disappear completely by the 18th century. For Shakespeare, the beard is a sign of manliness and it is something a man would want to do.

    Lithograph used in this quote from Antony and Cleopatra is public domain and can be found here. 

    “Let Antony look over Caesar's head And speak as loud as Mars. By Jupiter, Were I the wearer of Antonius' beard, I would not shave't to-day.” (II.2) This line seems to support what Alun writes about with the quote from Bulwer that shaving was associated with a removal of power but also that shaving might been of a necessity as Domtius’ line indicates an expectation that Antony would shave eventually, just “not today” as the line says.  Alun explains the association between grooming and the status of being a gentleman and how that contrasts with the idea of just letting your beard grow wild and wooly: 

    There is a fine line to trod here. You don’t want to be unkempt, unruly, or messy, but you do want to show you can grow a beard. If you can’t run one, you are seen under suspicion of effeminantcy, derogaryory words for men who can’t grow beards. “Beardless boy” it’s all about being able to grow one. If you let it run too wild, you face accusations that you aren’t keeping yourself up.

    Alun explains that power was not the only use of a man's beard for Elizabethan England. The shaving of a beard could also be used for humilitaion (and we see this use come up in a couple of places in Shakespeare's plays where cahracters threaten to shave another man's “crown” or otherwise remove their hair.) Alun comments, 

    There are a few references in passing that shaving your head was a sign of humiliation. Symbolic removal of hair in the belief it may weaken them. The tonsier (shaved head) was an expected presentation for religious men like monks. 

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    Then a soldier, …bearded like the pard…
    Jacques

    As You Like It (II.7)

    Southampton portrait wriothesley

    The Van Dyke style beard is named after Antothy Van Dyck, who is shown wearing the beard style in this selft portrait from after 1633. Image Source

    Popular Beard Styles

     In Shakespeare’s As You Like It, Jaques and Touchstone reference a beard being “Cut well”, Rosalind and Ceclia reference the value of a man being tied to the presentation of his beard, and Jaques in Act II Scene 7, references a soldier being “bearded like a pard” all of which seem to indicate there were certain styles of beard associated with specific professions, or even able to indicate a man’s status in society visually. Alun outlines a few of the beard styles that were popular:

     




    Painted in the style of 17th century Spanish and Southern Italian painting. The sitter outfit may also suggest mid 17th century creation. Thomas Parr (c. 1482/1483 (reputedly) – 13 November 1635) was an Englishman who was said to have lived for 152 years. He is often referred to as Old Parr or Old Tom Parr. In 1635, Thomas Howard, 21st Earl of Arundel, visited Parr and took him to London to meet King Charles I. Identification by Marcin Latka (Artinpl). Source

     

     

    Pard Beard: “Beareded like a pard” is a long beard of age and wisdom (biblical beard). 

     

     

     

    Title: 16th C Portrait of Thomas Cramner with full white beard. Thomas Cramner. Archbishop of Canterbury and architect of the English Reformation wore a long beard in his later years. Source

     

    Full white beard on an old man can indicate age and wisdom. Ambiguous, because can also represent dried up humors and headed towards the grave.

     

    Spade Beard:


    Title: 17th century portrait of Francisco de Andrade LeitãoPortrait of Ambassador Andrade Leitao from the workshop of Anselm Hulle between 1642 and 1648. In 1642, Francisco de Andrade Leitão was appointed an extraordinary ambassador of Portugal in the Hague. He remained there until 1643, negotiating the restitution of Luanda and S. Tomé, occupied by the Dutch. In 1648 he went to the Congress of Münster as plenipotentiary minister of the Portuguese Kingdom (together with Dr. Luís Pereira de Castro). Depicted with spade beard. Identification and attribution by Marcin Latka (Artinpl). Image Source

     

    Alun explains that the early tudor style of a spade beard (big square beard) was a known status symbol because the spade was used to dig the graves of your enemies. Wearing a spade beard was a way for a man to project power.

