Reinforcing and Challenging the Social Order through Clothing:
Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice and Twelfth Night
Shakespeare explores the power of clothing in many of his plays, particularly The Merchant of Venice and Twelfth Night. In these two comedies, clothing alters how characters are perceived by those around them and shapes their known or visible identity. As Steven Orgel expresses, “costume is of the essence” (104) when it comes to shaping identities. Characters like Shylock, the Jewish moneylender in The Merchant of Venice, and Malvolio, Olivia’s puritan steward in Twelfth Night, are marked by their clothing as outsiders. For these two characters, clothing reinforces the social order and limits their freedoms. Characters such as Portia and Nerissa, the heiress of Belmont and her lady-in-waiting in The Merchant of Venice, and Viola, the shipwrecked aristocrat in Twelfth Night, are also marked by their clothing. However, Portia, Nerissa and Viola choose to mark themselves in males’ attire and go against their prescribed gender roles. While in disguise, these three women are perceived differently by those around them and adopt a new identity. As a result, they experience a greater freedom through the act of cross-dressing. Although Portia, Nerissa and Viola cross-dress without any staged repercussions, Jessica’s transformation in The Merchant of Venice is not as successful. Once her page attire is removed, her true Jewish identity and bloodline cannot be ignored. Jessica’s struggle provides insight on the limitations of clothing and can explain why everyone of a lower social position did not self-mark in the best attire. My argument is that in both The Merchant of Venice and Twelfth Night, Shakespeare explores the impact clothing has on identity and how it works to maintain or challenge the social order.
Clothing is a visual marker of class and gender, both of which are socially constructed (Orgel 57). Although clothing has always been used to differentiate and classify groups of people – male from female, teacher from student and Chief Executive Officer from farmer – Will Fisher notes that “in early modern English culture, clothing was often seen as integral to a person’s identity” (11). Furthermore, Fisher believes that “the details of dress and bearing were even more fundamental in English culture during the sixteenth and early seventeenth century” (3)i. This is because of the one-sex medical model that was followed during the era. Gender was “viewed along a continuum” and therefore, with the right attire a person could change their gender (Fisher 6-7). Mark Breitenberg expresses that the “lack of anatomical guarantee of difference” posed as a threat to male superiority, not only in regards to gender but also in regards to class differences (151)ii. If a woman cross-dressed she “embodied examples of disobedience to authority and analogies for other forms of status confusion” (Breitenberg 159). Furthermore, with the rising merchant class and trade economy in the Renaissance era, many groups of people were in contact with one another and new styles flourished. In The Merchant of Venice, Portia comments on her English suitor’s attire by telling Nerissa “how oddly he is suited! I think he bought his doublet in Italy, his rounded hose in France, his bonnet in Germany” (1.2.61-3)iii. In a time where fashion was changing and differences were not as concrete, clothing became integral to how individuals were perceived and identified. Peter Stallybrass notes that to maintain the social order sumptuary laws were created under the reign of Henry VIII, “which regulated what specific classes could wear” (301). These laws were in place from 1510 to 1604 but Wilfred Hooper believes that “sumptuary feeling, indeed survived and permeated social opinion for generations to come” (449). Shakespeare portrays these Renaissance realities in both The Merchant of Venice and Twelfth Night and explores how clothing was used to identify people.
In The Merchant of Venice, clothing is usedto depict Shylock as an outsider. Peter Stallybrass notes that clothing “erases distinctions of class and gender” (308) but this statement does not accurately depict Shylock’s situation. Shylock is marked by his “Jewish gabardine” (1.3.108)iv, which reinforces the social order and perpetuates class distinctions. Shylock is treated poorly by the Christian characters; when Antonio asks Shylock for a loan to send his friend Bassanio to court Portia in Belmont, Shylock recalls a time when Antonio spit on him and called him a “misbeliever, cut-throat, dog” (1.3.107). Antonio, who is Christian, hates Shylock for his practice of usury and religious differences but he has no real reason treat Shylock poorly at this point. Peter Stallybrass notes that clothing “erases distinctions of class and gender” (308) and this would prove truthful for Shylock, who without his “Jewish gabardine” (1.3.108) could actually be perceived as similar to his Christian counterparts:
Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions… And if you wrong us shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. (3.1.49-56)
Shylock highlights the similarities, both physical and psychological, that would be indistinguishable without clothing to mark him. Shylock agrees to “lend [three thousand ducats] to thine enemy, / Who if he break, thou mayst with better face / Exact the penalty” (1.3.130-2) of a pound of flesh, not because his cruelty separates him from the Christian characters but because he believes he is following “Christian example” (3.1.59-60).
