So here I am again, prowling around the margins of the Shakespeare canon, searching for clues in the earliest, shakiest Shakespeare for the signature of Shakespearean genius, for what makes Shakespeare Shakespearean, so to speak. In the weeks since my recent column on twinship and ambiguity in The Comedy of Errors , I’ve reread, for the first time in a long time, four of the earliest, sketchiest history plays (the three parts of Henry VI and the almost never performed, never read or referred to King John ), reread his earliest, bloodiest tragedy ( Titus Andronicus ), reread one of his earliest comedies, if not, as some believe, the earliest ( The Two Gentlemen of Verona ) and, finally, what is perhaps the last play he worked on, one he had arguably the least hand in– The Two Noble Kinsmen , a collaboration with John Fletcher in which Shakespeare probably wrote less than half the scenes.
The idea was that here, in some of his least appreciated, least fully developed work, work less studded with the overfamiliar Shakespearean lines that stuff Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations and make the great works of his maturity at times too well known to be truly known, if you know what I mean, here in the less heavily traveled outskirts of the canon one might find flashes and intimations defining aspects of Shakespeare, thrown into more dramatic relief by the less familiar, less heavily-laden-with-overbearing-greatness context.
So what I’m proposing to do in this and some subsequent columns is offer less a grand thesis than something more modest, a kind of reader’s diary or rereader’s diary: a running impressionistic account of some resonant themes and images that struck me, some threads I traced across the boundaries of these earliest and latest works, a search for the signature of the Shakespearean in some of the least Shakespearean works. Beginning this time with the recurrent image of words inscribed upon skin, and the related one of skin transformed into gloves–images that haunt the lines of a playwright who was the son and perhaps apprentice to a calf skinner and glove maker.
It was a theme I’d first picked up on in The Comedy of Errors , in which one of the slave twins, Ephesian Dromio, reproaches the master who beat him with the couplet, “If the skin were parchment and the blows you gave were ink/ Your handwriting would tell you what I think.” Pain is written all over his face, as we say in current parlance. Human skin is metaphorically parchment, characters are written upon a character, pain is inscribed, translated into words upon flesh.
A similar formulation appears in another very early play, the second part of Henry VI (which, confusingly, many scholars believe Shakespeare wrote before what is now known as the first part, which in fact is said to be written after the third part), perhaps the first play of Shakespeare ever performed, if not the first he wrote.
In any case, there’s a tense scene in Part Two in which the Duchess of Gloucester, who’s just had her ears boxed by the imperious Queen Margaret, hisses back at her: “Could I come near your beauty with my nails,/ I’d set my Ten Commandments in your face.” In other words, the bloody scars she’d carve on her tormentor’s skin would have the furious intelligibility of the Commandments carved on the stone tablets by the Lord.
This preoccupation with the metaphor of words inscribed on skin, in particular expressions of pain, is reflected not long afterward in the same play when the Duke of York demands of the Duke of Somerset, “Show me one scar charactered upon thy skin.” Again, scars as letters (characters), inscribed in silent but expressive lines, figured upon the figures in the drama. Pain and trauma written in characters upon the body.
It’s an image even more graphically expressed in another very early play, composed about the same time, Titus Andronicus . Here we have Aaron the Moor boasting of the grisly inscriptions on flesh with which he warns his enemies: “I have digged up dead men from the graves …/ And on their skins as on the barks of trees/ Have with my knife carved in Roman letters,/ ‘Let not your sorrow die’ …”
What is going on here with this recurrent vision, in some of his earliest work as a writer, of writing as inscribed, carved, cut, incised upon the skin, of words as bloody figurations of pain? It would be easy just to say it was a way of expressing the painful difficulty of writing for the fledgling playwright, but all reports (or the only report–Ben Jonson’s envious and dubious awe at Shakespeare’s spontaneous facility–”he ne’er blotted out a line,” i.e. he never revised) suggest writing was not painful for him. And it would be too easy to find here an inverted religious metaphor (rather than “the Word made flesh,” here the flesh made word).
I’d suggest a further, deeper consideration of these suggestive skin/character images might point to a source in Shakespeare’s early life and a theme of his later art. This will require us first to consider a couple of other characteristic skin images, the calfskin or dogskin (yes, alas, dogskin) used to make gloves in the Elizabethan era.
