Ostentation and Identity in the Taming of the Shrew (part 1)

As a keen observer of and commentator upon psychology and human behavior, Shakespeare, naturally, also delved frequently into social criticism. Much of Shakespeare’s social criticism finds its focus in the rapidly changing class structures of Elizabethan England and the ways the members of those classes derived and displayed self-definition through membership in their respective classes. In The Taming of the Shrew in particular, Shakespeare engages in a subtle, and sometimes not-so-subtle, critique of the establishment of identity through the ostentatious display of wealth in clothing styles and other decorations of the body. Inspired by the costumes of the theater and the ease with which an actor altered his displayed identity with each change of clothing, Shakespeare explores the gain and loss of both social identity and self-definition made possible by changes of apparel in all three plots of the play: the metamorphosis of Christopher Sly from beggar to lord in the induction, the subplot in which Tranio and Lucentio exchange identities so that the latter may win the love of Bianca, and the main plot in which Petruchio tames the shrewish Katherine through a series of exercises exhibiting defiance of Elizabethan social norms. Through this exploration of the centrality of ostentation to the establishment and maintenance of identity, Shakespeare calls into question the solidity and stability of the social order as well as offering an admonitory commentary on the obsessive ostentation of the wealthy. In so doing, Shakespeare offers an apparent reaffirmation of the belief in the permanence of the hierarchical structure of Elizabethan society while subtly casting doubt on the entire structure.

The clothing style and items worn by a person was one of the most obvious marks of that person’s social status. The wealthier and the more ostensibly important a person was, the more ostentatious their clothing and accessories became as an exhibition of that wealth and importance. According to Amanda Bailey, an expert in Shakespeare at the University of Maryland, Queen “Elizabeth possessed over three thousand dresses the year she died. Clothes were important to the queen and not merely because she had a passion for them. Apparel was one of the primary means through which she realized her authority.”[1] In addition, says Bailey, “while Elizabeth’s clothing symbolized her majesty, the clothes of her subjects signaled their various social positions.”[2]

So readily recognizable was the dress of each of the various classes of Elizabethan English society that “along with establishing a character’s gender,” says Robert I. Lublin, a historian of theater, “the most immediate and important function costume served on the Shakespearean stage was to assert the wearer’s social status in the highly stratified dramatic world of the performance.”[3] The audience immediately ascertained the social status and occupation of any character who entered the stage based upon the clothes worn by the actor because it was the sort of clothing they saw worn by the various members of the society around them.

The use of clothing to project social status became particularly important during the Elizabethan Era due to increasing social mobility, both upward and downward. The “excruciating concern with status” characteristic of the Elizabethan Age, “the anguished self-consciousness, the necessity to define one’s position, was rendered all the more acute by the rise of the gentry,” writes historian and Shakespeare scholar A. L. Rowse in his multivolume study of The Elizabethan Renaissance.[4]  In addition to this increased possibility of upward mobility, the Elizabethan Age also saw an increase in the possibility of downward mobility, with many of the heirs of the nobles of earlier times being forced to take up various employments due to the necessity imposed upon them by their decreasing wealth.[5] Such decreases in wealth and the taking up of occupations requiring labor were, of course, accompanied by the diminishment of social status. The nouveau riche, meanwhile, clamored after the means by which to establish and display the increase of status acquired through their new wealth. There was, for example, says Rowse, a “pedigree craze” in which the new gentry sought to equip their families with coats of arms.[6]

One of the most immediate means by which members of this newly socially mobile society attempted to display their status was the taking up of the clothing of their new caste. Clothing which distinguished its wearer as a man or woman of importance became increasingly ostentatious throughout the Elizabethan Age. “It was,” say historians Ann Rosalind and Peter Stallybrass in their treatment of clothing during the Renaissance, “in the late sixteenth century that the word ‘fashion’ first took on the sense of restless change” in styles of clothing.[7] Previously, the word “fashion,” derived from the Latin facio, meaning “to make,” had referred to the production of artists and artisans, “the act of making.”[8] As individuals were increasingly able to fashion, or make, themselves into something new through changes in occupation and social status, fashion in clothing became a central means by which to mark one’s body according to one’s new station and so publicly proclaim that station. According to Rowse,

