Shakespeare Preferred Beauty Marks, Says Greenblatt

Shakespearean expert and literary historian Stephen Greenblatt recently addressed a crowd of 350 in USAO's Te Ata Memorial Auditorium as part of the annual Emerson-Wier Liberal Arts Symposium. His March 6 lecture, entitled, 'Shakespearean Beauty Marks,' speculated that the famous playwright preferred distinct facial features over flawless images, a preference which distinguished Shakespeare at the time and continues to do so today.

Shakespeare Preferred Beauty Marks, Says Greenblatt


CHICKASHA -- What would William Shakespeare find beautiful? Physical marks of distinction, said Dr. Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespeare scholar and literary critic. The Pulitzer prize finalist and New York Times bestselling author of " Will in the World" addressed an audience of approximately 350 at the University of Science and Arts earlier this month.

Contrary to his contemporary audience, Greenblatt surmised, Shakespeare likely saw wrinkles, moles, and physical features as things of beauty.

" Shakespeare's most intense celebrations of beauty repeatedly violate the featurelessness that is his period's cultural ideal," Greenblatt said. " And from this violation comes an emergence into identity, distinct, peculiar and unique, an emergence that characterizes not only the poet but also the dark lady (in Sonnet 147) and the other figures of paradoxical beauty in his works. Their description is not more detailed than that of the normative beauties -- to be dark is no more singular than to be fair -- but the departure from the norm itself acts out individuation."

Dr. John Bruce, associate professor of language and literature, found Greenblatt's lecture, entitled, " Shakespearean Beauty Marks," to be relevant both culturally and within the university's mission.

" Stephen Greenblatt's brilliant lecture on Shakespeare's concept of beauty was an interdisciplinary tour de force," Bruce said, " incorporating material from Shakespeare's plays and sonnets as well as a contextual cultural backdrop involving art history, architecture, theology and philosophy. Greenblatt's approach, which essentially argues that culture is a text, was ideally suited to match with the interdisciplinary core values of USAO."

According to Greenblatt, Shakespeare's contemporaries preferred an Elizabethan type of beauty, flawless and indistinctive, that is reflected in the unmarred faces in the works of European Renaissance artists.

" Those (flawless) features, as literary and art historians have shown, had a virtually programmatic personality," Greenblatt said. " In the wake of Petrarch and Boccaccio, Renaissance poets and painters established an ideal canon of beauty, with each individual detail, from earlobes to feet, scrupulously diagrammed and catalogued.

" Of course, gifted artists understood that beauty could not mechanically be reproduced -- the full effect would depend on such qualities as vagheeza, leggiadria and grazia. But the celebration of an elusive, inimitable lightness of being did not inhibit them from taking pleasure in the form of blazon, the descriptive enumeration of each of the parts that formed a perfect beauty."

Greenblatt observed that Shakespeare was aware of this contemporary fascination with spotless beauty and incorporated it into his many works.

" Shakespeare often conveys the sense of beauty's radiance with the word 'fair,' which he uses more than 700 times in his work," he said. " 'Fair' can denote lovely, clear, fine or clean, but it also has the distinct sense of shining lightness. And this lightness of hair and complexion in turn sets off the pink of blushing cheeks and the deep red of beautiful lips."

However, Shakespeare set himself apart by developing an appreciation for distinct facial features.

" Instead of embodiments of just proportion, harmony and symmetry, we have figures who are, in the perception of age, 'stained,' and yet whose stain is part of their irresistible, disturbing appeal," he said.

Calling upon specific instances throughout Shakespeare's plays and sonnets, Greenblatt explained that his determinedly different preference for individuality, as expressed among his characters, is what makes Shakespeare's writing not only unique, but beautiful.

" Innogen (from 'Cymbeline') is beautiful, but she is not a featureless beauty," he said. " Her mole is not part of any formal perfection, but it is also not an ornament, either in the sense of an obvious adornment or in the sense of something merely added on and therefore dispensable. It is a mark of all that Shakespeare found indelibly beautiful in singularity and all that we identify as indelibly singular and beautiful in his work."

Greenblatt is Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University. Founder of the " new historicism," Greenblatt is a specialist in Shakespeare, sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English literature, the literature of travel and exploration, and literary theory. The former president of the Modern Language Association, he also is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society and a permanent fellow of the Institute for Advanced Study in Berlin.

Greenblatt's book, " Will in the World," became a 2004 New York Times bestseller and Pulitzer Prize finalist.

USAO's 2008 Emerson-Wier Liberal Arts Symposium was made possible through a generous gift from the Kirkpatrick Foundation of Oklahoma City. It is sponsored annually by the USAO Foundation and was inspired by an endowment created by Oklahoma College for Women alumni Gladys Anderson Emerson and Nance Foules Wier.