The first conjunction of these skin images that struck me can be found in that late, last collaborative effort The Two Noble Kinsmen . It’s in the scene where one of the country bumpkins who is putting on a performance for Duke Theseus (much like the country bumpkins putting on the performance for Duke Theseus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream ) speaks bitterly about a certain Cicely who’s failed to show up for the rehearsal: “The next gloves I give her shall be dogskin,” that is, of cheap leather rather than the more expensive calfskin, of which gloves for the gentry were commonly made.
Shakespeare is, of course, famously the son of a glover, John Shakespeare, who may also have butchered his own animals for glove-skin leather. There is a longstanding, rather bitter scholarly debate over an anecdote linking young Will Shakespeare to his father’s calf butchery, glove-skin trade, linking, in fact, slaughter and poetry. The anecdote, retailed by the late-17th-century memoirist and gossip John Aubrey, has it that when the boy Shakespeare “killed a calf, he would do it in high style and make a speech.” Some interpret the speech as a funeral ode upon the slaughtered calf and some as a reference to an Elizabethan pantomime called Killing the Calf , which Shakespeare might have seen performed. The historian Ian Wilson finds it reflected in Hamlet when Polonius recalls playing Julius Caesar–”I was killed in the Capitol. Brutus killed me”–and Hamlet remarks, “It was a brute part of him to kill so capital a calf there.”
Wherever you stand on the reality of the calf-killing anecdote (supposedly a sign of early poetic ambition), you cannot help but be struck by the resonance of the calfskin raillery in King John . Repeated calfskin-related insults that the most Shakespearean character in that play, Philip Faulconbridge, known as “the Bastard,” uses to insult his enemies. The Bastard is quintessentially “Shakespearean” in the sense that he is one of the least-known great Shakespearean roles, one–unlike almost all the historical characters in King John –Shakespeare created virtually from whole cloth. Like Falstaff, he’s a character clearly close to the heart of his creator, one of those idiosyncratic, fast-talking, razor-witted skeptics in Shakespeare who sees through the pieties of the figures around him much like the mordant bastard Edmund in King Lear , although less a villain than a mad truthteller like Mercutio, say.
For those of you, and I think there might be more than a few, who have never picked up King John , the Bastard alone does much to recommend a reading. His scathing discourse on “commodity” (commodity here in the sense of self-interest) as the true ruling principle beneath the overblown and disingenuous pretensions of the ranting historical figures around him–as the ruling principle of history itself–gives the lie to the kind of crude historicist reading of Shakespeare’s history plays that sees him as somehow a Tudor propagandist. In King John , as well as in the Henry VI plays, his earliest history plays, Shakespeare can be seen subverting all pretensions to a monopoly on truth and right. Shakespeare was a historicist avant la lettre , deeply aware of the indeterminacy of claims to historical virtue, if not truth.
But to return to the Bastard’s calfskin rant … It bursts out in the midst of a scene of high diplomacy when the English court of King John is parlaying with the French court of King Philip and his allies, and the Bastard undiplomatically enrages the Duke of Austria by repeating and repeating an insulting threat to “hang a calf’s skin on his recreant limbs.” He capers about, repeating it no less than four times. (“Hang a calf’s skin” colloquially meant to dress in a fool’s motley cloak.)
So we have the threat to give gloves of dogskin rather than calfskin in Two Noble Kinsmen , we have the threat to “hang calfskin,” making a fool out of a duke in King John and then, back again in Henry VI: Part 2 , we have one of Jack Cade’s pals saying of Cade, leader of a peasant uprising, “He shall have the skins of our enemies to make dog’s leather of … and iniquity’s throat cut like a calf.”
And if that’s not enough, it’s followed by an absolutely astonishing and revealing utterance from the mouth of Jack Cade himself that brings these skin images full circle again, to the image of words embedded in flesh. It’s an utterance neglected perhaps because it follows immediately after the far more famous imprecation “let’s kill all the lawyers.” Here Cade asks, “Is not this a lamentable thing that of the skin of an innocent lamb should be made parchment? That parchment being scribbled over should undo a man.”