Shylock’s similarities are highlighted again in the trial scene. Portia, who is now in male’s attire and acting as a young, learned lawyer named Balthasar, asks “Which is the merchant here, and which the Jew?” (4.1.169). Portia, who is smart enough to manipulate the law for her benefit with both the caskets and the trial, is not able to distinguish Antonio from Shylock. Jane Adelman highlights this fear in the Renaissance era that “Jews could not be counted on to be reliably different: although allegedly physically unmistakable, Jews throughout Europe were nonetheless required to wear particular styles of clothing or badges that graphically enforced their physical unmistakability – as though they were not quite different enough” (79). Therefore, clothes were used to highlight the differences that may not have been as easily recognized without their presence.
Although Malvolio in Twelfth Night is not a Jewish man like Shylock, he is also marked by his clothing as an outsider. Malvolio is Olivia’s head servant who wears livery; livery, as defined in the online Oxford English Dictionary, is “a special uniform worn by a servant” for nobles to “distinguish their servants from others” (“livery”)v. In The Merchant of Venice, Prince Morocco asks Portia to “mislike [him] not for [his] complexion / The shadowed livery of the burnished sun” (2.1.1-2). Although Morocco is referencing his darker skin color, the use of the word ‘livery’ connects Morocco’s complexion to Malvolio’s servants’ clothing, both of which constitute their outer appearance and identity. Both men wish to shed their outer appearance by marrying a lady of higher social or cultural status. Furthermore, Morocco brags to Portia that he is more valiant than even the “fairest creature northward born” (2.1.4). Malvolio also thinks highly of himself and Maria notes that Malvolio is “best persuaded of himself” (2.3.133), making it easy for him to believe he is worthy of Olivia’s love. Ultimately it is because Malvolio and Morocco are unable to mask their outer appearance that they do climb the social hierarchy.
Maria decides to make Malvolio seem insane after he tells Sir Andrew, Sir Toby, Feste and Maria to be quiet: “My masters, are you mad? Or what are you? Have you no wit, manners, nor honesty, but to gabble like tinkers at this time of night?” (2.3.78-80). The partygoers do not take kindly to a servant commanding them so Maria decides she will forge a love letter and make it seem like Olivia left it for Malvolio. Robert Weiman and Douglas Buster note that “society [is] conscious of the power inherent in clothing” (117) and both Maria and Malvolio are knowledgeable of this. Maria includes instructions that tell Malvolio to dress in “thy yellow stalkings” and adopt the “cross-gartered” fashion (2.5.133-4), a style and color that Olivia “detests” (2.5.175). Therefore, Maria is using the power of clothing to get Malvolio to display his madness and condemn himself.
Like Maria, Malvolio connects clothing to power; when Malvolio finds the letter in the garden he is quick to believe that Olivia loves him and he starts fantasizing about his future wardrobe and life in power. Malvolio imagines himself ordering around Sir Toby and his other servants: “Calling my officers about me, in my branched velvet gown, having come from a day-bed where I have left Olivia sleeping” (2.5.42-4). With a wardrobe change, Malvolio would adopt a new role where he could command others. Furthermore, his velvet gown signifies to others that he is worthy enough for Olivia. As he continues to read the letter he starts to think of all the expensive items he will be able to wearvi: “and perchance wind up my watch, or play with my – [touching his chain] some rich jewel. Toby approaches; curtsies there to me” (2.5.53-5). The editors of the Norton interpret Malvolio touching his chain as him forgetting that he will get rid of his steward’s chain (fn. 5, 1713). However, I believe that he is imagining a jeweled chain to take its place, just as he is imagining a velvet gown to take place of his livery. Ironically, clothing does not raise Malvolio; instead Olivia thinks Malvolio is mad based on his attire and his changed, happy mood. Malvolio’s desire to raise his social position and Shylock’s desire to get revenge both lead them to “hideous darkness” (Twelfth Night 4.2.27).
