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  • The Hand on the Shakespearean Stage: Gesture, Touch, and the Spectacle of Dismemberment by Farah Karim-Cooper
  • Bailey Sincox
The Hand on the Shakespearean Stage: Gesture, Touch, and the Spectacle of Dismemberment. By Farah Karim-Cooper. London: Bloomsbury, 2016. Pp. xiii + 309. $112 (hardback), $35 (paper).

Farah Karim-Cooper illustrates the legibility of the hand on the early modern stage and in present revivals by establishing a compendium of ideas of the hand from conduct manuals, anatomy textbooks, religious discourse, and philosophy. She explores Elizabethan and Jacobean theatrical gesture, hands narrated in The Rape of Lucrece and Venus and Adonis, the relationship between touch and desire in Romeo and Juliet and Othello, and the severed hands in Titus Andronicus. Augmented by observations from recent Shakespeare’s Globe productions, this highly interdisciplinary work is a useful tool for any scholar of performance.

In the tradition of studies of anthropological and anthropomorphized “parts” such as Jonathan Sawday’s The Body Emblazoned: Dissection and the Human Body in Renaissance Culture (1995), David Hillman and Carla Mazzio’s The Body in Parts (1997), William Slights’s The Heart in the Age of Shakespeare (2008), and, of course, Simon Palfrey and Tiffany Stern’s Shakespeare in Parts (2007), Karim-Cooper elaborates on the hand as an emblem of identity and a tool of communication. She attends to the “gestural ambiguity” of Shakespeare’s characters, arguing that the playwright composes a careful sub-narrative using hands to “transmit meanings beyond those codified in medieval and Renaissance courtesy manuals and art” (2).

The first two chapters, “The Idea of the Hand in Shakespeare’s World” and “Manners and Beauty: The Social Hand” survey depictions of hands from a wide range of disciplines in countries across Europe from antiquity to the mid-seventeenth century. Karim-Cooper links Galen and Aristotle’s anatomical “perfectly structured and ideal hand” (12–13) to Vesalius’s dissections, the courtly blazon (15), and the sketches of Leonardo da Vinci (18–20); Bulwer’s Chirologia, the notion of “hand” as handwriting, and Nashe’s commentary on palmistry are said to evidence “the very notion [End Page 749] that the hand could contain and conceal inner lives and that hidden truths might be unlocked through an attempt to read it, either in social discourse or as it gestured in performance” (27). She gives equal attention to visual art, elevating Dürer’s engravings and Wither’s emblems, monarchical healing rituals and readers’ manicules to the status of texts and, in so doing, putting her own theory into practice (27–39). Though the second chapter does not forward any groundbreaking arguments—indeed, at times bordering on banality, e.g. “Etymologically and pragmatically, the handkerchief was associated for early moderns first and foremost with the hand” (48)—the early modern value placed on white, delicate female hands in the period (55–61) and the condemnation of “choppy” hands and long nails associated with witches (61–7) receive new life in conjunction with Karim-Cooper’s emphasis on performance.

What these chapters lack in cohesion they make up in breadth. Throughout this section it is to Karim-Cooper’s credit that she refrains from New Historical narrative construction; she does not speculate that Shakespeare read Vesalius or saw The Last Supper. She simply gathers early modern images and conceptions of the hand—some not so different from our current ones, such as the dexterous hand as humanity’s evolution above the animals, and others decidedly alien, such as the hand “as God’s instrument of creation” and source of female original sin (27)—into a scintillating mosaic, illuminating the close readings of Shakespeare and his contemporaries that follow.

Chapter 3, “‘Lively Action’: Gesture in Early Modern Performance,” defies expectations. Rather than tread the hackneyed road of Chirologia or, indeed, any hard-and-fast cipher for early modern gestural practices, Karim-Cooper explores rhetorical training, staging conventions (light, space, costume, genre), and actor emotion as intertwined critical contexts within which to imagine early modern hands in movement. She argues that gestures are influenced by character, costume, and, interestingly, space; in this last criterion, Karim-Cooper speculates on adjustments made to performances in the original Blackfriars based on...


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