The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 11.1386 Wednesday, 12 July 2000.
Date: Tuesday, 11 Jul 2000 11:06:17 -0500
Subject: "carving to"
In The White Devil Vittoria Corombona, learning that her husband is
displeased with her, says, "I did nothing to displease him, I carved to
him at supper-time" (1.2.126, Revels ed.). This passage is variously
glossed. It appears that many believe that carving at table contained a
semiotics of erotic content. Lucas, for instance (a widely-read
annotator), glosses the phrase as follows:
"Carving" was the term for a curious Elizabethan manner of making
advances by signalling with the fingers -- a sort of digitary ogle.
He then goes on to cite parallels in Wives (1.3.47), Errors (2.2.121),
LLL (5.2.324), and from Overbury's Character of "A Very Woman":
"Her lightness gets her to swim at top of the table where her wrie
little finger bewraies carving; her neighbors at the latter end know
they are welcome, for that purpose she quencheth her thirst" (cited from
Other editors think various things. Oliver's ed. of Wives cites but
dismisses these as misleading, imaginary, or unhelpful parallels,
concluding, "That there is some kind of association between carving at
table and making guests feel, properly or improperly, at home -- and
that it goes beyond the allotting of the choicest cuts -- does seem
certain." Hibbard refers interestingly (in his note to the LLL passage)
to "mincing speech." Like many editors, though, he regards the meaning
of the term as now unknown. Yet other editors from my shelves do not
footnote the term at all.
Do others have light to shed on this usage?