18 Dramatic Ways to Express Yourself with Gestures, According to a 19th Century Book


In 1846, Dr. Andrew Comstock published A system of elocution, with special reference to gesture, to the treatment of stammering, and defective articulation, comprising numerous diagrams, and engraved figures, illustrative of the subject. The book was, he wrote, "designed for the use of Schools and Colleges, as well as for the instruction of private individuals who desire to improve themselves in the art of reading and speaking." The book includes not just instructions and exercises in articulation, pitch, force, and time, but also gestures to use when expressing certain emotions or feelings (largely sourced, Comstock explains, from Gilbert Austin's Chironomia, or a Treatise on Rhetorical Delivery). Normally, you'd use these while on stage, but feel free to employ them in your everyday life, too.

1. Reproach

To convey reproach, Comstock writes that a person must "[put] on a stern aspect: the brow is contracted, the lip is turned up with scorn, and the whole body is expressive of aversion." This particular figure, Henry VIII's Queen Katharine, is "reproaching Wolsey for the injuries which had been heaped upon her." Why this requires a hand in the air is unclear.

2. Apprehension

"Apprehension is the prospect of future evil accompanied with uneasiness of mind," Comstock writes. Take, for example, this illustration, which "represents Hamlet in the act of exclaiming, 'Ay, there's the rub.'"

3. Terror

There are many ways to express terror, which "excites the person who suffers under it, to avoid the dreaded object, or to escape from it," Comstock writes. "If it be some dangerous reptile on the ground, and very near, the expression is represented by starting back and looking downwards. If the danger threaten from a distance, the terror arising is expressed by looking forwards, and not starting back, but merely in the retired position. But if the dread of impending death from the hand of an enemy awaken this passion, the coward flies." This particular figure shows a man who is terrified of lightning and thunder, who "shuts his eyes, covers them with one hand and extends the other behind him, as if to ward off the dreaded stroke."

4. Horror

"Horror," Comstock writes, "is aversion or astonishment mingled with terror." To portray it, a person must not retreat, but "[remain] in one attitude, with the eyes riveted on the object, the arms, with the hands vertical, held forward to guard the person, and the whole frame trembling."

5. Listening Fear

A person experiencing listening fear, as this figure supposedly shows, is listening to obtain information. He "first casts the eye quickly in the apparent direction of the sounds," Comstock writes. "[I]f nothing is seen, the ear is turned towards the point of expectation, the eye is bent on vacancy, and the arm is extended, with the hand vertical." All of this should happen in just a quick moment, and if many sounds are coming from different areas at the same time, Comstock advises that the person hold both hands up, while "the face and eyes alternately change from one side to the other with a rapidity governed by the nature of the sound; if it be alarming, with trepidation; if pleasing, with gentle motion." At which point it probably wouldn't be "listening fear" anymore, but something else entirely.

6. Admiration

Admiration of a landscape cannot be completely expressed with words or facial expressions. Instead, Comstock writes, a person expressing it "holds both hands vertical, and across, and then moves them outwards to the position extended as in the figure," as in the figure above. "In admiration arising from some extraordinary or unexpected circumstances, the hands are thrown up supine elevated, together with the face and the eyes."

7. Veneration

This one is easy: "Veneration crosses both hands on the breast, casts down the eyes slowly, and bows the head."

8. Deprecation

Though you're typically expressing disapproval when you deprecate someone, you'd never know it by this gesture, which "advances in the extended position of the feet, approaching to kneeling, clasps the hands forcibly together, throws back the head, sinking it between the shoulders, and looks earnestly up to the person implored."

9. Appealing to Heaven

This gesture looks a lot like reproach, but with a happier face."[T]he right hand is laid on the breast, then the left is projected supine upwards," Comstock writes. "[T]he eyes are first directed forwards, and then upwards. In the appeal to conscience, the right hand is laid on the breast, the left drops unmoved, the eyes are fixed upon the person addressed; sometimes both hands press the breast." 

10. Shame in the Extreme

"Shame in the extreme sinks on the knee, and covers the eyes with both hands," Comstock writes. What would regular shame look like, I wonder?

11. Resignation Mixed with Desperation

"Resignation mixed with desperation," Comstock writes, "stands erect and unmoved, the head thrown back, the eyes turned upward, and fixed, the arms crossed." This pose reads more dignified than resigned and desperate to me, but I'm not an expert. 

12. Grief Arising from Sudden and Afflicting Intelligence

This isn't your regular sadness. To express it, a person must "[cover] the eyes with one hand, [advance] forwards, and [throw] back the other hand."

13. Mild Resignation

"Mild resignation falls on the knee, crosses the arms on the breast, and looks forwards and upwards towards heaven," Comstock writes.

14. Surprise

"Surprise causes the body and lower limbs to retire, and affection stimulates the person to advance," Comstock writes. This figure shows a character from a German play who "unexpectedly sees his dear friend. He withdraws, in surprise, his body and lower limbs, and, in the ardor of friendship, immediately stretches forwards his head and his arms."

15. Melancholy

Get ready to mope: Melancholy, "a feeble and passive affection," Comstock writes, "is attended by a total relaxation of the muscles, with a mute and tranquil resignation, unaccompanied by opposition either to the cause or the sensibility of the evil. The character, externally, is languor, without motion, the head hanging at the 'side next the heart." The eyes should be fixed upon the object of this melancholy, but, if the object isn't there, "fixed upon the ground, the hands hanging down by their own weight, without effort, and joined loosely together."

16. Anxiety

The polar opposite of melancholy, anxiety is restless and active, and manifested "by the extension of the muscles," Comstock writes. "[T]he eye is filled with fire, the breathing is quick, the motion is hurried, the head is thrown back, the whole body is extended. The sufferer is like a sick man, who tosses incessantly, and finds himself uneasy in every situation."

17. Distress, When Extreme

"Distress, when extreme," Comstock writes, "lays the palm of the hand upon the forehead, throws back the head and body, and retires with a long and sudden step." This is a less extreme version of grief arising from sudden and afflicting intelligence.

18. Self-Sufficiency

"Self-sufficiency folds the arms, and sets himself on his center," Comstock writes, noting that "this was a favorite posture of [Napoleon] Bonaparte."