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.


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