- Costuming the Shakespearean Stage: Visual Codes of Representation in Early Modern Theatre and Culture
Robert Lublin has usefully brought together in a single volume a number of important aspects of costumes on the English stage between the mid-sixteenth century and the closing of the theatres in 1642. His goal is to “make sense of the sartorial logic of the early modern English stage” (2) by addressing two “related questions:” what costumes were worn on the London professional stage and what they meant to the audience (11). Central to this book is “the simple argument that costumes mattered to the early modern English theatrical enterprise” (7). Acting companies spent lavishly on them; actors used them to construct characters; action progressed through changing them, and audiences “understood and appreciated theatrical productions by observing them” (7). Although there is little here that will be new to many scholars in the fields of Shakespeare, costume, or material culture, the book provides a helpful overview of how costumes might have worked on the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage, assuming that then as now, clothing provides visual codes to audiences about characters. This is not specifically a book about Shakespeare and clothes, but one that, as the title indicates, explores the ways that clothing was used in early modern plays. Lublin offers examples from a range of plays, including Shakespeare’s, and contemporary documents. Many of the usual suspects appear here, but there are intriguingly new and/or unexpected examples, as well.
The first four of the five chapters cover the basic categories of identity established by costumes: “Sex and Gender,” Social Station,” “Foreigners,” and “Religion.” The fifth chapter focuses on a single play, A Game at Chess. The opening chapter, “Sex and Gender,” includes precise, though necessarily brief, discussions of apparel, hair and make-up as gendered identifiers. Apparel, Lublin argues, did more than reveal the character’s sex; it “materially constructed the wearer’s femininity or masculinity according to the gendered assumptions” of the time (24). (Illustrations by Adam West identify specific items of clothing worn by a “generalized” Elizabethan gentleman and gentlewoman.) Costumes were based on “the firm sense that men and women have essential natures that are defined overwhelmingly by the clothes that are appropriate to each on stage” (35). The “complex manner in which sex was materially and visually constructed onstage” leads to an exploration of cross-dressing that includes Rosalind, (whose epilogue [End Page 669] he argues “can reveal the actor’s body beneath the character’s apparel without undermining the integrity of the play” ), Viola, and Julia in Two Gentlemen of Verona. Lublin also discusses The Roaring Girl’s Moll Frith and John Ford’s Love’s Cure, or the Martial Maid in which Lucio, raised dressed female, and Clara, raised dressed male, resist adapting to gender-appropriate dress. Lublin presents a well-balanced commentary on cross-dressing, drawing on both modern and “contradictory” (20) early modern sources, and concludes that the “simple longevity of the practice supports the likelihood that most theatergoers accepted the convention,” which suggests that “we can chart meaningfully the ways that the convention itself was employed at the time” (23).
Chapter 2, “Social Station,” expands on a central thesis: that costumes on the early modern stage “engaged the issue of social station on a number of levels” (77). Not only did costumes mark the “character’s place in the hierarchy of a particular play, but also actively participated in establishing expectations, denoting power relations, delimiting freedom, prompting action, and more” (77–78). This key chapter lays the foundation for the remainder of the book. It takes into account the range of early modern stratifications of social hierarchy: class, estate, degree, rank and sort. Lublin believes that although sumptuary legislation had relatively little success in controlling which social levels wore luxurious fabrics and ornaments, it served the theater well. (Lublin helpfully provides excerpts from the “none shall wear” lists for men and women in Queen Elizabeth’s...