What can we learn from Shakespeare about nudity?

On the surface, at least, not a lot. Perhaps the most frequent actual references to nudity are found in King Lear.

The king has been dethroned by the treachery of his daughters Goneril and Regan. In Act III, he has begun to lose his mind and is wandering aimlessly in a storm at night. He is accompanied by the Earl of Kent, who is trying to lead the king to a beggar’s hovel for shelter from the storm. Lear is finally beginning to understand the sufferings of his poorest subjects:

Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,
And show the heavens more just.

Lear and Kent encounter Edgar, son of the Earl of Gloucester, in disguise as a madman, Tom o’ Bedlam, who was supposedly once a wealthy courtier but has been dispossessed by his own daughters, and is naked except for a blanket, regarding which the king’s Fool remarks: “He reserved a blanket, else we had all been shamed.” Obviously, nudity was generally regarded as a sign of extreme poverty, and was abhorred as such.

Lear’s reaction to Tom o’ Bedlam:

Thou wert better in thy grave than to answer with thy uncovered body this extremity of the skies. Is man no more than this? Consider him well. Thou owest the worm no silk, the beast no hide, the sheep no wool, the cat no perfume. Ha! here’s three on’s are sophisticated! Thou art the thing itself:
unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor bare, forked animal as thou art.

But then Lear himself, recognizing his own condition, rips off his remaining clothing: “Off, off, you lendings! come unbutton here.”

It’s unlikely that actual nudity was well received on the Elizabethan stage. Theater itself was already despised by the many religious prigs of the time: “Drama at Shakespeare’s time – and at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre – was characterised by a tug of war between a disapproving puritanical attitude to theatre by the city councillors on the one hand, and royal approval on the other.”[1]

So, although nudity was regarded with contempt, it was still recognized as a state in which real, authentic human nature is revealed, without artifice or pretense. “Lear’s attempt to bare himself is a sign that he has seen the similarities between himself and Edgar: only the flimsy surface of garments marks the difference between a king and a beggar. Each must face the cruelty of an uncaring world.”[2]

Another observer has this to say about nudity in Lear:

I have no doubt whatsoever that Shakespeare fully intended Lear to be completely naked through most of King Lear. … Lear has to be completely naked. The nakedness and extreme vulnerability of the poor forked human being is reinforced throughout the text with hundreds of references to nakedness. The whole point of the play is that Lear is stripped of everything, bit by bit, until he is naked, and it is only then, when he has to start all over again like a new-born babe, that he begins to understand the realities of life that have eluded him because his title, power, wealth and authority have blinded him. He is stripped of his family, his title, his authority, his possessions, and even a roof over his head, and he is left to wander in a ferocious storm in the open countryside along with other homeless people. He tears his clothes off with the cry ‘off lendlings.’ It is only then that he can change and become a real human being. When a man is naked you can’t tell whether he is a king or a beggar. Dressing like a king and having the trappings of kingship does not make a man a king: it’s the inner kingly qualities that a man has that will make him ‘every inch a king.’ And that’s what Lear learns. … And so, nudity is built into the very fabric of the text.[3] (Emphasis added.)

There’s a lot more we can learn from Shakespeare about nudity, but mostly it will come from consideration of other themes. In particular, the remark by Jaques in As You Like It is especially relevant:

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts. (II.7)

Isn’t that exactly what one would expect a playwright to say? The business of actors on a stage is to pretend to be persons other than their “true” selves. This raises questions of appearance vs. reality, of authenticity. We’ll start to deal with those questions in another post.

Footnotes:

1. Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre
2. SparkNotes, King Lear, Act 3, scenes 4–5
3. Nudity in Shakespeare

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