Shakespeare, men's legs, and layers of status

the book:

Will in the World by Stephen Greenblatt

published 2005   chapter 2

[The last will and testament of Augustine Phillips, one of Shakespeare’s fellow actors, includes detailed bequests of costumes]

Phillips’ “mouse-coloured velvet hose” were no doubt designed to show off his legs – in this period of long dresses, it was men’s legs, rather than women’s, to which eyes were drawn…

Players were supposed to be able to mime convincingly the behaviour of gentlemen and ladies. That is, boys and men, drawn almost entirely from the 98 per cent of the population that were not “gentle”, had to assume the manner of the upper 2 per cent… these were repertory companies in which most of the actors were expected to play a range of social types. And it is clear from the budgets of the playing companies that they were willing to invest a great deal of money in making the impersonation of the gentry convincing. Their single largest expense, apart from the physical building itself, was the cost of costumes – the gorgeous, elaborate clothes that audiences expected to see gracing the bodies of the actors playing the parts of lords and ladies…

Dress was the opposite of democratizing – nothing could be further from Shakespeare’s world than a culture in which magnates and workmen often wear the same clothes. It wasn’t simply a question of money. By royal proclamation, silks and satins were officially restricted to the gentry. Actors were exempted, but outside of the playhouse they could not legally wear their costumes.

observations: It’s an arresting image: Sumptuary Laws whose provisions meant you were banned from wearing beautiful clothes – except at work. It’s the kind of detail this author provides to make the past so real and vivid.

This is a factual book, for once, and a truly fascinating one. Stephen Greenblatt is a noted academic, the man who invented New Historicism (where literature, history and cultural studies overlap) and a major Shakespeare scholar. He is in the UK at the moment, and it turns out he is a fantastic lecturer too. This book is scholarly, but very very readable and accessible too, and gives the best possible insight into Shakespeare and his world.

Links up with: Actors, acting and costumes feature in this blog entry. Shakespeare has an uncredited cameo in this featured book.

The picture is A procession of Characters from Shakespeare’s plays, by an unknown artist. It is held at the
Yale Center for British Art and is used with their permission.