What to wear when doing Shakespeare?

The other night, I watched Muse of Fire: A Shakespearean Road Movie. I’ve taught Shakespeare a few times, though I’m not a Shakespearean scholar. However, in everyday life, I love Shakespeare. I’ve been to Stratford-upon-Avon and visited his grave. I’ve been to RSC productions and lately to the Globe. I love ‘collecting’ productions. I love Shakespeare in action, in popular culture. When teaching Children’s Literature, I joke that I was late to many of the classics because I was too busy re-enacting the final duel from Hamlet in my living room.

While watching the documentary, something stood out to me. Steven Berkoff was interviewed and he said “Shakespeare’s 400 year old language actually is not that complex, but when you’re in a lot of costumes… it sounds so remote… Putting Shakespeare into costume works against you. Shakespeare never did it. He put all his actors in modern costume. Why we go back to Elizabethan… I have no idea. It doesn’t work.” I actually think I disagree.

My current favourite production (because I do change my mind all the time!):

Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night

Part of the reason I love this production is that the costumes fit the words. When Berkoff makes the point that Shakespeare put all his actors into modern costume… well, yes, he did. But it was Elizabethan costume. The language used was also Elizabethan. The two went together. I’m not sure why you’d claim the costume must be modernised, but not the language.

Performances in more contemporary costume often jar with the words. I’ve seen many productions try to get around the issue of Malvolio’s yellow stockings and crossed garters and often quite awkwardly. Katherine Duncan-Jones’ Ungentle Shakespeare (2001) gives a rather fascinating insight into what the fashion reference means, invoking a parody of Shakespeare’s own coat of arms, but also indicating a rather old-fashioned and ‘dowdy’ appearance (158). Audiences even today, confronted with the Elizabethan costumes, can understand the jarring effect of those ill-famed stockings and garters. They’re in context. In many productions with more contemporary costumes, they simply look incredibly anachronistic and ridiculous. The humour in poor Malvolio’s mortification changes.

Costume and fashion is a language in its own right and Shakespeare wrote with contemporary fashion in mind and was aware of its particular language. To simply say that Shakespeare put his actors in modern dress is to miss the point that he drew upon the language of those costumes, too.

D’Aulnoy in Comics Form

I recently came across a stash of old French ‘comics’ from the early twentieth century.

La Biche au Bois

La Biche au Bois

They’re beautiful, A3 size productions of d’Aulnoy’s fairy tales.  The paper and print is quite cheap, there’s only a couple of folded pages and only the covers are in full colour, but the illustrations are stunning.

The dragons of "La Belle aux Cheveux d'Or"

The dragons of “La Belle aux Cheveux d’Or”

What I particularly love about the illustrations is that the artists have captured the frankly bizarre aspects of d’Aulnoy’s imagination. So, for example, they captured her fascination with odd modes of transport.

Flying turkeys of "Le Nain Jaune"

Flying turkeys of “Le Nain Jaune”

They also captured the splendour that is the fairy who gets about as a crayfish/lobster.

The magic lobster of "La Biche au Bois"

The magic lobster of “La Biche au Bois”

It’s actually quite amazing that they’ve survived at all. They’re not the oldest in my d’Aulnoy collection, but their large, awkward size and flimsiness suggests how easy it would be for them to be torn and discarded. Likewise, while the artwork isn’t polished, the energy and sense of fun more than makes up for it.

 

Reading old fairy tale books

Over the break, I started reading a book. This is not altogether unusual for a scholar specialising in literary studies. However, the book I began to read was a 1849 edition of Anthony Hamilton’s fairy tales.

Title Page and frontispiece - the count is wearing some serious hair, don't you think?

Title Page and frontispiece – the count is wearing some serious hair, don’t you think?

Often I read contemporary, scholarly editions of fairy tales or, frequently, old books that have been digitalised. Recently, however, I’ve been expanding my collection of old books and there is a particular pleasure in reading words on dusty, mottled pages. There is a certain texture to the print, a certain way the books creak open.

A sober spine

A sober spine

The leather feels luxurious and scholarly. The gilt glimmers. It’s special.

I did find copies of Hamilton’s tales digitalised on Google Books and Internet Archive, but when I did a quick rummage at AbeBooks, I discovered that editions of the books weren’t prohibitively expensive. It’s much more fun to read this edition.

Hamilton actually wrote his tales long before this book was published. The tales were written in French at the very beginning of the 18th century. Hamilton, though Scottish, was familiar with the courts of Louis XIV and James II and at home in the French language. It is thought that he wrote his tales as a bet – the court ladies challenged him to write a fairy tale, since he was poking fun at their obsession with the genre. As a result, the tales are parodic and he takes aim at Galland’s Arabian nights and Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy in particular. “The Four Facardines” begins in the world of the Arabian Nights:

At the court of Schahriar, (that monarch, whose method of preserving his honour by cutting his wife’s head off, has rendered him so justly celebrated throughout the world,) was educated the heir of the small principality of Trebizonde.

I have to confess, I was ready to hate him at this point. Yet, I am enjoying the tales. At times, the quirks of fairy tale he parodies are themselves parodies, which makes for interesting reading. There’s some business with a shoe, for instance, that made me laugh, because I don’t know whether he quite knew that d’Aulnoy’s tongue was firmly in cheek when she wrote about Prince Cheri’s shoe fetish. Likewise, these tales are not brief, flippant pieces. The book I’m reading is, at a practical level, very thick. For a spot of fun at the expense of female readers, Hamilton certainly didn’t skimp. He invested a great deal of time in writing his tales. And while there are gratuitously naked ladies and bawdy humour, actually chiming with Basile’s tales, Hamilton now and then betrays an interesting perspective on sexism and gender with a king, for instance, assuming the fault of failing to produce an heir lies with him, rather than with the queen.