I’ve been in this play three times and I’m continually struck by how fun, romantic, and progressive it is. It raises questions about gender roles, social norms, bullying, and even catfishing and heteronormativity! It’s a fascinating and thought-provoking play and it’s my favorite of Shakespeare’s comedies!
Shakespeare’s early comedies are about young love, infatuation, and being ‘madly in love’ (sometimes literally). His middle plays are about mature relationships between men and women and the need for commitment. I would argue that Twelfth Night, (and possibly Much Ado About Nothing), are the best examples of Shakespeare telling meaningful stories about romantic relationships.
In honor of “Twelfth Night,” I’ve created a coupon for my course on Shakespeare’s comedies from now till January 31st: Get $10 off my class “Shakespeare’s Comic Plays” with coupon code HTHESYTIT110 until Jan 31, 2023. Get started at https://outschool.com/classes/shakespeares-comic-plays-868BR5hg and enter the coupon code at checkout.
To finish I wanted to give you a complete production of Twelfth Night for your viewing pleasure, but I can’t decide which one, so I will post a bunch today!
1. 1996 TV movie starring Geoffrey Rush (Pirates of the Caribbean)
I’ve seen four live productions of Romeo and Juliet, (5 if you include West Side Story). I’ve also watched four films (6 if you include West Side Story and Gnomio and Juliet) and one thing that I’ve noticed again and again, and again is that you can tell the whole story of the play with clothing. This is a story about families who are part of opposite factions whose children secretly meet, marry, die, and fuse the families into one, and their clothes can show each step of that journey.
The feud Nearly every story about a conflict or war uses contrasting colors to show the different factions. Sometimes even real wars become famous for the clothes of the opposing armies. The Revolutionary War between the redcoats and the blue and gold Continentals, the American Civil War between the Rebel Grays and the Yankee Bluebellies. In almost every production I’ve ever seen, the feud in Romeo and Juliet is also demonstrated by the opposing factions wearing distinctive clothing.
Historically, warring factions in Itally during the period the original Romeo and Juliet is set, wore distinctive clothes and banners as well. . In this medieval drawing, you can see Italians in the Ghibelline faction, who were loyal to the Holy Roman Empire, fighting the Guelph faction (red cross), who supported the Pope. Powerful families were constantly fighting and taking sides in the Guelf vs. ghibelines conflict in Verona, which might have inspired the Capulet Montegue feud in Romeo and Juliet.
Even the servants of the nobles got roped into these conflicts, and they literally wore their loyalties on their sleeves. The servants wore a kind of uniform or livery to show what household they belonged to. The servants Gregory and Sampson owe their jobs to Lord Capulet, and are willing to fight to protect his honor. Perhaps Shakespeare started the play with these servants to make this distinction very obvious. Here’s a short overview on Italian Liveries from the Metropolitan Museum of Art:
In 1966, director Franco Zepherelli set a trend with his iconic use of color in his movie. He chose to make the Capulets wear warm tones while the Montegues wore blue and silver. Juliet (Olivia Hussey) wore a gorgeous red dress that made her look youthful, passionate, and lovely, while Tybalt (Michael York), wore red, orange, and black to emphasize his anger, and jealousy (which has been associated for centuries with the color orange). By contrast, the Montagues like Romeo (Leonard Whiting) wore blue, making him look peaceful and cool. These color choices not only clearly indicate who belongs to which contrasting factions, but also help telegraph the character’s personalities. Look at the way these costumes make the two lovers stand out even when they’re surrounded by people at the Capulet ball:
Zepherilli’s color choices were most blatantly exploited in the kids film Gnomio and Juliet, where they did away with the names Capulet and Montegue altogether, and just called the two groups of gnomes the Reds and the Blues.
