QotW (#088): 07 October 2019

This little thing?  Oh, I picked it up at TK Maxx …

You ought to know me by now, after almost 4 years and not far off 400 posts …

Not overly-blessed with common sense (as my Dearest Partner of Greatness) would confirm; prone to flights of giddy excitement, silliness even; with a pretty good memory for quotations and an eye for intertextual connections; but usually sceptical when it comes to wild conspiracy theories, especially about Shakespeare.

So I want to be clear that this is not one of the latter.

Shakespeare is NOT some kind of nom de plume for Christopher Marlowe.  If you spend enough time teaching Edward II and Richard III (broadly contemporary plays) to the same classes, simple close-reading reveals how dissimilar their styles are.  ‘If they asked me, I could write a book’, as Ella Fitzgerald might say.

I’m far more inclined to the theory outlined by Professor Jonathan Bate, who devotes a chapter (‘Marlowe’s Ghost’) to the way they competed against, stole from, and influenced each other.  Bate tells us:

‘Shakespeare knew that, alive or dead, he had no rival but Marlowe’ [a]

Which led to one of those aforementioned flights of giddy excitement today, when researching this post.  I spotted this line, from 2HenryVI:

‘She bears a duke’s revenues on her back’ (I.iii.81) [b]

In my mind it wasn’t Margaret of Anjou complaining about Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester, though.  I’d made one of those intertextual leaps, over to Edward II.

He wears a lord’s revènue on his back (iv.408) [c]

and it’s Mortimer junior’s voice I hear, complaining about the extravagant Piers Gaveston.

These intertextual things get me highly excited.  It’s like matching all the ingredients that link Conan Doyle‘s The Sign of Four to Poe‘s ‘The Murders In The Rue Morgue‘ – no really, go and take a look.  Or listing, ad nauseum, the similarities between Sam Fender‘s wonderful ‘Hypersonic Missiles‘, and any number of Bruce Springsteen classics.

Bruce Springsteen’s bastard son?

And yet, going back to the opening paragraph, you ought to know me by now.  All this is absolutely peripheral to what I’d decided to write about, which was Sumptuary Laws.  It’s not the first time it’s taken me 300 words to get to the point.  It probably won’t be the last.

I date my interest in clothing and uniform as means of social control back to Orwell‘s Nineteen Eighty-Four.  Which means that broadly since reading it, I’ve looked askance at fashion, uniforms, and so on.  Then in my 20s, when my love affair with Scotland began, I learned about the 1746 Act of Proscription and the Dress Act, which made wearing tartan illegal on pain of imprisonment or transportation.  Another revelation.  Researching my dissertation at uni, I read a Vivienne Westwood quotation describing punk fashion as ‘confrontation dressing‘ and promptly embraced that idea.  No, you can’t have any photos.

Which leads me to this week’s QotW, and confrontation dressing of another kind – the confrontation between new money and old money.  What we called perhaps, round my way:

all fur coat and no knickers

We all know that Elizabethan society was about as stratified as my mum’s lasagne, and yet here was this impudent new money buying fancy clothes without so much as an idea who their great-grandfathers killed in which war.  The old-fashioned chivalry which – in Shakespeare – demanded amongst other things that you knew who you were fighting and treated your prisoners honourably whist they were being ransomed was replaced by the ‘ask me no questions, and I’ll tell you no lies‘ sublimated guilt of John Hawkins and the triangular slave trade that began in the 1560s.

So to Lisa Jardine, who in her book gives a comprehensive summary of who could wear what, as well as exploring the difficulties of enforcing sumptuary laws when the sale of gold, silver, purple and velvet cloths could attract massive profits by selling to customers who had the means but not necessarily the right to wear them.  And the fact that some of those selling the fabrics were rich enough to wear them!  She tells us that in 1582, an:

‘effort to keep the nouveaux riches in their place was made when the Lord Mayor and Common Council of London enacted legislation prohibiting any apprentice, of whatever guild, from wearing ‘ruffles’, ‘cuffs’, ‘loose collars’, and in particular ‘ruffs more than a yard and a half long” [d]

The mind boggles.

As the last refuge of scoundrels, the establishment enlisted divine authority:

Even in the moralising treatises of the period a clear distinction is made between ostentatious dress which befits the hereditary status of the wearer, and that which is mere presumption or affectation.  In his The Anatomie of Abuses (1583),  Philip Stubbes singles out ‘the pryde of apparell’ as the most widespread vice in Britain […[ and the most offensive in God’s eyes. […] It is striking how closely Stubbes sticks to the list of fabrics and ornaments specified in the sumptuary legislation.’ [d]

Which sparks two final synapses:

  1. that when the well-off bequeathed their clothes to their servants in their wills, all the beneficiary could probably do was sell those garments on; and
  2. that this disruption of the social order through costume is yet another reason to suggest why theatre had such vociferous opponents



[a] Bate, Jonathan, The Genius of Shakespeare, (London:  Picador, 1997)

[b] Shakespeare, William, Henry VI part 2 (Arden Third Edition, ed. Ronald Knowles), (London:  Arden Shakespeare, 1999)

[c] Marlowe, Christopher, Edward II (New Mermaids Second Edition, ed. Martin Wiggins and Robert Lindsay), (London:  A&C Black, 1997)

[d] Jardine, Lisa, Still Harping on Daughters:  Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare, (New York:  Columbia University Press, 1989)


Author: Boar's Head, Eastcheap

Hyperactive English Teacher and Tutor; Shakespeare-obsessed 'Villainous abominable misleader of youth'; 'old white-bearded Satan'; Friend of the Orangutan

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