Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

Know’st Me Not by My Clothes?

We take a break from this Festival week to discuss clothing and costumes in Shakespeare’s plays. Though costumes are not required or even recognized in our Festival, there’s definitely a lot to discuss about them!

~by Carol Ann Lloyd Stanger

Clothing and identity are intricately woven (pun sort of intended) in Shakespeare’s own world and in that of his plays. In London, where Shakespeare lived and worked and where his plays were performed to large audiences, “Sumptuary Laws” were strictly enforced. These laws were used to control the behavior of the queen’s subjects and stipulated what people could spend on various household items, including food, furniture, jewelry, and clothing. Beyond what people of various social status could spend on clothes, the laws dictated who could wear what: only members of the Royal Family were permitted to wear clothes trimmed with ermine; lesser nobles were permitted to wear cloaks trimmed with fox. The vast marjority of Londoners were not permitted to wear any fur trim at all. Colors and fabric was also strictly dictated, especially in the “Statues of Apparel.”

In other words, you knew a great deal about a person—income, social status, and importance—just by paying attention to what he or she wore.

Shakespeare used this association between clothing and identity, and uses that association to great advantage. In Hamlet, Polonius proclaims “Apparel oft proclaims the man” (I.iii, 70)—an effectively way of reminding the audience that clothing has a great deal to do with identify and personality. Productions sometimes make dramatic use of this idea, as in a production of Henry IV where Prince Hal must evolve from the young ruffian who hangs out in taverns to the young man who will become king (and eventually lead his nation in war in Henry V). When the character is transformed, he leaves behind his common clothing and is dressed in a golden suit of armor. Even his gait is transformed as he walks stiffly toward Falstaff. Still dressed in the common attire of their ale house days, Falstaff cannot help but be aware of the character’s complete transformation.

Once this connection is established, Shakespeare turns it upside down by having characters disguise themselves and sometimes switch clothing. One of Shakespeare’s common clothing/identity techniques is to have a male actor portray a female character who is dressed as a man. The audience was aware of these layers of true and false identity when they saw Rosalind become Ganymede or Viola become Cesario. Identity traveled from one actor to another in a play like The Taming of the Shrew when Tranio impersonates Lucentio by wearing his clothes. Shakespeare regularly posed the question: “Know’st me not by my clothes?”

The association of identity with clothing is no longer controlled by the queen, but it is no less evident in today’s society than it was in Shakespeare’s. What do students think of Shakespeare’s use of clothing to create and confuse notions of identity? What does clothing mean to their identity? What elements of costume can you use in your classroom to explore these connections?

Carol Ann Lloyd Stanger is the Docent Liason for Folger Education, and a published writer for Calliope magazine. Carol Ann is also, now, one of our most frequent contributors!

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