To get Romeo and Juliet to meet and fall in love, Shakespeare gives them a dance scene for them to meet and fall in love. He further makes it clear that when they first meet, Romeo is in disguise. The original source Shakespeare used made the dance a carnival ball, (which even today is celebrated in Italy with masks). Most productions today have Romeo wearing a mask or some other costume so that he is not easily recognizable as a Montague. Masks are a big part of Italian culture, especially in Venice during Carnival:
In the 1996 movie, Baz Luhrman creates a bacchanal costume party, where nobody wears masks but the costumes help telegraph important character points. Mercutio is dressed in drag, which not only displays his vibrant personality but also conveniently distracts everyone from the fact that Romeo is at the Capulet party with no mask on.
Capulet is dressed like a Roman emperor, which emphasizes his role as the patriarch of the Capulet family. Juliet (Claire Danes) is dressed as an angel, to emphasize the celestial imagery Shakespeare uses to describe her. Finally, Romeo (Leonardo DiCaprio) is dressed as a crusader knight because of the dialogue in the play when he first meets Juliet:
Romeo. [To JULIET] If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this:720
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.
Juliet. Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims' hands do touch,725
And palm to palm is holy palmers' kiss.
Romeo. Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?
Juliet. Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.
Romeo. O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do;
They pray, grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.730
Juliet. Saints do not move, though grant for prayers' sake.
Romeo. Then move not, while my prayer's effect I take.
Thus from my lips, by yours, my sin is purged.
Juliet. Then have my lips the sin that they have took.
Romeo. Sin from thy lips? O trespass sweetly urged!735
Give me my sin again.
Juliet. You kiss by the book. Romeo and Juliet, Act I, Scene V, Lines 719-737.
Notice that Romeo calls Juliet a saint, and later an angel in the famous balcony scene, which explains her costume at the ball. Juliet refers to Romoe as a Pilgrim, which is a cheeky comment on his crusader knight costume. In the Crusades, crusader knights made pilgrimages to the holy land, with the hope that God (and presumably, his angels) would forgive their sins. Romeo’s name even means “Pilgrim.” Luhrman makes clever nods to Shakespeare’s text by dressing Romeo and Juliet in this way, and gives the dialogue a bit of a playful roleplay as the characters make jokes about each other’s costumes- Romeo hopes that he will go on a pilgrimage and that this angel will take his sin with a kiss.
In Gnomio and Juliet, the titular characters meet in a different kind of disguise. Rather than going to a dance with their family, they are both simultaneously trying to sneak into a garden and steal a flower, so they are both wearing black, ninja-inspired outfits. Their black clothing helps them meet and interact without fear of retribution from their parents (since they do not yet know that they are supposed to be enemies. The ninja clothes also establishes that for these two gnomes, love of adventure unites them. Alas though, it doesn’t last; Juliet finds out that Gnomio is a Blue, when they both accidentally fall in a pool, stripping their warpaint off and revealing who they are.
Sometimes the dance shows a fundamental difference between the lovers and the feuding factions. West Side Story is a 20th-century musical that re-imagines the feuding families as juvenile street gangs, who like their Veronese counterparts, wear contrasting colors. The Jets (who represent the Montagues) wear Blue and yellow, while the Sharks (Capulets), wear red and black. The gang members continue wearing these colors on the night of the high school dance, except for Tony and Maria (the Romeo and Juliet analogs). In most productions I’ve seen, (including the 2021 movie), these young lovers wear white throughout the majority of the play, to emphasize the purity of their feelings, and their rejection of violence. Thus, unlike Shakespeare’s version of the story, West Side Story makes the lovers unquestionably purer are more peaceful than Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and their clothing makes this clear.
The Merging of the family (8:30-11:00)
Costume Designer Charlene in the 2006 AU production deliberately had the characters change clothes when they get married. Juliet was wearing the same iconic red dress as Olivia Hussey for the first two acts of the play but then changed into a pale blue gown that matches Romeo. The clothes re-enforce the idea that the marriage represents Romeo and Juliet abandoning their family’s conflicts, and simply showing their true colors.
