Word of the Day: Alabaster

July 6, 2011 in Shakespeare, Word of the Day

The word “alabaster” is now part of an established style of poetic language, and has been since Shakespeare’s time. However, this does not mean that there is nothing to say here: for example, there are in fact two kinds of alabaster, gypsum and calcite. The former constitutes modern alabaster and the latter that of the ancients and Shakespeare. This calcite alabaster was an oriental material, widely used for ornament, and it is in this decorative aesthetic way that the word appears, for example, in Shakespeare’s description of Venus holding Adonis’ hand as “ivory in an alabaster band”. Similarly, Lucrece’s beauty is blazoned with the aid of the mineral.

What could he see but mightily he noted?
What did he note but strongly he desir’d?
What he beheld, on that he firmly doted,
And in his will his wilful eye he tir’d.
With more than admiration he admir’d
Her azure veins, her alabaster skin,
Her coral lips, her snow-white dimpled chin.

In contrast to Venus and Adonis, this portrayal of Lucrece is rather disturbing, made through the eyes of Tarquin, her future rapist. The reference to alabaster in the final line, along with coral and azure (originally another name for lapis lazuli), all contribute to render Lucrece an object and an ornament in Tarquin’s view, something to be possessed. Calcite alabaster has two specific properties that may also be relevant here: it resists water, but can be marked with a knife (Lucrece, of course, after many tears eventally commits suicide with just such an implement); and it was once used for windows. The translucent properties of alabaster are perhaps active here since a central theme of the poem is Lucrece’s sense of her own vulnerability, her feeling that her violation is plain for all those who “[pry] through my window” to see.

Sinking deeper into the menacing possibilities of alabaster, we come to Othello, who vows that “I’ll not shed [Desdemona’s] blood; / Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow, / And smooth as monumental alabaster”. He keeps his promise, but still suffocates his beloved at the play’s conclusion. The “monumental alabaster” differs from other uses of the mineral in relation to ornament, and is typical of Othello’s tendancy to aggrandise (see Wilson-Knight on “the Othello music” for a long description of this). Alabaster was used on monuments as well as ornaments, namely tombs and effigies, because of the ease with which it might be carved. When Othello speaks of “monumental alabaster”, a macabre note is sounded.

There is a darker appearance of the word, than even Othello’s, however: it comes in Richard III and Tyrrel’s soliloquy describing how the two young princes were murdered at the king’s orders. “Thus…girdling one another / Within their alabaster innoent arms / …We smothered / The most replenished sweer work of nature.” These lines unite the ornamental littleness of alabaster (the children’s fragility), its whiteness and translucency (their innocence), and its macabre usages (their murder).

To conclude, I turn to the fifth, final and cheeriest usage of alabaster in the canon. Gratiano’s speech to his friend Antonio about his passionate nature, and his subsequent rejection of alabaster and all that it represents in The Merchant of Venice. His lines set him apart in the play, distinct from Antonio’s anxieties and Shylock’s macabre plots, themselves the true analogues of alabaster. After all, Antonio’s ships may well have been carrying the precious mineral.

GRATIANO Let me play the fool;
With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come;
And let my liver rather heat with wine
Than my heart cool with mortifying groans.
Why should a man whose blood is warm within
Sit like his grandsire cut in alabaster,
Sleep when he wakes, and creep into the jaundice
By being peevish?

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