Unlike Shylock and Malvolio who are marked and oppressed by their clothing, Portia, Nerissa and Viola are able to manipulate their appearance through cross-dressing and experience further freedoms. During the trial scene in The Merchant of Venice, Portia is able to manipulate the law and save her husband’s friend, Antonio, from the bond he failed to pay back to Shylock in three months. Portia tells Nerissa her plan to disguise themselves as Balthasar, a learned lawyer, and a clerk. She tells Nerissa that their husbands, Bassanio and Graziano, will “think we are accomplished / With what we lack” (3.4.60-1). Portia realizes the power the two women can have with only a simple wardrobe change. She also highlights how the outer appearance was what constituted identity; even their own husbands will not recognize the true individuals underneath. Robert Weiman and Douglas Buster note that “a change of attire shields them from recognition, yet there is continuity between the form of their concealment and the representation of their character” (133). At the end of the play, when Portia and Nerissa confess to their husbands about the cross-dressing, Bassanio is shocked: “were you the doctor and I knew you not?” (5.1.279). Portia and Nerissa are the same people beneath the clothing but their perceived identity is altered, making them unrecognizable.
Portia easily manipulates the law to free Antonio, using the same wit she used when suitors were selecting caskets. Juliet Dusinberre expresses that “a woman in disguise… is changed by her male dress only because it allows her in express desires and delights which society suppresses in the interests of that narrow femininity” (233)vii. Portia would not have been allowed or trusted to free Antonio in female attire, yet she proves that she is more than capable. Portia carefully warns Shylock to “be merciful / Take thrice thy money. Bid me tear the bond” (4.1.228-9) but when he fails to listen she is unmerciful. By reading between the lines and paying close attention to detail, Portia notes that the “bond doth give thee here no jot of blood / The words expressly are ‘a pound of flesh’” (4.1.301-2). If Shylock takes more or less than what is written in the bond his “lands and goods / Are by the laws of Venice confiscate” (4.1.305-6). However, when Shylock tries to back out and take “the bond thrice” (4.1.313), Portia states that his goods will go to the state and Antonio because “if it be proved against an alien / That by direct or indirect attempts / He seek the life of any citizen” (4.1.344-6) this is the penalty. Furthermore, Shylock’s life will be in the Duke’s hands. Portia easily succeeds in the male world. Dusinberre notes that “manhood describes not the man inside the clothes, but the world’s reaction to his breeches” (244) and Portia’s cross-dressing attests to this. Portia highlights that beyond outward appearance and apparel, there is little that separates men and women. She does not only talk-the-talk but she proves “the prettier fellow of the two” (3.5.64) with “a thousand raw tricks of these bragging Jacks” (3.5.77). Juliet Dusinberre believes that Portia embodies “women’s view of masculinity [as] a charade” (246) and her cross-dressing shows that gender was socially, not naturally, constructed. By wearing male’s clothing, Portia not only experiences greater freedom but proves that she is capable of the same intellectual tasks that males perform, challenging the social order.
Like Portia and Nerissa, Viola in the transvestite comedy, Twelfth Night, also masks her female appearance to serve the Duke. After being shipwrecked in Illyria and separated from her brother, Viola has very few viable options. When she inquires about serving Olivia, the Captain mentions the unlikeliness of this prospect, as Olivia is in a state of depression after her father’s and brother’s deaths. Out of options, Viola chooses to adopt a new identity:
Conceal me what I am, and be my aid
For such disguise as haply shall become
The form of my intent. I’ll serve the duke.
