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Shakespeare & Beyond

Excerpt - 'How to Behave Badly in Elizabethan England' by Ruth Goodman

"How to Behave Badly in Elizabethan England," Ruth Goodman. 2018.Have you ever been curious about the first scene in Romeo and Juliet, when the servingman Sampson declares that he will… bite his thumb at another character? There’s a story behind that peculiar gesture, which in real life was more meaningful outside of England.

From insults to slovenliness and plain old rudeness, the people of Elizabethan England had a multitude of ways to behave badly—some of which are equally repellant today and some of which now make little sense or just seem silly. In her new book, How to Behave Badly in Elizabethan England, author Ruth Goodman explores what we know about such misdeeds, from the sometimes laughable side of social offenses to the more painful issues they reveal.

To learn more about the tale of biting one’s thumb, the “fig of Spain” mentioned in Henry V, and still other rude gestures, with some illustrations we have added from the Folger collection, read the excerpt below.

"Abr.: 'Do you bite your thumb at us sir?' vide Romeo and Juliet, scene 1st, act 1st." I.E.C. (artist). 19th century. Folger Shakespeare Library.

“Abr.: ‘Do you bite your thumb at us sir?’ vide Romeo and Juliet, scene 1st, act 1st.” I.E.C. (artist). 19th century. Folger Shakespeare Library.

Paradoxically, you may be more familiar with sixteenth-century continental rudeness than the British period versions. This is all the fault of William Shakespeare, who seems to have had a good working knowledge of just what annoyed a foreign aristocrat. In Romeo and Juliet, which is set in Italy, he has a character who declares that he will ‘bite [his] thumb at you’, and in Henry V Pistol refers to the gesture known as ‘the fig of Spain’. The first of these obviously required a little explanation to his largely English audience, as Sampson says, ‘Nay, as they dare. I will bite my thumb at them, which is a disgrace to them, if they bear it’, carefully pointing out to those who had never come across it that this was a gesture that attacked the victim’s honour, and that letting it pass unchallenged would mark them as cowards. Within the play the ruse is successful in starting a street fight. This was excellent ethnographic knowledge upon the playwright’s part, but also rather handily got around any censorship and offence issues. Here was a rude gesture, rude enough to provoke a fight, that Shakespeare could use upon the public stage without upsetting anyone except a few foreign diplomats and traders.

In modern Sicily you can still see a form of this gesture in use. An upright thumb held so that the pad points outwards is tucked behind the top front teeth and then flicked forwards out of the mouth towards the intended insultee. I have also seen a version in action on the outskirts of Venice – although I don’t know if it was a native Venetian performing it – where the pad of the thumb was placed horizontally between the top and bottom teeth in a bite and then flicked out, rotating as it went so that the bitten pad was thrust forwards.

The ‘fig of Spain’ gesture warranted no explanation in the text of the play; this was a much better-known action as far as the London public were concerned. But whereas the thumb biting was expected to be enacted upon the stage, the ‘fig of Spain’ gesture is only spoken of and did not need to be physically performed to move the plot onwards (once again avoiding offence).


A gesture still very well known, understood in the Arab world

Carol C Ross — December 19, 2018

But, the information the reader of this article is looking for is not included! I.e. what any of these three gestures actually meant, and why they were therefore considered rude?! Is this a deliberate tease to make us buy the book, or does the author not actually know? Ha-rumph!

Tue Sorensen — December 26, 2018

Growing up among Italian immigrants from the Calabria region, I would sometimes see the gesture of biting the index finger as a sign of anger.

Richard Palumbo — December 27, 2018

I am from Italy and have never seen or heard of thumb biting before reading this text.

Laura Cambiago Spangler — December 28, 2018