     

    Stiletto beard: two pointy mustaches and a pointy beard, meant to imitate a dagger, martial, military style. 

    Anonymous epitaph portrait of a man with a stiletto beard. Completed in the second quarter of the 17th century and today housed at the Museum of the Warsaw Archdiocese.  Public Domain. Source

     

    Other beard styles popular during Shakespeare's lifetime include the Van Dyke style beard, the Cadiz Beard, the Tishan, the goatee, and others. See several of the beard styles and portraits of men who wore them (including Shakespeare!) inside this ebook history guide to Elizabethan Beards: 

    Get the History Guide for Elizabethan Beards!

      This episode has a Complete Lesson Pack!

      Get the Basic History Guide PLUS 5 worksheets.
      What's inside:
      – Draw your own Beard Coloring Page
      – Play Review Worksheet for A Midsummer Night's Dream
      – Act It Out Activity (Test if Beards Make a Difference!)
      – Beard Styles Word Search
      – Writing Prompt for the History of Beards in Shakespeare's lifetime

      And what this fourteen years no razor touch'd,
      To grace thy marriage-day, I'll beautify.
      Pericles

      Pericles (V.3)

      Comedy of Errors Lithograph

      Lithograph of 16th century French surgeon, Ambroise Paré working in a busy shop. He has a straight razor in his hand. Ambroise Paré, as an apprentice barber-surgeon in a busy shop in Paris. Wood engraving by E. Morin after J. Ansseau. | From Wellcome Image Library | Wellcome Collection gallery (2018-03-23): https://wellcomecollection.org/works/x6z6a3yn CC-BY-4.0 | Image Source

      Men Didn't Own Their Own Straight Razors

      When it came to table cutlery, people tended to carry their own. This personalization of knives extended to carrying a personal dagger as a weapon but, apparently, did not extend to facial grooming. Alun explains, 

      Razor ownership doesn’t become widespread until the early 19th century. This wasn’t an implement men kept at home. They are expensive and difficult to maintain, constant honing and stroping, so it was easier to go the barber. 

      When it came to the kind of razor they would have had used at the barber's shop, Alun shares,

      Straight razor or something that folded back into the handle. Blade of steel, handle,wood shell brass nickel, or something like that. Some razors folded back (cuthroat) that was the only kind there was for Shakespeare. Other cultures shave with seashells, some men chinese pluck out the beard hairs. 

      While they may not have had their own razors, men did have options when it came to creams, lotions, and aftershave. The experience of using them was different from today (you didn't go down to a shop and purchase your own, for example) but Alun shares that, while there may have been

      Nothing commercially available… barbers do have creams and pastes that they would use. Might possibly sell something to the customer. When someone died, people went into their house and make a list of what was in their shop for the purpose of probate wills. The better versions of these were very detailed (paste pots, lotions, etc listed individually)

      There is a man named John Woodall, who in 1617 published drawings of straight razors that would be the kind Shakespeare would have been familiar with (at least towards the end of his life since Shakespeare passed away in 1616). I was unable to locate in time for this episode public domain versions of these images, so I am going to share with you the website where a researcher has posted several and you can see them here.

      BECOME A MEMBER

      Cook, play, and dance your way through the life of William Shakespeare
      with lesson plans, printable worksheets, and history activity kits that work like science labs for Shakespeare. 

       

      Books & Resources Alun Withey Recommends

      Get the History Guide for Elizabethan Beards!

        This episode has a Complete Lesson Pack!

        Get the Basic History Guide PLUS 5 worksheets.
        What's inside:
        – Draw your own Beard Coloring Page
        – Play Review Worksheet for A Midsummer Night's Dream
        – Act It Out Activity (Test if Beards Make a Difference!)
        – Beard Styles Word Search
        – Writing Prompt for the History of Beards in Shakespeare's lifetime

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