Shakespeare and more on Physiognomy

The tartness of his face sours ripe grapes“…The tartness of his face sours ripe grapes”

(Coriolanus, act 5, sc. 4)

Comment. The preceding blog (Mar 16, 2013, title, “Shakespeare, Physiognomy, the Pope and Lavater”) triggered a few direct e-mails and a comment, more or less condemning the practice to judge a person from his appearance, notably his/her face. Who could disagree?  But the topic blog was not an endorsement of the practice, rather an occasion to expose those who did not know about it to the work of Abbot Johan Lavater – considering also the influence that Lavater had on the writing of a giant of world literature, Honore’ de Balzac.  Noting also, from what I can gather, that many visitors to this web site are writers, or persons for whom writing is a critical component of their life or profession.
According to a biographer (Andre’ Maurois), Balzac kept a copy of Lavater’s monumental volumes right on his desk. Nor any reader of Balzac’s novels can deny how true-to-life are his character descriptions. I distinctly remember an exchange in Paris with a bar tender, after which I was convinced to have met the character before. Later it occurred to me that the persona of the bar tender had sprung out from the pages of Balzac’s novel “Eugenie Grandet”.

But I digress … As much as we may not want to admit it, the business of first impressions is what it is. Harvard Business Reviews articles or similar have said the same thing, albeit in hi-falutin verbiage – namely, that an important judgment is given on a job applicant during the first two-three seconds of an interview. And the quotation for this very blog confirms indirectly that even Shakespeare was an interpreter of facial expressions – there are other topic Shakespearean lines besides the one quoted.

Therefore, esteemed readers, “do not shoot the messenger!” I have only brought to your attention that it was Shakespeare, not I, who said that “your face is as a book” and that there have been several, actually many others who have expanded on the idea.

Tips for Use. Describe a sour character.

In the play. On returning to Rome, senator Menenius reports to his senator colleagues that Coriolanus’ sour mood cannot be changed.

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  • It’s really a very simple matter: one will make a quick estimation of a person at first sight but then wait for further information before deciding on the character. And let’s not forget the eyes. They are, after all, the window to the soul. I wonder, though, what would people who don’t believe in a soul make of that?