“Speaking of Beards” — Facial Hair in Shakespeare

From Thomas Firminger Thiselton-Dyer’s Folk-lore of Shakespeare (1883):

In speaking of beards, it may be noted that formerly they gave rise to various customs. Thus, in Shakespeare’s day, dyeing beards was a fashionable custom, and so Bottom, in “A Midsummer-Night’s Dream” (i. 2), is perplexed as to what beard he should wear when acting before the duke. He says: “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.” [915] To mutilate a beard in any way was considered an irreparable outrage, a practice to which Hamlet refers (ii. 2): “Who calls me villain? breaks my pate across? Plucks off my beard, and blows it in my face?”

And in “King Lear” (iii. 7), Gloster exclaims: “By the kind gods, ’tis most ignobly done To pluck me by the beard.” Stroking the beard before a person spoke was preparatory to favor. Hence in “Troilus and Cressida” (i. 3), Ulysses, when describing how Achilles asks Patroclus to imitate certain of their chiefs, represents him as saying: “‘Now play me Nestor; hem, and stroke thy beard, As he, being drest to some oration.’” Again, the phrase “to beard” meant to oppose face to face in a hostile manner. Thus, in “1 Henry IV.” (iv. 1), Douglas declares: “No man so potent breathes upon the ground, But I will beard him.” And in “1 Henry VI.” (i. 3), the Bishop of Winchester says to Gloster: “Do what thou dar’st; I’ll beard thee to thy face.” It seems also to have been customary to swear by the beard, an allusion to which is made by Touchstone in “As You Like It” (i. 2): “stroke your chins, and swear by your beards that I am a knave.” We may also compare what Nestor says in “Troilus and Cressida” (iv. 5): “By this white beard, I’d fight with thee to-morrow.” Our ancestors paid great attention to the shape of their beards, certain cuts being appropriated to certain professions and ranks. In “Henry V.” (iii. 6), Gower speaks of “a beard of the general’s cut.” As Mr. Staunton remarks, “Not the least odd among the fantastic fashions of our forefathers was the custom of distinguishing certain professions and classes by the cut of the beard; thus we hear, interalia, of the bishop’s beard, the judge’s beard, the soldier’s beard, the citizen’s beard, and even the clown’s beard.” Randle Holme tells us, “The broad or cathedral beard [is] so-called because bishops or gown-men of the church anciently did wear such beards.” By the military man, the cut adopted was known as the stiletto or spade. The beard of the citizen was usually worn round, as Mrs. Quickly describes it in “Merry Wives of Windsor” (i. 4), “like a glover’s paring-knife.” The clown’s beard was left bushy or untrimmed. Malone quotes from an old ballad entitled “Le Prince d’ Amour,” 1660: “Next the clown doth out-rush With the beard of the bush.”

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