So why the nose? After all, an extra-large nose may seem a rather unrefined device, especially when it takes on the proportions we see in Cyrano. At points its prominence may impede the reader’s investment, distract them, or betray the gravity of this story’s profound, sincere moments. How did the historical Cyrano’s large proboscis become such a fixture in the world of Rostand’s play?
A mid-century English professor at Vassar College took up that question, and the answer turns out to be significant. To begin, Professor Parsons quotes the book of Leviticus, noting that men with “a flat nose” were banned from offering certain sacrifices in ancient Israel, excluding them from aspects of community life. Next, Parsons turns to etymology, demonstrating that the early Latin word describing men with large noses also referred to those who were sharp, witty, and sagacious. Finally, he compiles a list of prominent individuals whose exceptionality has been physically manifest on their faces: Alexander the Great, Jesus and Mohammed, to name a few. Apparently a large nose was associated with greatness, strength and intelligence in the seventeenth century—all qualities Cyrano exhibits.
By the time of Rostand’s writing, exceptionality was conceptualized independently of one’s nose size. Parsons argues that with the rise of satire in Cyrano’s day, attacking rivals’ personal idiosyncrasies came to be commonplace. It’s easy to imagine that a big nose could be the subject of jest and, given the passage of time, come to unseat the attribution of more ennobling characteristics. Nevertheless, both Cyranos—the historical and dramatized—at once possessed large noses and the distinguished qualities such protuberances signaled. The great nose is not then merely a comic device, but it becomes a mark of Cyrano’s spirit, a “panache” of sorts all its own.
—Samuel Evola, a student at University of Notre Dame, researched and wrote this essay as an intern with CST’s Education Department.