Another way of getting everyone in the family to subconsciously unite in grief would be to costume everyone wearing black except Romeo and Juliet. At the end of the play, The Capulets are already mourning Juliet, (because she faked her death in Act IV), and the Montegues are already mourning Lady Montegue (who died offstage). Just by these circumstances, everyone could come onstage wearing black, uniting in their grief, which is further solidified when they see their children dead onstage.
Not all productions choose to costume the characters like warring factions, but nevertheless, any theatrical production’s costumes must telegraph something about the characters. In these production slides for a production I worked on in 2012, the costumes reflect the distinct personality of each character and show a class difference between the Montagues and the Capulets.
The 2013 Film: Costumes Done Badly
The 2013 movie is more concerned with showing off the beauty of the actor’s faces, and the literal jewels than the clothes:
Most of the actors and costumes are literally in the dark for most of the film, probably because the film was financed by the Swarofski Crystal company, who literally wanted the film to sparkle. Ultimately, like most jewelry, I thought the film was pretty to look at, but the costumes and cinematography had little utilitarian value. The costumes and visual didn’t tell the story efficiently, but mainly was designed to distract the audience with the beauty of the sets, costumes and the attractive young actors. The only thing I liked was a subtle choice to make Juliet’s mask reminiscent of Medusa, the monster in Greek Myth, who could turn people to stone with a look. I liked that the film was subtly implying that love, at first sight, can be lethal.
The goal of this class is to learn about both Shakespeare and the Elizabethan period through the lens of Christmas. I will begin by asking the class "What traditions do you think of when you think of Christmas? We will then contrast the traditions of Christmas from the 17th century and now, including a brief period when Christmas itself was illegal.
Once I have contextualized this period, we will then go through the plot, characters, and themes of Shakespeare’s most famous Christmas play- “Twelfth Night.”
The class will include videos, multimedia presentations, virtual tours, interactive quizzes, and online activities. The students will play games inspired by real Elizabethan Christmas traditions, get some festive recipes, and learn what it was like to be an actor in Shakespeare's company, when they performed "Twelfth Night" and other plays before Queen Elizabeth and King James.
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.
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) asShylock. 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.
I’m working on several educational projects at the moment and I’m proud to share this one with you. It’s what I call a virtual tour of Shakespeare’s London. The teacher I’m working with said she wanted to teach the kids about the culture of Elizabethan London as he was writing Romeo and Juliet. Naturally with the pandemic a field trip was out of the question, (for multiple reasons), but I wanted to create a visually interesting tour of the places Shakespeare knew and worked and try to imagine his perspective and how that might have informed the characters and themes of Romeo and Juliet.
So I created this: a website written as if Shakespeare himself is taking you on a tour of his London in the year 1593, the year where, as far as we know, he had just completed writing Romeo and Juliet. 1593 was also the middle of another outbreak of Bubonic Plague. It has virtual tours of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, Hampton Court Palace, Shakespeare’s Grammar School, and a quiz where you can pretend you’re in the Elizabethan doctor’s office.
For the class I’m helping, the students will fill out a worksheet as they navigate the website so they learn from the material at their own pace. If you’re interested, leave a comment and I’ll post the worksheet so you can use it in your classroom.
My hope is that this website can be a resource for anyone trying to connect with Romeo and Juliet and trying to learn from the culture of Elizabethan London. Shakespeare was a product of his time and his experiences must have had an influence on what he wrote. Even if they didn’t, they certainly influenced the people who saw the play and he knew that it would. So I hope it can help you understand a little bit more about the world of this famous play, and the context of the world that created it.
In doing my research for Twelfth Night, I came across a fantastic production from Shakespeare’s Globe in 2002. It used what is known as “original practices,” meaning that the actors tried to replicate everything we know about the way Shakespeare’s actors performed.
