SOUNDBYTES: Sally McLean muses on a quote from Hamlet or “Shakespeare on Caitlyn Jenner”

WHAT IS SOUNDBYTES? This is where we give a famous quote to one of our Ensemble members from a Shakespeare play (or other Elizabethan or Jacobean playwright) that they ideally haven’t performed, but at the very least from a character they haven’t played, and get their stream of consciousness response to the words and meaning in the form of an article on the subject.  As an added bonus to you, our visitors on the site, each quote comes with a free downloadable desktop wallpaper featuring an image relating to the quote and the quote itself.

We continue our Soundbytes feature with one of the lines from Hamlet: “God has given you one face and you make yourselves another.”  Shakespeare Republic Founder and Director, Sally McLean shares her thoughts about this rather 21st Century-relevant line.  And yes, she manages to bring Caitlyn Jenner into the mix, but only with the greatest appreciation.

Proving again that Shakespeare was ahead of his time, or at least was giving voice to something that we are still discussing over 400 years later, we come to this rather interesting quote from his take on Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, believed to have been written between 1599 and 1601 (which was influenced by many other sources, particularly Gesta Danorum, a Scandinavian text penned in the 11th Century and later translated into French by François de Belleforest in his Histoires Tragiques in 1560).

Despite Shakespeare’s borrowing plotlines and ideas from earlier sources, this line was all his own and expressed a sentiment that I think we can still relate to today.  To give some context to how this line comes to be uttered from Hamlet’s lips, I’ll give you a nutshell synopsis of what has transpired in the play.

Essentially, Hamlet has been acting weird for a while.  We, the audience, know it is because he’s seeing the ghost of his father, who is urging him onto an act of revenge against his uncle (his father’s brother), for the alleged murder of his father – which, in turn – has made his uncle King and new husband to Hamlet’s mother (yep, television soap also owes much to Shakespeare).

Hamlet decides to feign madness to put the new King (his uncle) off guard while he decides what to do about the situation, but has played his cards reasonably close to his chest, which means that everyone else around him has no idea why he has become “Like sweet bells jangled out of tune, and harsh.”  Most are not completely convinced this possible insanity is legitimate, however – a good example being his school friend Guildenstern commenting that it is “a crafty madness”.

Regardless, dear Ophelia, who is the epitome of innocence in all this plotting, becomes embroiled further in this twisted scheme (to her eventual detriment), when her father, Polonius, decides that Hamlet is mad due to love for her and her subsequent refusal of him (on her father’s orders) so sends her in to test this theory.  The Elizabethans believed that love could send people mad – that it was an actual medical condition – and to be honest, I think they could have been onto something there myself, but that’s another story.

Therefore, like the good Elizabethan daughter she is, against her better judgement (and her heart), she has arrived in Hamlet’s presence, bearing the love letters and tokens he has given her, offering them back to him, citing that he has been “unkind” and so she no longer wishes to have them.  In other words, she’s truly kicking him to the curb.  Polonius and the King (Hamlet’s uncle) are hiding, watching this exchange to see Hamlet’s response.

Polonius hopes that Ophelia’s actions will confirm in Hamlet a true love for her, proving Polonius’ new thinking that maybe Hamlet is serious about Ophelia, thereby giving him and the King cause to approve the union and make Ophelia the Queen-in-waiting via marriage to Hamlet.

But, as with any good Shakespeare plot, things don’t quite go to plan.  Instead of wailing and beating his chest and begging her forgiveness, Hamlet instead first denies that he gave her any letters or tokens (in other words, she got it totally wrong and he was just in it for a good time), instructs Ophelia to “get thee to a nunnery” and proceeds to cite all the reasons why women are not to be trusted.

Of course, we know he’s talking about his mother, but poor Ophelia has no idea and (rightfully) takes further great offense and hurt from his words.  There follows pronouncement from Hamlet on how he feels about the use of cosmetics and posturing that women (in this case) use to fool the world about who they truly are, which contains the line we are discussing:

I have heard of your paintings too, well enough; God
has given you one face, and you make yourselves
another: you jig, you amble, and you lisp, and
nick-name God’s creatures, and make your wantonness
your ignorance. Go to, I’ll no more on’t; it hath
made me mad.

So essentially he’s saying that we use make up (paintings), we move in a certain seductive way (“jig” and “amble”), we speak in a certain non-threatening way (“lisp”), we give cute names to people and things, such as “baby”, “honey”, cutiepie” (“nick-name God’s creatures”) and we make ourselves seem silly to entrap others (“make your wantonness your ignorance”) – therefore being untrue to ourselves via this behaviour and he’ll have no more truck with it as it really p*sses him off.

