The Nether Lip Tour

I finished rereading Othello by Shakespeare at the weekend and today found myself reading about Raphael Holinshed in Andrew Sanders’s The Short Oxford History of English Literature. Sanders in his history mentions how Holinshed’s Chronicles provided Shakespeare with source material and inspiration for many of his English history plays. He illustrates this with a quote from Holinshed’s Chronicles about Richard III:

When he stood musing, he would bite and chaw busilie his nether lip…he was of a readie, pregnant, and quicke wit, wilie to feine, and apt to dissemble

The expression ‘nether lip’ instantly recalled to my mind the use made by Shakespeare of the same expression in Othello in the build up to the murder of Desdemona. It stuck out on both occasions probably due to its novelty; I have clearly become accustomed to hearing ‘bottom lip’ or ‘lower lip’.

I discovered, when returning to the Othello, that ‘nether lip’ is actually used twice.  The first time it occurs is in Act IV Scene III as Emilia and Desdemona speak of Lodovico:

Desdemona. No, unpin me here. This Lodovico is a proper man.

Emilia. A very handsome man.

Desdemona. He speaks well.

Emilia. I know a lady in Venice would have walked barefoot to Palestine for a touch of his nether lip.

Emilia’s tone is gossipy; she is trying to distract Desdemona from melancholy reflection. The nether lip here is singled out as a visible part of Lodovico’s sexual attractiveness, working symbolically to round out Emilia’s objectification and chosen because of the lips involvement in both kissing and speech. The expression occurs again, shortly after, in Act V Scene II as Desdemona attempts to make sense of and bring to sense a clearly disturbed Othello:

Othello. Think on thy sins.

Desdemona. They are loves I bear to you.

Othello. Ay, and for that thou diest.

Desdemona. That death’s unnatural that kills for loving. Alas, why gnaw you so your nether lip? Some bloody passion shakes your very frame.

This second usage is contextually in stark contrast to the first. It again works symbolically, Othello’s gnawing of his nether lip indicating his lack of mental composure. This is closer to the original usage found in Holinshed’s Chronicles.

Thanks to a simple Google search I easily discovered that the expression nether lip also occurs once more in Shakespeare’s work in Henry IV pt.1 when a drunk Falstaff is pretending to be the King with Prince Henry:

Falstaff. That thou art my son I have partly thy mother’s word, partly my own opinion, but chiefly a villanous trick of thine eye and a foolish hanging of thy nether lip that doth warrant me.

Here the nether lip indicates foolishness by dint of its hanging. This interpretation would seem to be fairly secure yet some commentators have cast doubt on it. Samuel Hemingway in his notes to a 1936 edition of the play feels it worth mentioning that a hanging lip was a sign of attractiveness and in some contemporaneous contexts ‘foolish’ equates to ‘wantonness’.  This may be a footnote too far; Shakespeare uses the word foolish nearly one hundred times in his complete works and in most instances the meaning is suited more to an indication of mental deficiency than lustfulness or promiscuity. The interpretation suggested by Hemingway comes at the cost of removing humour from Falstaff’s play acting.  It may be possible to ingeniously explain away the apparent insult of ‘foolish hanging’ but trying to do the same for ‘villanous trick’ is a very tall order.

Looking beyond Shakespeare the expression occurs twice in H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau in the second chapter, it occurs in the second and the penultimate sentences:

A youngish man with flaxen hair, a bristly straw-coloured moustache, and a dropping nether lip, was sitting and holding my wrist.

He stared at me with his nether lip dropping, and looked so wilfully stupid of a sudden that it came into my head that he desired to avoid my questions.

As in the quote from Henry IV pt.1 the slackness of the nether lip is evoked to signify stupidity. The expression can also be found in David Copperfield by Charles Dickens in Chapter 29, this time in reference to a woman, Miss Rosa Dartle:

As she looked full at me, I saw her face grow sharper and paler, and the marks of the old wound lengthen out until it cut through the disfigured lip, and deep into the nether lip, and slanted down the face. There was something positively awful to me in this, and in the brightness of her eyes..

The academic critic Harold Bloom brings attention to this passage in his 2007 introduction to a reprint of a Tale of Two Cities. Bloom equates Rosa’s scarred lips with female genitalia suggesting they act as an image:

for a wounded sexuality or for a sexuality that is little more than pain

and as:

a grotesque erogenous zone

There is another usage later in David Copperfield too, that for the sake of completeness should be mentioned, in which Rosa Dartle’s ‘nether lip’ work as a censor:

Her eyes wandered restlessly over the distant prospect, and she bit her nether lip to stop that busy mouth.