The play was performed in the great Globe Theater, which is itself a replica of Shakespeare’s original playhouse, which means that it was outdoors, using mostly natural lighting, and minimal sets. https://youtu.be/qtoUeVjP_rs
In addition, all the women’s roles were played by men, and the actors played multiple parts, which were all accurate stage practices from Shakespeare’s era. Most exciting of all, the actors all wore authentic 17th century costumes designed by veteran costume designer, Jenny Tiramani:
Few things determine how an actor moves or looks more than the clothes he or she wears, and watching these actors wear doublet and hose and real Jacobean dresses really fires up my imagine and makes me feel that I’ve truly been transported through time. The production is available on DVD, as well as several clips on YouTube, and I urge you to take a look at it. In the meantime, I’d like to comment a little on how the costumes from this production inform the audience about the characters that wear them.
Some Info On 17th century fashion
Tight pants or hose, and stockings designed to show off the legs
Tight jackets made of wool or leather called doublets
By the 17th century, starched ruffs were being replaced with lace collars.
Starched collars called ruffs around the neck.
Longer skirts, often embroidered with elaborate patterns
* Servants- Servants like Cesario (who is actually the Duke’s daughter Viola in disguise), would typically wear matching uniforms called liveries, a sign of who they worked for and their master’s trust in their abilities. People judged the aristocracy by how well they trained and controlled their servants, so wearing your master’s livery meant he trusted you to represent his house.
In her first scene as Cesario, a servant named Curio remarks to her that Orsino has shown favor to “him” from the very beginning. This might explain the rich garments that Viola wears in this production, which resemble a noble gentleman more than a servant.
A higher ranking servant like Malvolio would be able to wear a higher status garment, which is why you see Steven Fry as Malvolio dressed in a handsome doublet.
3. Character notes:
* What are they wearing?
* Why are they wearing it?
* How do the clothes inform the movement?
1. Viola (Eddie Redmane) Viola, the star of the show, begins the show as the daughter of a duke, who has just been shipwrecked in a foreign country, so her clothes must look bedraggled and worn, yet appropriate to her status. As I said before though, for the majority of the play, Viola is disguised as the servant Cesario
2. Malvolio (Steven Fry)
Malvolio wears dark colors since he’s a Puritanical servant.
He mentions that he has a watch. The first ever wristwatches ever came into being around this time.
Most productions give Malvolio a Gold chain and/ or a staff of office to show his status, and his prideful nature.
In Act III, Malvolio is tricked into wearing yellow stockings with cross garters.
3. Maria the Countess Olivia’s maid, (who has an appetite for tricks and pranks), Maria’s job is to dress and help Olivia with her daily routine. This might include tying up her corset, putting on her makeup, and helping her with the elaborate gowns that nobles wore during this period. In the video below, you can watch a dresser help get an actress into an elaborate costume for another Globe theatre production. Just think of the amount of time and hard work it would take for a servant like Maria to dress Olivia every day!
In the play, Viola momentarily mistakes Maria for her mistress because she wears a veil. This also suggests that, rather than wearing a livery like Cesario, maybe Olivia let Maria wear some of her older clothes, which was a common practice for high level servants. A lot of the costumes Shakespeare’s company wore were probably hand me downs from their aristocratic patrons.
4. Olivia (Mark Rylance)
In this production, the countess and all the female roles were performed by men, just as they were in Shakespeare’s Day. Mark Rylance, who played Olivia, was also the Artistic Director of the Globe Theatre.
Olivia is mourning her lost brother, which is why she’s traditionally dressed in a black dress and veil
The dress is black silk with elaborate embroidery, as you can see from this actual sampler of the real fabric used in the show. You will also notice the threads holding the fabric together with metal points at the end. Olivia’s gown was hand sewn into many different pieces and tied together with these points. One nickname Shakespeare gave servants like Maria was “One who ties [her] points.”
Costumes like these offer a tantalizing glimpse into history. Just as Shakespeare’s words help an actor bring to life the thoughts and feelings of his age, The type of clothes his company wore helps the actor embody the moiré’s and desires of Shakespeare’s society, whether a mournful countess, a dazzling gentleman, or a reserved Puritan.
“Q&A: Mark Rylance on Shakespeare, Twelfth Night and Richard III” Time Out Magazine. Posted: Tuesday November 12 2013