Costume clearly reflected not only class and rank, but also profession — the clerical and academic, legal and mercantile. . . . In those days the expression of class-status in one’s costume was regulated by statute, though there must have been wide margins of divergence. Middle-class women were not supposed to dress in velvets, except for sleeves; blue was the colour of servants, so the upper classes forwent that delightful colour. Peasantry and working people wore serges and fustians of drab, natural colours, like themselves. . . . In general we may say that the grand costume of the leading classes, nobility and gentry, was immensely rich and exhibitionist, conspicuous and competent, artificial, addicted to hard, brilliant colours. There was much use of black, but that served as a background to bring out other hues. Renaissance society was extravagant and extrovert, so was the costume.[9]

The word “fashion” also began at this time, however, to take on “the sense of mere form or pretence” as well as connotations of something “counterfeit or pervert[ed].”[10] Just as the gentry attempted to establish a fictitious nobility of their lineage through the acquisition of a coat of arms for their family, the wearer of ostentatious and fashionable clothing was presenting himself according to a status greater than that allotted to him by birth. He was, implicitly, calling into question the whole of the Elizabethan social order, with all of its strict codes of conduct and rigid hierarchies, including the traditional passage of occupation and status from parent to child.

While this clash between the increased social mobility and a traditional hierarchal world picture consumed Elizabethan society, it also found a central place on the Elizabethan stage. Drawing upon the work of G. K. Hunter, Lublin summarizes, “the early modern stage engaged individuals first and foremost as expressions of their social rank.”[11] This was accomplished, says Lublin, primarily through costuming. “Without recourse to dialogue,” Lublin writes, “the characters established their identity onstage immediately and almost entirely from the apparel they wore.”[12] Even for those characters with substantial amounts of dialogue, “dialogue did not serve to constitute otherwise blank identities, but rather to modify the identities posited by their social station as it had been established by their apparel and understood by virtue of the sumptuary legislation of the period.”[13] Because of the importance of clothing to the establishment of the status and occupation of the character, acting troupes like that of Shakespeare were willing to spend large sums to ensure the authenticity and accuracy of the clothing worn on stage.

This importance of costume to character became a central comedic motif in the early works of Shakespeare and continued to play a substantial role through his career as a playwright. Shakespeare includes, for example, a number of comedic references to the practice of dressing boys up as women to play female parts due to laws which prohibited stage performances by women, as in Cleopatra’s lament shortly before her suicide in Antony and Cleopatra that in the future she

shall see

Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness

I’ the posture of a whore.[14]

The simultaneously pitiful and comedic effect of the statement was surely obvious to a crowd who was watching just such a boy-actor dressed as Cleopatra “squeaking” these very words.

As You Like It features what is perhaps the greatest example of the comedic uses to which Shakespeare could put the issues of gender raised by his crossdressing boy-actors. There, the boy playing Rosalind, a female character, dresses up as and pretends to be a male character, Ganymede, who, in turn, pretends to be Rosalind. This complicated multilayering of identity as it relates to gender and the display of identity through costume is at once both humorous and intriguing.

[1] Amanda Bailey, “‘Monstrous Manner’: Style and the Early Modern Theater,” Criticism 43, no. 3 (2001): 249, doi:10.1353/crt.2001.0023.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Robert I. Lublin, Costuming the Shakespearean Stage: Visual Codes of Representation in Early Modern Theatre and Culture (Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2011), 41.

[4] A. L. Rowse, The Elizabethan Renaissance: The Life of the Society (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2000), 86.

[5] Ibid., 123.

[6] Ibid., 85.

[7] Ann Rosalind and Peter Stallybrass, Renaissance Clothing and the Materials of Memory (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 1.

[8] Ibid., 1-2.

[9] A. L. Rowse, The Elizabethan Renaissance: The Cultural Achievement (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2000), 200-201.

[10] Rosalind and Stallybrass, 1.

[11] Lublin, 43.

[12] Ibid., 44.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Antony and Cleopatra, V.ii.

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