Shakespeare and Material Culture by Catherine Richardson, and: Ornamentalism: The Art of Renaissance Accessories ed. by Bella Mirabella (review)
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Shakespeare and Material Culture. By Catherine Richardson. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. Illus. Pp. xii + 222. $75.00 cloth, $27.95 paper.
Ornamentalism: The Art of Renaissance Accessories. Edited by Bella Mirabella. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011. Illus. Pp. x + 342. $75.00, cloth.

It's still good to think with things. In his manifesto for "thing theory," published over ten years ago, Bill Brown argued that things in themselves offer a way to theorize what exists just beyond our perception of materiality: the stuff that surrounds us, the materiality that asserts itself when it falls apart, and the "detritus" it leaves in our wake. Some things, however, remind us of this more than others: for Brown, [End Page 602] these were Claes Oldenburg's pop sculpture examples from mid-twentieth-century American culture—"the mixer, the cheeseburger, the light bulb, the ice cream cone, the telephone, the wall switch." Ripped from their original historical context, these things "sink" into their material forms, "flaccid," "tired of our longing . . . [and] tired of us."1

What of early modern things like the ruff that so famously signals Elizabethan England? Anything but flaccid, Elizabethan ruffs literally stand out, adding an intriguing early modern addendum to Brown's work. Do other early modern things enable us to think about materiality differently? Two new books take up this question and, indeed, the ruff itself, to argue yes. Both Bella Mirabella's edited collection, Ornamentalism: The Art of Renaissance Accessories, and Catherine Richardson's Shakespeare and Material Culture, part of Oxford's Shakespeare Topics series, maintain that many of the items that we too easily dismiss as trivial or overlook as insignificant occupied the full attention of early modern men and women. And though Mirabella and Richardson take different approaches to these materials, their books show that Renaissance things mattered in surprising ways.

The starched ruff is one such item. Its very existence troubled Puritan commentators: Stubbes, for example, famously described them as "invented . . . by the devil himself " (Richardson, 7). While such a view may seem extreme, it is hard to ignore the sheer volume of starched linen that adorned Renaissance clothing in late sixteenth-century London (Richardson, 67-68). As Natasha Korda's essay on ruffs in Mirabella's Ornamentalism contends, along with Richardson's chapter on dressing and cross-dressing in Shakespeare and Material Culture, these stiff bits of linen were, for a brief period, integral to an evolving sense of self that depended upon their spectacular display (Korda, 226; Richardson, 68). Linen, after all, "'mediated between'" the body and its clothes; starched lace borders and linen ruffs simultaneously concealed and displayed the skin beneath them (Richardson, 98). The starched ruffs and other bits of linen like them in many Renaissance portraits and English plays had significant representational power. Perhaps this is what got Stubbes so hot under his own starched collar: Korda and Richardson both claim that the ruff was integral to fashion, theater, and many other pleasures that he deemed perverse.

Richardson's book argues for the importance of these seemingly quotidian things to Shakespeare's audience and, consequently, his plays. Each chapter begins with a particular object; from there, she traces its influence on one of Shakespeare's plays, offering original readings of familiar moments through the striking juxtaposition of words and things. Chapter 3 opens with an image of cutwork lace, demonstrating how this seemingly inconsequential thing enabled complex, metaphoric meanings to unfold across plays like Twelfth Night and Othello: Desdemona's tragic demise and Olivia's cloistered eroticism hang on what we might erroneously dismiss as a trifle—their linen veils and handkerchiefs. [End Page 603]

Mirabella makes a similar point in her essay on handkerchiefs in Ornamentalism: because they could circulate through both private and public spaces, these tiny bits of cloth signaled both elite rituals of cleanliness and a dangerous proximity to women's bodies (and their effluvia), a point used to devastating effect in Jonson's Volpone. These "trifles" were hard to control, so they often signaled husbands' fears about being cuckolded. Yet as Natasha Korda reminds us, starched linen may have enabled nuanced representations of gendered...