Beards have again become fashionable, as is evidenced by the masses of hip 20-somethings sporting the rugged, quintessentially masculine look. But in Shakespeare’s time, beards were more than a mere object of fashion: they were powerful signifiers in multiple social spheres, carrying special import when it came to class, gender, and sexual identity. The Elizabethan stage was no stranger to the beard’s symbolic weight, and it was common that young actors would don prosthetic beards to play the role of adult males. Shakespeare often referenced the beard in his plays, employing it to illustrate and elaborate on character profiles, even using it to invoke the supernatural.
In his famous play, Troilus and Cressida, Helen spots a white hair on Troilus’ chin, prompting Troilus to remark, “That white hair is my father, and all the rest are his sons,” (1.2. 150-62). His comment reflects the beard’s symbolic tie to male fertility: it was a popular belief during this time that those men who grew full beards were more capable of reproduction.
On stage, the young male actors didn’t simply wear synthetic beards to accentuate their role as an adult man. Instead, the beards were essential for distinguishing between genders because boys were actually considered a separate gender, hence the utterance in Much Ado About Nothing:“he that hath no beard is less than a man,” (2.1. 28-30). The presence of beards on stage was so prominent that different kinds of prosthetic beards were purchased to confer varying degrees of masculinity, alternating in shape, colour, and volume. The military man’s beard was typically a spade-shaped cut, the citizen’s beard was worn round, and the clown’s beard was bushy and unkempt.
To mutilate another man’s beard was considered an action of immense disrespect, as well as a shame-invoking offense. Shakespeare’s Hamlet expresses fears of another man “Pluck[ing] off [his] beard, and blow[ing] it in [his] face,” (ii.2), and Gloster in King Lear exclaims, “By the kind gods, ’tis most ignobly done /To pluck me by the beard,” (iii.7). And though, in Shakespeare’s day, the meaning bound to a man’s stubble expanded well beyond the boundaries of fashion, the styles in which beards were worn were much more elaborate than in our modern day. It was even a popular custom to dye one’s beard, as shown by Bottom from A Midsummer-Night’s Dream, when he contemplates whether to sport the “straw-colour beard,” the “orange-tawny beard,” or the “purple-in-grain beard,” when acting before the duke.
It may be unlikely that beard dyeing will re-enter today’s prevailing taste, but there’s no doubt that the beard has long been a focal point of men’s fashion.