The Renaissance Beard: Masculinity in Early Modern England [*]

By Fisher, Will | Renaissance Quarterly, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

The Renaissance Beard: Masculinity in Early Modern England [*]


Fisher, Will, Renaissance Quarterly


This essay builds on Judith Butler's recent theoretical work in Bodies that Matter by suggesting that the sexual differences that "mattered" in early modern England are not exactly the same as those that "matter" today In particular, it suggests that facial hair often conferred masculinity during the Renaissance: the beard made the man. The centrality of the beard is powerfully demonstrated by both portraits and theatrical practices. Indeed, virtually all men in portraits painted between the mid-sixteenth and the mid-seventeenth century have some sort of facial hair. Beards were also quite common on the Renaissance stage, and the essay goes on to analyze the use of false beards as theatrical props. These are not, however, the only "texts" "from the period that equate being a man with having a beard Similar formulations appear in a wide range of sources: medical treatises, physiognomy books, poetical works, and tracts on gender. In many of these texts, moreover, facial hair is not simply imagined as a means of constructing sexual differences between men and women; it is also a means of constructing distinctions between men and boys. Thus, it would appear that boys were considered to be a different gender from men during the Renaissance. This division had important ramifications fir theater practice. It meant, for example, that boy actors would have been as much "in drag" when playing the parts of men as when playing the parts of women. Finally, we need to bear in mind that if facial hair thus served as an important means of materializing masculinity in early modern England, it was also crucially malleable and prosthetic. As a result, we can say that both masculinity and the beard had to be constantly made (to) matter

Judith Butler's Bodies that Matter attempts to reconceptualize "the body" and gender in a way that will circumvent the current theoretical impasse between essentialists and constructivists. She argues that the body should not be understood as a natural entity that is bound up in an irreducible tension with cultural norms and ideals. Instead, as she puts it, the body ought to be understood as being that tension (66). Consequently, Butler maintains that our current model for understanding the formation of gender roles is inadequate. If we now tend to see masculinity and femininity as being constituted through a process in which preexisting "natural" sexual differences are shaped or modified by social norms and expectations, Butler contends, as the pun in her title implies, that it is really only through the process of making sexual differences matter (i.e., of making them socially significant) that those differences are made matter in the first place (i.e., brought into being, or made material). In what follows , I hope to provide an historical supplement to Butler's theoretical intervention. I want to suggest that the sexual differences that "mattered" in the early modern period are not necessarily the same as those that "matter" today. [1] In particular, I believe that in the Renaissance facial hair often conferred masculinity: the beard made the man. [2]

Previous histories of the Renaissance body have largely ignored facial hair. For example, although Thomas Laqueur's Making Sex continues to stand out as one of the most complex and detailed analyses of early modern ideas about the body and sex, he never even mentions facial hair. In fact, despite the purported subject of Laqueur's book, he focuses almost exclusively on medical thought and writing about the genitalia, and thus effectively reduces "sex" to "genital morphology." At one point, he even claims that "the physical appearance of the genital organs was and remains the usually reliable indicator [of sex]" (31). In choosing to single out the genitals as the indicator of sex, Laqueur fails to allow for the importance of other gendered parts, and as a result, fails to allow for the possibility of historical changes in the meaning of the term "sex. …

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The Renaissance Beard: Masculinity in Early Modern England [*]
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