What should I do with him—dress him in my apparel and make him my waiting gentlewoman? He that hath a beard is more than a youth, and he that hath no beard is less than a man; and he that is more than a youth is not for me, and he that is less than a man, I am not for him.
These lines constitute Beatrice’s witty explanation for why she must remain an unmarried woman and eventually an old maid: there is no man who would be a perfect match for her. Those who possess no facial hair are not manly enough to satisfy her desires, whereas those who do possess beards are not youthful enough for her. This conundrum is not particular to Beatrice. In Renaissance literature and culture, particularly in Shakespeare, youths on the cusp of manhood are often the most coveted objects of sexual desire.
Although Beatrice jokes that she would dress up a beardless youth as a woman, there is a hidden double meaning here: in Shakespeare’s time, the actor playing Beatrice would have been doing exactly that, since all female roles were played by prepubescent boys until the late seventeenth century. Indeed, the beardless adolescent had a special allure that provoked the desires of both men and woman on the Elizabethan stage. Beatrice’s desire for a man who is caught between youth and maturity was in fact the sexual ideal at the time. The plot of the play eventually toys with her paradoxical sentiments for a man both with and without a beard: during the course of the play, Benedick will shave his beard once he falls in love with her.