Words are made in flesh, on skin; words make flesh, and words undo flesh, unmake, uncreate men. What is this preoccupation of Shakespeare with the physical texture of words inscribed on skin and the metaphysical and metaphorical implications of words made flesh? I’d suggest tentatively that the preoccupation might look back to the earliest, most physical experience Shakespeare had with lines and flesh–and forward to the most abstract and metaphysical speculation in his work. Backward to Shakespeare’s youth when, it could be said, the very first lines he inscribed were cut into dogskin or calfskin–the lines, the outlines, the patterns for the gloves his father cut out of such skins. The lines that “wrote” the shape of a human hand upon the skins and inscribed on that hand the decorative patterns typically cut into the back of the hands of Elizabethan gloves. His initial “handwriting” might well have been the inscription of hands on skin, a process that might well have inscribed deeply in his consciousness the notion of words as lines inscribed on skin, made flesh.
But let’s look more closely at the glove image and the larger implication it takes on in later Shakespeare. Perhaps it’s found in its most purely compressed form in Twelfth Night , in which Feste the clown expresses his distrust of language: “A sentence is but a cheveril glove to a good wit. How quickly the wrong side may be turned outward.” And Viola (disguised as a man) replies, “Nay, that’s certain. They that dally nicely with words may quickly make them wanton.”
Here we have an entire discourse on words inscribed in skin, on gloves; here, glove-making imagery is transformed into a speculation on the ambiguity of both language and sexuality. Let me spell out the ambiguities in the glove image since they’re important; I’d argue they’re emblematically Shakespearean, which is what I’d set out to look for, after all. When Feste says wit can turn a sentence inside out like a glove, he’s referring to the way you can reach inside a glove and pull it inside out with one yank so that what was once the opening to the interior at the wrist is in the exact place spatially but facing in the exact opposite direction. Cheveril, by the way, is a particularly soft and malleable kind of kidskin glove leather which makes such slippery switches even more smooth and facile. So comparing sentences to cheveril gloves suggests first the mercurial malleability and the unreliable treachery of language, the pattern of words the glove skin is compared to. Meaning itself is not seen as indeterminate or incoherent (as the Derrida types would have it)–there is a “wrong side” and thus implicitly a right side–but the two sides resemble each other so much they’re prey to the toying trickery of wit, which can turn meaning inside out.
So linguistic ambiguity is treacherous, but erotic, “wanton” as well. In saying wit makes words grow wanton, Viola, who embodies sexual ambiguity (being dressed as a man when she says it) can’t help evoke the deeper sexual implications of the glove image. Where does sexuality enter into glove imagery? Those familiar with premodern sexological theories will recognize in the image of the glove turned inside out a perfect representation of a gender theory current in Shakespeare’s era: that, morphologically, the penis is a vagina, the vagina a penis turned inside out–like a glove. (Hey, it’s not my theory.)
They that dally with words may make them wanton, Viola warns, but she dallies with words and makes them wanton even in the process of warning against it. The glove image turns her warning inside out, becomes itself a further warning about the treacherousness of linguistic ambiguity in a play about the trickiness of sexual ambiguity.
I’ve followed this thread, this skein of words and scars and skins and the lines inscribed on skin, the ambiguity of gloves and loves, because they seem to be evidentiary traces of a train of thought Shakespeare was following, evolving from his earliest experiences to his latest speculations, a coherent eddy in his stream of consciousness.
But I think it offers as well an implicit reproof to the so-called “anti-Stratfordians,” the people who insist Shakespeare the playwright couldn’t have been Shakespeare the glover’s son from Stratford. A reproof to the belief that a glover’s son, a mere tradesman’s boy, someone less well educated than they, for god sakes, couldn’t possibly have produced work of such stunning complexity, sophistication and depth. But, in fact, the skein of skin images suggest that the identity, the experience of the glover’s son Shakespeare, is deeply embedded in the work of the man who became the playwright Shakespeare. The calfskins, the dogskins, the scars charactered on skins, the skins incised into gloves, the gloves transmuted into metaphors for the most profound and witty speculations about language and love–all bear witness to the way the experiences of the glover’s boy were transmuted into the lines Shakespeare inscribed on parchment skin. The low butchery, “slaughter’s pencil,” as a line in King John has it, inscribes itself in his highest art. The two are as inseparable as the inside and the outside of the same glove. You might say they work hand in glove. And if you don’t say that, you might say, as John Lennon said, “All you need is glove.”