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Clothing and Identity

The Role of Clothing and Identity


Clothing was more than a way of covering up and staying warm in Shakespeare’s world. During the Elizabethan age, "Sumptuary Laws" were used to control the behavior of the queen’s subjects. The word "sumptuary" comes from the Latin word meaning expenditure, so these laws stipulated what people could spend on food, furniture, jewelry, and clothing. The "Statues of Apparel" specifically addressed items such as fabric and color for gowns, sleeves, cowls, sleeves, kirtles, and jewelry for women and doublets, jerkins, cloaks, and hose for men. Everyone in London, and particularly those associated with the theatre, understood the role of clothing, and Shakespeare regularly plays upon its importance.


Shakespeare also uses clothing to provide a way for one character to pose as another. In The Taming of the Shrew, the use of disguise begins with the Induction when a Lord and his companions use clothing as one way to trick Christopher Sly into thinking he is a nobleman. Dressed in finery and treated with respect, Sly is eventually convinced and concludes, "I am a lord indeed." The audience is alerted that clothing is important in character representation.


More significant use of clothing as disguise comes when two of Bianca’s suitors are unable to court her as themselves. Lucentio has fallen in love with Bianca, but cannot court her because Baptista is determined to marry her to the wealthiest suitor, and only after Katherine is married. Lucentio’s servant Tranio comes up with a plan: Lucentio disguises himself as a schoolmaster so he can spend time with Bianca in the identity of a teacher; Tranio will become Lucentio. Another suitor, Gremio, disguises himself as a music teacher. So two of Bianca’s suitors approach her in disguise.


When Petruchio appears for his wedding, he is dressed in unexpected ways. Tranio describes Petruchio as "not so well appareled as I wish you were" and Baptista confronts him directly: "Fie, doff this habit, shame to your estate, /An eyesore to our solemn festival. (3.2.101-102)" Tranio encourages Petruchio to borrow more appropriate clothing and not see Katherine in "these unreverent robes." Petruchio is defiant, replying,"To me she’s married, not unto my clothes." His clothes reinforce Petruchio’s refusal to behave in the manner expected of him: he is late to his wedding, he dresses strangely, he behaves during the ceremony "as if /He had been aboard, carousing to his mates," and he refuses to stay for the celebration afterwards. Petruchio’s clothing is an outer reflection of his decision to "tame" Katherine.


Katherine’s clothing plays a part in the taming as well. In addition to denying her food and sleep, Petruchio denies Katherine the new clothing she plans to wear to Bianca’s wedding. After he destroys the new clothing, Petruchio declares, "We will unto your father’s /Even in these honest, mean habiliments, /…our garments poor." In other words, Petruchio determines the nature of Katherine’s clothing, an outward show of her new "identity." Now both Petruchio and Katherine are dressed in unexpected ways. Is Shakespeare telling us they are now connected or alike in other ways?


The Taming of the Shrew provides several examples of the ways

Shakespeare used the association with clothing and identity to

reinforce the nature of his characters.

Costume worn by E.H. Sothern as Petruchio in Taming of the Shrew

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