Word of the Day: Needle

August 8, 2011 in Word of the Day

There are nine needles to be found in Shakespeare’s works, a task made easy by this very website. The word appears most frequently in The Taming of the Shrew, where Gremio boasts of the “Valance of Venice gold in needle-work” that figures amongst his treasures, and Petruchio turns on the tailor whose “needle and thread” have – apparently – produced an ill-fitting gown for Katherine. That hapless Tailor is the one man in all of the plays and poems to wield a needle, whose usage was normally considered a female activity: Baptista, for example, tells Katherine’s sister, Bianca, to leave and “ply thy needle” when the her shrewish sibling turns nasty.

Needlework is not always a way of dismissing a woman, though: Othello praises Desdemona for being “so delicate with her needle” that it defeats all his violent thoughts, and Imogen, the heroine of Cymbeline, reconfigures needlework as a kind of female empowerment when she imagines how she would, if possible, stand “by with a needle, that [she] might prick / The goer back” in an imaginary duel between the Queen’s son and the exiles of the play.

Of course, as soon as the needle might represent female power, it becomes a topic of male banter amongst some of Shakspeare’s viler characters. Thersites insults Ajax in Troilus and Cressida by saying that he has “not so much wit [...] as will stop the eye of Helen’s needle”, and there is definitely some lewd reference here to phallic needles, eyes/holes and Helen’s supposed promiscuity. A similar configuration of tropes occurs when Tarquin stalks towards the sleeping Lucrece:

> And being lighted, by the light he spies
> Lucretia’s glove, wherein her needle sticks;
> He takes it from the rushes where it lies,
> And griping it, the neeld his finger pricks:
> As who should say this glove to wanton tricks
> Is not inur’d: return again in haste;
> Thou see’st our mistress’ ornaments are chaste.

This time, the needle epitomises the weakness of the woman’s power to resist the Roman warrior, and grimly foretells Lucrece’s later suicide with a dagger. To conclude, one might set this tragic piece of needlework against Gower’s description of Marina in one of the choruses of Pericles: here, in this late play, suffering remains paramount but its potential as a source of strength is also evoked, all with the image of a woman wielding a needle:

> when she would with sharp needle wound,
> The cambric, which she made more sound
> By hurting it […]

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