Of Craft

Of Craft

Craft of making- that’s how to think link Shakespeare and his fine filed phrase.

Nowadays, “craft” tends to evoke either products targeted for niche markets or projects made by hand at home. The former can be abused for marketing ends by corporations whose methods resemble nothing like artisanal practices; the latter conveys a diminutive, often gendered, sense of isolated production.

Yet neither connotation captures the scope of the collective practices that suffused skilled labor in Shakespeare’s world, where craft was not merely a mechanical process, but also communal, intellectual, physical, and emotional. Craft entailed discipline, enforced by people as well as by the object itself. Its practitioners habituated themselves into ever evolving patterns. While playmaking was never formalized as a recognized London guild, key features of the early modern theatre aligned with craft’s dynamic thinking practices.

William Shakespeare“Craft” has often been posed in tension with (purportedly) “higher” intellectual pursuits, whether in ancient Greek philosophy, or in the 18th century emergence of “fine arts” discourse, or in disdain for indigenous cultural practices. George Puttenham’s rhetorical handbook sought to help 16th century students navigate the path from the cart to the school, and from thence to the court; having at last become a courtier, the student must not risk exposing himself as a craftsman, who would then be disregarded with scorn [and] sent back again to the shop.

Yet the “skills” vs. “theory” binary (a rough translation of Aristotle’s techne vs. episteme) is more honored in the breach than the observance. Because techne was rendered in Latin as ars, it’s often Englished as “art.” But “craft” is just as viable a translation, as in Chaucer’s version of Hippocrates’ aphorism ars longa, vita brevis—

The lyf so short,
the craft so long to lerne

—as well as in scores of Tudor technical handbooks titled “The Craft of ____ .”
Doing and thinking are reciprocal practices. Plato often resorted to craft metaphors to describe intellectual pursuits (such as statecraft), and Aristotle acknowledged that techne could involve theoretical reflection upon its own practices. One of Socrates’ interlocutors once scoffed at him: you simply do not stop speaking about shoemakers, fullers, cooks, and doctors, as if our discussion were about them. Well, they were about them: thinking is as much of a craft as any physical trade.

The etymology of “craft” reveals that centuries before it becomes a trade or profession (defended by associated guilds, companies, and unions), it was first a strength, a power, a force. That is, craft involved a physical transformation of some material, as in the earliest instances of resourceful toolmaking. Soon, this capacity to transform becomes isolated as a skill or art, a dexterous ingenuity.

Only later does “crafty” come to mean full of guile—thereby yoking, as Virginia Woolf pointed out, two incongruous ideas: making useful objects out of solid matter and cajolery, cunning, deceit. Shakespeare deploys “craft” most often in the sense of being wily; the only time he uses the word “craftsmen” appears in his works in King Richard II’s scornful dismissal of Bolingbroke’s

Wooing poor craftsmen with the craft of smiles.

Robert Armin, the actor who played Shakespeare’s clown roles in the 1590s, toyed with these overlapping senses in the same repeated word (the technical term for which was antanaclasis) :

Craftsmen, whose craft in cleanly covering
Is to be crafty in your kindest cunning

This cunning sense of craft and crafty rub[bing] shoulders still hints at the cognitive dimension to making. There’s an intimate, immersive relationship
to material, whether physical or conceptual. The material resists, pushes back, in a kind of dialogue with the materials and means of execution. Craft
practitioner Caroline Broadhead calls making

an exchange with materials—what you
give to a material, and what it gives back.

Ben Jonson provided a definition of poesy that harkens back to the word’s Greek roots as “maker”:

A poem, as I have told you, is the work of the poet; the end and fruit of his labour and study. Poesy is his skill or craft of making; the very fiction itself, the reason or form of the work.

Craft of making—that’s how to think like Shakespeare and his fine filed phrase.

Or, even better: craft of will, a finely filed phrase that distills the maker’s mark with both aim and name.

*N.B. Italicized quotes are direct quotations, either from Shakespeare or the authors cited in the text.

Scott Newstok is director of the Pearce Shakespeare Endowment and professor of English at Rhodes College. He is the author of How to Think like Shakespeare: Lessons from a Renaissance Education, a guide to the habits of effective thought and creative writing, as embodied in the works of Shakespeare.


VIRTUE is the flagship publication of the Institute for Classical Education. It disseminates stories, ideas, research and experiences in classical education to readers across the nation, helping them to pursue the classical ideals of truth, goodness, and beauty.

Subscribing to VIRTUE's mailing list is absolutely free.

VIRTUE Magaizine Issue 08

Sign up today for your copy and join 25,000+ teachers, leaders, and friends of K-12 Classical education.