In other words I feel he is saying that we (in this case women) arrive into this world in our natural state of being (our essential nature, personality and temperament or “face”) and we change all of that to be accepted or to get what we want (dress a certain way, speak a certain way, behave a certain way other than our natural state of being, i.e. “make ourselves another”).

A bit of historical context is required here.  In Elizabethan times, the men primped and fussed about their appearance as much as women did.  Those boys epitomized the term “metrosexual”. Queen Elizabeth the First was on the throne and determined not to marry (she was, therefore, one of the first feminists, if you will).  But, the problem was that a Queen was expected to marry, as the old idea that a woman couldn’t rule without a man (thank you every major religion in the world), was in full sway.

So Elizabeth, in her cunning, made fashion her weapon.  And thereby became one of the first fashionistas and trend-setters of the Western world.  She made it clear that she expected her courtiers to keep on top of the latest fashion in her Court, which was, naturally, dictated by her.  She changed her dresses nearly every day – very rarely appearing in the same thing twice (we can blame her for the current red carpet issues every actress still faces), and constantly changing her preferred colour choices and fabrics.  This meant that all her courtiers (the lords and ladies of the realm) had to do the same.  Despite all this, however, she was also canny in how she used her resources, often altering dresses and mixing and matching elements of existing garments to create a new outfit.  She  may have been a Queen, but she also had the good sense not to bankrupt her country via her fashion choices.

Why did she do this?  For a series of smart reasons, as it turns out.  She was a Queen and chosen by God (according to the ideas of the time), therefore she dressed the part for her people.  Impressing her right to rule on the local nobles and visiting foreign dignitaries was a daily job, and her clothes could speak volumes to this, long before she did.  She also figured (rightly, on the whole) that if she kept her Court obsessed with “keeping up with the Joneses”  (or the Tudors, in this case) in the fashion stakes, they would have very little time or resources left to plot against her or her throne.  And even less time to pester her about marrying someone she had no interest in.

There are stories of several of the aristocracy going into debt in their pursuit of gaining the Queen’s favour via their increasingly outlandish dress sense – all the time ensuring that nobody outshone the Queen, of course.  Men’s clothing in particular began to almost parody the female form.  While they proudly still wore their codpieces, their trousers became more rounded in shape (following the shape of female hips), they wore girdles to give themselves a slimmer figure, earrings and a lot of jewelry and the fabrics and styles became more splendid as each year passed.  The fabric and tailoring industries in England at the time must have willingly got down on their knees to thank all that was holy for Elizabeth’s reign.

FUN FACT: It was due to this practice that the first Opportunity Shops (or Op Shops) appeared – as the Court also couldn’t be seen in the same outfit twice in the Queen’s presence.  They had to do something with the discarded clothing – and so either donated or sold the items to stores in London, who would then resell the clothing to the lesser citizens of the town.  Playhouses also benefited from this situation, as many nobles were Patrons of the Arts, and often this meant giving the Players their discarded clothing as costumes.

How is this relevant to Hamlet?  Well, I think Shakespeare could be making a veiled reference to the ludicrousness of Elizabeth’s court (which you would never do overtly or you’d end up in the Tower).  The use of make up became hugely popular for both the sexes during this time, as well as the increased focus on fashion – both of which, even then, could be seen as shallow and diverting attention away from what was really important – war, famine, poverty – as well as hiding the true intent (or natures) of those in power.

Elizabeth took to painting her face white (using lead based paint which would scar the face, so requiring more of it to be used over time to cover the scars).  This ensured that a fair complexion was deemed more appealing in the upper classes (and justified by social commentators – yes, they had them then too – as definitively proving that you were not a peasant who worked outdoors in the sun).  This meant everyone else had to do the same.

A high forehead was also considered attractive in women, so the practice of plucking out all the hairs in the natural hairline to achieve this was also used.  Men still had beards and mustaches, but they had to be extremely well-groomed and to a certain style.  Some of the beauty regimes of both men and women took the better part of a morning to complete.  The Elizabethans weren’t alone in their practice of changing their appearance (in fact, they were reasonably mild on that score), but still – it took a fair amount of work to maintain – and expense.

But back to Hamlet.  Here is a piece of the exchange between he and Ophelia that leads up to the line in question:

Ha, ha! are you honest?

My lord?

Are you fair?

What means your lordship?

That if you be honest and fair, your honesty should
admit no discourse to your beauty.

Could beauty, my lord, have better commerce than
with honesty?

Ay, truly; for the power of beauty will sooner
transform honesty from what it is to a bawd than the
force of honesty can translate beauty into his
likeness: this was sometime a paradox, but now the
time gives it proof.

