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Shakespeare's Hair: Staging the Object of Material Culture

From: Shakespeare Quarterly
Volume 52, Number 4, Winter 2001
pp. 479-491 | 10.1353/shq.2001.0057

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Shakespeare Quarterly 52.4 (2001) 479-491

Why is Time such a niggard of hair, being (as it is) so plentiful an excrement?

(The Comedy of Errors, 2.2.77-78)

RENAISSANCE HISTORICISM HAS WITNESSED something of a sea change in recent years. If the new historicism of the 1980s was preoccupied primarily with the fashioning of early modern subjects, the growing tendency at the millennium, evidenced in the recent turn to "material culture," is to engage with objects. This new preoccupation has been showcased in a pair of anthologies that offer readers wonder-cabinets of material goods in Shakespeare's culture: Subject and object in Renaissance culture includes essays on a variety of early modern objects, including feathers, textiles, and communion wafers; and Renaissance Culture and the Everyday boasts an even more extensive catalogue of items such as "mirrors, books, horses, everyday speech, money, laundry baskets, graffiti, embroidery, and food preparation." For a growing number of Renaissance and Shakespeare scholars, then, the play is no longer the thing: the thing is the thing.

The turn to objects best exemplifies, perhaps, what Hugh Grady has memorably dubbed the "new-antiquarian" potential of recent historicism. Grady's somewhat derogatory epithet makes a certain amount of sense given Renaissance historicists' seeming fascination with the dull weight of evidentiary material, a weight constituted now as much by physical materials as by archival minutiae. Yet to damn object criticism as lamentably and even fetishistically invested in mere things repeats rather than corrects one of that criticism's ongoing problems: even as the new object scholarship has situated itself within a broadly materialist tradition of historicist criticism, the "material" of "material culture" has remained largely untheorized.

What exactly, then, is the material object? This essay takes as its starting point a mundane item that could be comfortably housed in any of the recent anthologies devoted to Renaissance things. Yet this item also begs the hairy question of how we are to understand its materiality. In attempting to tease out an answer to that question, I will suggest -- perhaps perversely -- that if the "new antiquarianism" is to theorize more comprehensively the material of "material culture," it needs to become, if anything, more antiquarian. For all that the antiquarians of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries placed a naive faith in objects as the unmediated residua of the past, they were nonetheless attentive to a dimension of materiality that object criticism has all too frequently overlooked: the diachronic trajectories of things through time and space.


I begin with a curio -- or more accurately, perhaps, a relic. In 1999 the Folger Shakespeare Library acquired a strange object: a single, auburn hair, short and slightly curly. Mounted on a card and encased in mylar, the hair is accompanied by a nineteenth-century inscription that identifies it as "Shakespeare's Hair." The same inscription also tells us that the hair entered the sphere of public circulation in an undated letter sent by Samuel Ireland, presumably around 1800, to Mr. Bindley, commissioner of the Stamp Office in London. It was subsequently auctioned by a Mr. Evans on Tuesday, 8 August 1820; either then or at some later point it passed into the possession of one J.E.H. Taylor, Esq., who donated it to the collector W. J. Bernhard Smith on 24 August 1866. The card on which the hair is mounted seeks to vouch for the authenticity of these transactions and hence, perhaps, of the Shakespearean relic itself. The inscription is accompanied by Bernhard Smith's autograph and Taylor's stamped signature, which is annotated by a somewhat eyebrow-raising note from a certain "VMT"--presumably Taylor's son or daughter -- asking us to "Kindly Accept / The aboue is my Fathers handwriting."

What exactly is Shakespeare's Hair? At one level, the question is easy to answer: it is almost certainly a fake. Tellingly, the trajectory of exchanges recorded by the card starts with Samuel Ireland, the infamous eighteenth-century travel painter, antiquarian, and Bardolater. Ireland's name was sullied by a scandal surrounding his publication in 1796 of a volume containing allegedly newly discovered Shakespearean "papers," including part of a manuscript of Hamlet, a whole Lear manuscript, and a...

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