A Fig for the Europeans? Gestures of British Exceptionalism, from Shakespearean Bravado to Brexit

By Miranda Fay Thomas

An illustrative plate from Bulwer's 'Chirologia and Chironomid' (1644). The fig gesture is labelled 'X'.

Illustrative plate from Bulwer’s ‘Chirologia and Chironomid’ (1644). ‘X’ is the fig gesture.

On the morning after the Brexit vote, I awoke to find Twitter awash with my literary friends and colleagues quoting John Donne: ‘No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less.’ Donne’s words were being used to emphasise the sense of loss felt by many people on the morning of Friday 24 June, when they woke up to discover that the UK had voted to leave the European Union. Of course, when Donne wrote the passage originally, it was as a metaphor for the interconnectedness of individual and collective loss. While the British Isles aren’t being literally washed away, our sense of European community has been shattered, with 52% of the votes cast in the referendum done so in the belief that some men are indeed islands entire of themselves.

That morning, I was reminded of a different Renaissance text. A Fig for the Spaniard was published in 1591, and again in 1592. A ‘fig’ is a gesture: you can make one yourself by inserting your thumb between your index and middle fingers. Do so at your peril, though: it’s considered by some to be a very offensive sign. In 1644, gestural scholar John Bulwer wrote that the fig is ‘an ironicall vulgarisme of the Hand used by Plebians when they are contumeliously provoked’, and that it is deployed by ‘moderne Spaniards’ as a ‘reproachful expression’. Some consider it offensive due to the phallic nature of the thumb being thrust between a gap between the fingers; other potentially rude origins may be the bulbous nature of the fruit, filled with fertile seeds. The gesture’s threat may also be rooted in the idea that the Spanish would give poisoned figs to their enemies, and it has even been suggested that it references an act of military humiliation dealt by Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, who forced his prisoners to pull a fig from the anus of a mule using only their teeth. In English Renaissance drama, fig gestures are usually evoked at a moment of tension and are often mentioned by more continental characters. Iago, the suspiciously-Spanish-named villain in Othello, considers giving ‘a fig’ to the idea of virtue. Other thumb-related gestures, such as the thumb bite, are used by Italian characters in the opening brawl of Romeo and Juliet.

The title page of A Fig for the Spaniard explains the text’s intended purpose: to showcase the ‘lively portraih[ing of] the damnable deeds, miserable murders, and monstrous massacres of the cursed Spaniard’. Its publication was sponsored by Elizabeth I’s government, and it was far from the only racially insensitive publication of the period. Edward Daunce’s 1590 work, A Brief Discourse of the Spanish State, describes ‘The naturall Spaniard being […] mixed with the Gothes and Vandals [and is] given to theevery and drunkenness’.[1] A Fig turned the gesture associated with England’s enemy back onto the Spanish: the text’s title appropriates a piece of Spanish culture out of concern that the Armada may soon invade their own nation.

Texts such as this perpetuated the ‘stranger crisis’ in 1590s England: a time when foreigners were feared. It was a time when Elizabeth I was unmarried, childless, and refusing to name the next heir to the throne; when the 1588 victory against the Armada was beginning to seem like a distant memory amid the Apprentice riot in Tower Hill in June 1595, where tradesmen committed violence against ‘strangers’. Aftershocks from the Reformation and the break with Rome under Henry VIII were still being felt, and the stranger crisis was only making things worse, with Elizabeth’s government using what would now be considered racial profiling in A Fig for the Spaniard to stir up dissent.

Shakespeare’s plays were being performed for the first time at this historical moment, and the playwright would have been acutely aware of the tensions between Britain and Europe; after all, he used social and religious tension for dramatic effect in 1597’s The Merchant of Venice. But I wonder if, in years to come, cultural historians will draw anything from the fact that Britain voted to leave the EU in the year of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. The championing of his work, and its continued impact around the world, is a reminder of Britain’s perceived cultural dominance. From colonialists bringing Shakespeare to the natives as an educative tool, to former nations of the British Empire returning to Shakespeare’s Globe in 2012 to speak Shakespeare back to London in their own native languages, there is an ongoing cultural exchange that serves to remind us, as British citizens, of our past involvement with colonial projects. Shakespeare has, at particular times throughout history, been used as a mascot of British Exceptionalism, a reminder of the UK’s cultural dominance over the rest of the world, English-speaking or not.

This sense of ‘British Exceptionalism’ is one that has haunted these isles for centuries. In Tudor England, as now, our island-status as a nation has come to represent what all too many Britons see as our essential difference from mainland Europe. The Brexit Referendum campaign was itself tainted by a variety of distasteful anti-migrant elements, and the rise in racial incidents since the Referendum result has been widespread, with many reported on the Twitter account @PostRefRacism. But texts like A Fig for the Spaniard don’t only reveal just how deep these tensions run. They reveal that gestures of bravado – from making a fig, to voting to leave the EU – are actions rooted in a fear shaped by tensions of the past as much as the present.


Miranda Fay Thomas has just passed her PhD, which studied shaming gestures in Shakespearean drama. The project was co-supervised by King’s College London and Shakespeare’s Globe. She now works as a Globe Education Lecturer at Shakespeare’s Globe, and is a visiting lecturer at the University of Greenwich, while continuing to teach at King’s. 


[1] See Eric Griffin: ‘Shakespeare, Marlowe, and the Stranger Crisis of the 1590s’, in Shakespeare and Immigration (eds. Ruben Espinosa and David Rutter) (Surrey and Burlington: Ashgate, 2014), pp. 13-36.

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