What is Hamlet saying here?  In a nutshell, beauty is a lie.  Or, the appearance of beauty is a lie.  Or that beauty is only skin deep (and doesn’t last).  He’s really saying that how you look on the outside has nothing to do with who you are on the inside. He is also directly referencing how he currently feels about his mother and her perceived betrayal of all that is right and good by marrying her brother-in-law so soon after her first husband died.

On the flip side, when he speaks of “honesty”, it can also mean “chastity” or innocence of carnal pleasures, which means that the pursuit of “beauty” can turn you from a innocent to a “bawd” or wanton woman.  Or at least the appearance of one.

Now, I’m not sure that Shakespeare meant this literally – I don’t think Hamlet is saying that all women who use cosmetics are whores, but I think he is saying that being something you’re not to please someone else is dishonest and selling out yourself.  It relates again directly back to how he feels about his mother – and interestingly also to Ophelia (who is there having this conversation with him only because her father insisted, which I think Hamlet suspects).  It also directly speaks to how we see women today.  And speaks to the bigger issue of how we value women today.  Which is no different, sadly, to how we valued women (and, yes, men) back in Shakespeare’s times.  We just didn’t have the world wide media back then to enforce these stereotypes on a global scale.

Open any celebrity magazine today and you’ll see what Shakespeare is talking about.  And it’s not just the women, but we females do seem to cop it a lot more harshly than the men, so that’s where I’ll put the focus.  For years there has been the discussion about whether images of thin women in the media are contributing to eating disorders in young girls.  And I think that if we are bombarded with enough reinforcement, then anything can influence us.  After all, women in the time of the Italian Renaissance were portrayed as desirable in portraiture (their version of television) as full bosomed with ample hips – and women around Europe aspired in their droves to look like that as a result.  If it’s in our circle, it will influence us.  Especially if it involves approval and a sense of desirability from others.  But men are not the only ones responsible for transmitting these ideas.

As women, we are more likely to spend time dissing Miley Cyrus for her latest Instagram photo showing underarm hair than focus on why she’s doing it (to highlight her work to empower disenfranchised youth with her charity work).  We are more prepared to dissect a female politician’s new haircut than actually read about the latest bill on affordable housing or workplace equality she has actively made possible in Parliament (or the Senate or whichever political institution she is a part of).  We are more interested in commenting about the abysmal lack of fashion sense that new chick in Accounting has, rather than the fact she saved the company thousands of dollars.

Sometimes I think this behavior comes from jealousy and fear that we’re not attractive or pretty (or clever) enough ourselves.  In a world where we are espousing the preference for appreciating women for what they achieve and accomplish, we are still, unfortunately, falling victim to our own wiring to comment on how they look first – and (less vocally) how that relates to us and makes us feel about ourselves.

And positive responses are not a lot better than negative – all responses in this vein still perpetuate this value system.  A good example of this is Caitlyn Jenner’s recent unveiling to the world’s media.  Jon Steward of The Daily Show nailed it when he made the remark: “Now you’re a woman, which means your looks are really the only thing we care about.”  And if you do a search on Google, you’ll see, sadly, he’s pretty much right.

I feel that Shakespeare was highlighting that any falseness or rather, hiding, is dishonest.  I think Caitlyn Jenner looks amazing, but more importantly – she’s being true to who she is – the beauty aspect is nice, but somewhat irrelevant.  Yes, it is down to cosmetic surgery, so yay to the surgeons who performed the work, but medical procedures have improved greatly, she has a very healthy bank account, had great bone structure to begin with and was a good-looking man, so really, is her attractive female form truly a surprise?

Apologies to a) those who wanted me to get to Caitlyn Jenner long before now and b) those who thought this article was going to be me saying that the transgender community shouldn’t pursue what they need to do to feel more like themselves (and I know you’re out there).  I think the members of the transgender community (and I include all those in the LGBT community as well) are brave, inspiring and potentially more fundamentally honest (against enormous odds and wide public backlash) than most of their fellow human beings for taking the journeys they do to become and be seen for who they are meant to be.  And I applaud them for it.  (And I additionally hope for a world were I don’t have to use the word “brave” in this context to show my appreciation).

Ultimately, who doesn’t like looking at a beautiful woman (or man)?  We are geared to appreciate beauty – whatever that means to us.  But when the ONLY way we are appreciated by others is by how we look and our lives ONLY become about pursuing that constant approval, that’s when there is a problem.  Do what makes you feel best about yourself, but don’t just work on the outside.  Who you are inside is even more important.  Own who you are as a person and celebrate it.  Because, after all, looks will fade, and then all you’re left with is just – you.

I recommend, as I believe Shakespeare does with this sentiment, that you make it the best you possible – inside and out.

PHOTO BY: Akis Zarins

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