Beards, or their lack, structure the attributions and distributions of manliness on the English stage as it develops into a commercial entity during the early modern era. In Shakespeare’s plays particularly, facial hair serves as a locus for adult masculine identity in a discourse which both reflected on and intervened in the English fashion for beards from the mid-sixteenth to the mid-seventeenth centuries.2 The role of facial hair in the theatrical performance of masculinity ramifies powerfully with constructions of manhood in early modern society at large in which, as Will Fisher writes, ‘sex was materialized through an array of features and prosthetic parts. A list of some of these parts would have to include the beard and the genitals, but would also have to include clothing, the hair, the tongue, and weapons such as swords or daggers (to name just a few).’3 Fisher’s list – like a Philip Henslowe inventory – demonstrates that Renaissance masculine identity was conveyed through the use of selected costumes or props. In addition, the Galenic one-sex model of gender in medical currency at the time registered sexual difference at the level of social behaviour rather than bodily destiny,4 proscribing any absolute distinctions between the sexes and gesturing towards the threat posed by the theatre itself in its spectacular exposure of identities which were neither god-given nor immutable. That players occupy, for law-makers and anti-theatricalists alike, the same culturally imaginary space as rogues, vagabonds,
and knaves, reveals the early modern anxiety that any individual could display the panoply of external signifiers that created particular social roles; it is one no doubt fuelled by the increasing demand for and availability of fashion, as well as the tools for self-fashioning, despite the prohibitions of sumptuary legislation. The tendency of the beard, and indeed of beardlessness, to slip through, evade, and imitate the categories it supposedly represents, renders it a singularly disturbing stage property within a theatre which repeatedly explored, in its stories of misrepresentation and misrecognition, the chimera of social identity itself.