In the words of a Genesis song:
Old man says, "You are what you wear" - wear well.
Certainly, in Shakespeare's England, you were what you wore: And Shakespeare makes use of this (overtly and covertly) in his plays.
In the modern Western World, we have lost 'the meaning’ clothes had attached to them in Elizabethan and Stuart England. There is a superficial understanding in some contexts - we can recognise the Queen of England on state occasions for example - she will wear one of her crowns - preferably with a big diamond in it - and a set of gowns somewhat out of date - made of materials distinctly politically incorrect (like dead animal).
But is there any difference between what a Prince wears or a Premiership footballer (soccer) visiting the sick in hospital? In the UK, both are exceptionally wealthy men, both will be wearing custom-made, designer suits.
Take a photograph of the Queen of England on any but a state occasion, remove the head (whoops, bit of republican sympathy there) and tell me what identifies her as Queen.
We can determine, to a certain degree, wealth by clothing - although with some fashion trends that is difficult. The people in Shakespeare's audience could recognise rank, and status, as well as wealth. Occupation was also much easier to 'see'.
This isn't simply blue-collar/white-collar social class, it is much deeper.
Let's look at a couple of examples of how Shakespeare overtly uses his audience's ability to distinguish and interpret role and give meaning through clothing.
The opening scene of Julius Caesar provides a prime example.
In Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, the crowd that comes onto the stage would have been wearing Elizabethan 'Sunday Best' - perhaps with a band of material over that to indicate they were Romans.
What would the audience have instantly seen? - Ordinary working men dressed out of work-clothes and therefore celebrating either a Religious day, or a special occasion. By their behaviour we can assume they would not have been dressed in Puritan Black, nor in wealthy materials like silks - which were reserved for a better rank of people. What the audience wouldn't see would be the occupations of the men - which on a working day would have been apparent - nor the relative ranks - who was a master craftsman, who a journeyman, who still an apprentice?
This gives a sense of disorder and Saturnalia from the instant the men are sighted. It also helps explain what happens when to two 'magistrates' come on - they see the disorder and react against it. Under their token Toga, the Elizabethan would have seen a very different rank of person. Richer materials would be worn, possibly some indication of office - a mayoral chain for example - gentleman certainly, possibly knights. The way the workmen respond, taking this in mind, indicates a very dangerous state of affairs - and the Elizabethan would have seen it as a danger to the status quo - foreshadowing the civil strife to come.
If a modern production chooses to dress these characters in 'Roman' costume, we loose all sense of this distinction and danger - we cannot interpret Roman costume in the same way. If we dress 'modern' we still have to find some way of packing into the clothes meanings we don't normally identify.
Another opening, with a similar 'packing-in' of meaning, is that to Romeo and Juliet.
After the Prologue, two servants enter. How does Shakespeare show they are servants? - They wear livery.
The very concept of livery is strange to us - but was essential to Shakespeare. On the entry of the new King, James, to London, Mr William Shakespeare and some of his fellow actors were issued with a quantity of red-dyed, woollen cloth - to make the livery of the King of England. Shakespeare marched in procession, carrying the awning over the head of the King, as he entered under specially constructed arches.
The new livery was a step up for Shakespeare and his fellow actors - they had become 'The King's Men'! They had worn livery before - it protected them when they moved about the country - it marked them as the servants of 'The Admiral' and then 'The Chancellor' - each liveery different - each not just saying, I am a servant, but my Lord is so and so, my Lord is 'this important', my Lord is the King of England - so leave me alone.
I do not know how often Shakespeare wore his livery - I suspect quite a lot - especially at court - but many lowlier servants wore theirs all the time, and may higher officials also.
When the Capulet and the Montague servants appear on stage - all this meaning is carried with their clothing - and when the fight starts, in rush more people dressed out of livery - working people, ordinary people, then in comes the 'Princes' livery - and woe betide anyone ignoring that.
I have to say at this point how good the Baz Lurhmann version is in this respect - we do get the sense of difference (through design) between the fighting parties - and the police uniforms work well to identify, ‘The State’. Contrast this with the 'traditional, Renaissance set, Zefferellie version - and you see how so much is lost in the 'authentic' costuming - we do not understand the connotations of livery instinctively (and that is part of the point - intellectually I can add it, but I don't feel it at first sight).
A final point here might be to contrast the two ‘designs’ of Friar Lawrence – Milo O’Shea as the traditional brown robed priest vs. Peter Prothero’s tattooed bruiser! I know which I think is closer to the spirit of an increasingly Protestant England with growing suspicions of Catholic infiltration and invasion.
The History plays are perhaps the most difficult for us to come to contemporary terms with – but some thought given to the workings of the costumes and the props on Shakespeare’s stage does help.
Henry IV, part 2 contains the remarkable scene of young Hal ‘trying on’ the crown – to us, “So what?”
But the crown is much more than an indication of political Kingship – it is a divine symbol – to rightfully assume the crown is to be elected of God. It would ‘shock’ the audience – as it shocks Hal’s father. We can never understand the meaning, or get the same impact from the simple action of taking the crown.
When he does acquire the crown and become Henry V, he changes role, becoming no longer a Prince, but KING – which is also very difficult for modern audiences to understand. Hal never had any moral authority, Henry V does.
Just as an actor changes character with costume changes (something Bottom and his colleagues didn’t understand) so too, the man changes with the costume. Shakespeare and his actor friends went from being the servants of a nobleman to being the ‘National Theatre’, and the red cloth showed that – embodied the status.
In what is most likely Shakespeare’s first History play, Henry VI, Part 2, we have the character of Gloucester, Uncle to the Young King and Lord Protector of England. He is known as Lord Protector by the black staff he carries – it is the symbol of his office – he makes his entrance, with the King in the first scene carrying it. When he loses the office, the staff goes too – he is denuded, becoming a naked, vulnerable human being again: Prospero breaks his staff and his power goes at the end of the Tempest and the same thing happens – denudation and change.
Shakespeare must have given up his livery when he left the Kings men to return to Stratford-upon-Avon, his wife and children.
The fact that so much meaning has been lost to us, leaves great empty spaces in the text – and, more importantly, in the performance of a Shakespeare work.
To attempt to recreate the original ‘performances’ is a non-starter – we do not view the world the way they did then – we cannot understand their performances.
The empty spaces have to be filled though – and that is why Shakespeare, when performed well, is so contemporary – it has to be filled with design and direction which fits today’s worlds.
(In response to someone who wanted more info)
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