A similar Bloomian equation of ‘nether lip’ with genitalia and sex has been attempted in relation to Shakespeare’s first usage of the expression in Othello, citing a usage in Chaucer, instead of Holinshead, as inspiration. The Chaucerian example is from the Miller’s Tale and comes at the very end of the tale, when the chief comical events in the Tale are recounted:

Thus swyved was this carpenteris wyf,

For al his kepyng and his jalousye;

And Absolon hath kist hir nether ye;

And Nicholas is scalded in the towte.

The medieval expression ‘hir nether ye’ means ‘her nether eye’ and from Absalom’s realisation that a woman has no beard, after supposedly kissing the Carpenter’s wife on the mouth, there is no mistaking that this is a euphemism for her vagina. Stitching this analysis to the Shakespearean usages of nether lip is probably stretching credibility to breaking point. Indeed there seems to be a tradition of commentators wilfully reading sex into texts, especially Shakespearean ones.

The expression occurs in Kate Chopin’s novella The Awakening in a description of Doctor Mandelet:

The old gentleman lifted his shaggy eyebrows, protruded his thick nether lip, and tapped the arms of his chair with his cushioned fingertips.

Here instead of a drooping nether lip indicating stupidity we have a protuberant one denoting thoughtfulness or reckoning. There is little to suggest that Chopin’s usage is derived from a Shakespearean predecessor yet if we look a little earlier in the text we see:

“Well, it isn’t easy to explain,” said Mr. Pontellier, throwing himself back in his chair. “She lets the housekeeping go to the dickens.”

The expression ‘the dickens’ is to be found in Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor in Act 3 Scene 2:

Ford. Where had you this pretty weather-cock?

Mistress Page. I cannot tell what the dickens his name is my husband had him of. What do you call your knight’s name, sirrah?

Robin. Sir John Falstaff.

It could be just be a coincidence. There is also a usage in Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mocking Bird in chapter 11 in a paragraph describing the elderly Mrs. Dubose:

Her bottom plate was not in, and her upper lip protruded; from time to time she would draw her nether lip to her upper plate and carry her chin with it. This made the wet move faster.

I dread to think what Harold Bloom might make of that passage. Thomas Hardy uses the expression in A Pair of Blue Eyes. In chapter IV, when describing Stephen Smith, a character often identified by critics as autobiographical, largely because of a shared profession with the author, after a paragraph establishing setting we get a reference to a nether lip:

His mouth was a triumph of its class. It was the cleanly-cut, piquantly pursed-up mouth of William Pitt, as represented in the well or little known bust by Nollekens—a mouth which is in itself a young man’s fortune, if properly exercised. His round chin, where its upper part turned inward, still continued its perfect and full curve, seeming to press in to a point the bottom of his nether lip at their place of junction.

This is only the second sustained description of Smith’s character and yet it is the second description of his mouth. Unlike many of Hardy’s original readers, through the wonder of the internet it is possible to view the Nollekens bust referred to.

William Pitt by Joseph Nollekens

Establishing the autobiographical veracity of the bust’s nether lip must remain inconclusive given the obfuscation afforded by Thomas Hardy’s famous moustache.

The hidden nether lip

There are other uses of ‘nether lip’, many are included in anthropological texts and writing on dentistry and pronunciation. More uses still can be found in crudely written pornography where it is easy to understand the need for many such euphemisms. The expression is used by explorers describing native communities in Africa and the Americas, many such accounts taking time to mention a resemblance between the native nether lip and those displayed on the faces of the Austrian House of Hapsburg. I even found historians using the expression to describe how a barber would approach the shearing of Cromwell’s beard.

All of this hunting is not about to arrive at any dramatic conclusion. Nevertheless contemplation of a single expression has opened up a surprisingly rich literary seam. If there is any point to be made by engaging in such a digression it must be that it would have been impossible to accomplish in such a short period of time even just a decade ago when I was freshly graduated. Digitisation of the corpus of English Literature is still in an early stage yet students from now on will have access to resources undreamed of in the times of many of their teachers.

I will bring this post to an end with one last literary example of the usage of ‘nether lip’ which brings us almost back to Othello. In Tobias Smollett’s The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle in chapter LXIX the eponymous hero witnesses his good friend Godfrey Gauntlet hustle a group of soldiers at Billiards:

…and now they saw seventeen hundred pounds of their stock depending upon a single stroke, they stood like so many swarthy Moors, jaundiced with terror and vexation…he aimed the ball at the lead with such discomposure, that it struck on the wrong side, and came off at an angle which directed it full in the middle hole. This fatal accident was attended with a universal groan, as if the whole universe had gone to wreck; and notwithstanding that tranquility for which adventurers are so remarkable, this loss made such an impression upon them all, that each in particular manifested his chagrin, by the most violent emotions. One turned up his eyes to heaven, and bit his nether lip; another gnawed his fingers…


This entry was posted in Charles Dickens, Chaucer, Drama, H.G. Wells, Henry IV.I, Kate Chopin, Language, Literature, Othello, Shakespeare, Teaching, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Tobias Smollett. Bookmark the permalink.

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