Thanks for recommending this topic. I really enjoyed researching it. Disclaimer: Although I have a degree in Renaissance literature, I don’t have a degree in world religions. I don’t pretend to be an expert in Judaism and I apologize if I have gotten any cultural details wrong. As I have written before, this play has been used to spread harmful stereotypes and misinformation against Jews and Muslims, and I have no desire to do so. So don’t take this information as a comprehensive guide to the lives of Jews or indeed any 16th century Venetians. What I do intend to do is analyze how costumes from the play can evoke the people and cultures of that time.
1. Background https://youtu.be/BvqZ0JUljfo
Venice in the 16th century was a lot like modern day Manhattan- a multicultural epicenter of trade and commerce. https://youtu.be/FNZa9qazTvc
Many productions have costumes that emphasize the wealth and privilege of the Venetian world, except for Shylock
As this video shows, Jews in 16th century Venice were segregated into separate communities known as ghettos. Although the Jews found ways to survive and thrive in this situation, they faced constant discrimination and harassment.
In a modern productions or a period production the costume has to reflect a single vision for the show. Watch this interview with Globe Costume coordinator Laura Rushton: https://youtu.be/PaZmAuKE-Jg
2. Men’s Fashion- Italian fashion was all the rage in Shakespeare’s day. Gone were the stiff woolen tunics of the Middle ages, in with brightly colored silks and leathers. Young Men wore leather jackets called doublets and tight pants that showed off their legs. In the hot sun of Venice, light linnen undershirts were wore underneath the doublet. Wealthy men would wear fine silks and their jackets had slashed sleeves to show off the fine embroidered silk underneath.
Servants- Servants were given distinctive clothes known as liveries by their masters, which for a man would typically be a distinct colorful jacket. Women like Narissa, who were high-ranking ladies maids, would wear hand me down clothes from their mistresses. So this is why in most productions I have seen, Narissa and Portia wear similar clothing. This also helps show the trust and respect they have for each other.
A Note On Masks:
Act II, Scene 5, takes place during Carnival, one of the most celebrated holidays of Venice, and it’s usually celebrated by people wearing brightly colored masks. This great video below from history YouTuber Metetron shows just a little bit of background on Venetian masks:
3. Women’s Fashion- The women in the play Merchant Of Venice are treated line birds in a cage, especially Portia who literally lives on an island and has to marry the man who wins her at a carnival! With the restrictions of garments like partlets, bodies, or corsets, if you wore the fashions of the period, you would feel like your lungs were birds in a cage!
Although the dress was richer and more ornate (reflecting the relative peace during this period), the clothing was much more physically restrictive than medieval dresses: https://youtu.be/KCeqG47LI1Y
Jessica- Though most productions have Shylock’s daughter dressing like the Christian women, there is a long history of distinctive clothing for Jewish women as well as men. Sadly, the only video I could find refers to 14th century clothes, I think this video is very informative and extremely thoughtful
It’s worth noting that Shylock is not the central character in the story; the titular merchant is Antonio. Probably Shakespeare’s original audience saw him as a one dimensional villain for the audience to boo and hiss, then rejoice when he fails. He probably came onstage in 1596 wearing stereotypical red wig, a long gown, and a grotesquely oversized nose. The costume and performance gave the impression of someone foreign, alien, even demonic. This was one reason why some modern actors have balked at playing Shylock, as Patrick Stewart explains: https://youtu.be/7UOdMHW7J2Q
That said, Shakespeare clearly didn’t write him as one dimensional; he dominates the scenes he’s in and for centuries great actors have yearned to play Shylock over all the other characters. Slowly Shylock has become the focus of the play and the romantic comedy aspect has become less and less important in most modern productions. Like every great part, Shylock’s costume proclaims his social class, his background, and his relationship with other people.
In the play, Shylock only refers to his clothes once, referring to the gown he wears as “My Jewish gaberdine.” A Gaberdine is a long cloak like the one in the painting above, but as you can see, Jews were not the only people wearing them.
Because of rampant antisemitism and fear of the growing influence of the Jewish community in the 16th century, the Senate and local magistrates segregated and kept constant watch on the Jews of Venice, and one way they did that was by forcing Jewish people to wear distinctive clothes.
According to the Online Jewish Museum:
Jews were forced to wear various markings on their clothing to identify themselves as Jews. In 1394 they had to wear a yellow badge, it was changed to a yellow hat in 1496 and to a red hat in 1500.
As Shylock grew in popularity with actors and audiences, actors played him with more nuance. Contrast the foreign looking gown in the previous picture, with Charles Keen in the 19th century.
That is not to say that all productions played Shylock as a fully formed human: in 1934, the Nazi Party sponsored a German production of Merchant with horror actor Werner Krauss, (famous for films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) as Shylock. You’ll notice that the costume again emphasizes otherness, and exaggerates Jewish stereotypes.
Patrick Stewart when he played Shylock in the 1970s, emphasized how Shylock is essentially an immigrant in his own country and played him with tattered clothes, a dirty bushy beard, and with an air of a stray dog. His clothes emphasise both his race’s oppression, while also telegraphing Shylock’s miserly attitude. Sir Patrick emphasized that his Shylock had lost so much in his life that he clings to Earthly wealth to feel in control of his life.
By contrast, David Suchet. (famous for his portrayal of detective Hercule Poirot), chose a near polar opposite interpretation of Shylock at about the same time. The main difference between Suchet and Stewart could basically be summed up by this fact, Suchet is actually Jewish, Stewart is not.
Because Stewart was portraying a member of a community to which he didn’t belong, his portrayal downplayed Shylock’s Jewish identity since he didn’t want to make assumptions about what being Jewish is like. This is why Stewart gave his Shylock an over-refined accent and made sure his costume didn’t emphasize any stereotypical Jewish elements.
Since Suchet actually is Jewish, he did not shy away from portraying Shylock’s jewishness. His Shylock is proud of being Jewish but is well aware of how other people see him. He knows that he is othered by the other Venetians, and can use their fear and hatred of him as a weapon against them. Suchet also dressed his Shylock as well to do, but not gawdy to try and command respect from other people, but also carried around a walking stick to use as a weapon.
6. Case study: the 2009 movie
The Prince of Morrocco: In Act II, Scene 7, The Princes of Morrocco and Aaragon (A region of Spain), come to Portia’s home on the island of Belmont to try solve the riddle of the three caskets. In order to show the audience that these men are foreigners, their costumes have to be distinct from the Venetians. Take a look at this was accomplished in the 2004 movie:
Mr. Harewood’s costume was inspired by the real Morroccon ambassador to Queen Elizabeth, Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud, who many scholars believe, might have also inspired Shakespeare to write Othello 6 years later.
6. Works Cited
Venetian Fashion in the 16th Century
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