Thou shalt present me as eunuch to him. (1.1.49-52)
Viola masks her true identity and decides that her new disguise will constitute the new Viola. She decides to present herself as a eunuch – a sexually altered man – named Cesario (Fisher 111). This provides an explanation for Viola’s “small pipe” and the “shrill sound” of her voice (1.4.31-2). Similarly, Portia mentions that she will “speak between the change of man and boy / With reed voice” (3.5.66-7). However, Portia chooses to disguise herself as a pre-pubescent boy rather than a eunuch. Viola is described by Malvolio to Olivia as “not yet old enough for a man, nor young enough for a boy… and he speaks very shrewishly” (1.5.139-44). Viola’s older looks could explain her choice to represent herself as a eunuch.
Furthermore, being represented as eunuch draws attention to sex, as a eunuch is a sexually altered male. Unlike Portia, Viola’s cross-dressing is more problematic. Olivia falls for Viola as Cesario when Viola as Cesario woos by proxy for Orsino. Olivia tries to give Viola a ring and a jewel asking Viola as Cesario to “wear this jewel for me, ‘tis my picture” (3.4.184). Stallybrass notes that “the leaving of clothes is an assertion of the power of the gift-giver” (310) and in this case the ring - which is an ornament that supplements attire and can be similarly perceived – is used to express love. Viola begins to regret cross-dressing: “Disguise, I see thou art wickedness” (2.2.25). Viola’s cross-dressing is further confused because she actually likes Orsino:
And I, poor monster, found as much on him,
And she, mistaken, seems to dote on me.
What will become of this? As I am man,
My state is desperate for my master’s love. (2.2.33-5)
Viola knows that this is a mess she cannot fix. She calls herself a monster because “the gender scales have shifted” with her cross-dressed attire but “some parts or features remain that continue to pull [her] in the opposite direction and as a result… [her] gender identity is somewhat mixed” (Fisher 10). In her male attire and under her male name, Cesario, Viola is unable to express her feelings to her master or truthfully explain to Olivia why she cannot accept her tokens of love. Furthermore, “I am man” (2.2.34) highlights that her own perception of herself has changed, which is something that also happened to Malvolio.
Viola’s cross-dressing allows her more of a dual personality than Portia experiences but Viola is still herself underneath the charade. When Sir Andrew tries to get Sir Toby and Viola as Cesario to fight over Olivia’s love, Viola is unwilling. Unlike Portia, who is able to do everything the males can in her male attire, Viola faces limitations. She is unable to fight and highlights “how much [she] lack[s] of a man” (3.4.269). However, like Portia, those close to her cannot even realize this. When Sebastian, Viola’s twin brother, sees Viola as Cesario he is unable to look past the clothes and see his sister beneath. Although Viola is not condemned for her actions, as her brother ends up with Olivia and Viola and Cesario pair off, most of the confusion remains. Viola tells the group that “the captain that did bring me first on shore / Hath my maid’s garments. He upon some action / Is now in durance, at Malvolio’s suit” (5.1.267-9). This does not look hopeful for Viola, as Malvolio’s last words are to threaten revenge on the group. Furthermore, Orsino continues to address her as “Cesario” (5.1.372) because her clothing constitutes her identity even though they are aware of her natural sex. Stephen Orgel expresses that “it is a particular costume that matters, [Viola’s] own dress that was left with the sea captain: this is the dress that is Viola. The costume is the real thing; borrowing a dress from Olivia or buying a new dress to get married in are not offered by the play as options. Clothes make the woman, clothes make the man” (104). It seems problematic for Orsino’s and Viola’s future relationship that Viola cannot get her clothing back, or in other words, get her female identity back.
Shakespeare highlights further limitations with disguise through Shylock’s daughter, Jessica. Jessica disguises herself as a page to escape her father and marry Lorenzo. However, her disguise only saves her for as long as she wears it. Adelman notes that “Jessica’s escape is everywhere compromised by the limiting specifics of her father’s blood” (70). Launcelot, who worked for Shylock for many years, believes that Jessica is “damned both by father and mother” (3.5.12-13). Adelman notes that “purity of lineage” was a concern (80). Jessica is unable to erase her bloodline and the “gold and jewels she is furnished with, / What page’s suit she hath in readiness” (2.4.31-2) is not part of her identity once they are taken off. Jessica cannot escape her bloodline without her page suit on; similarly, Viola cannot be a woman without her female dress. The costume is once again at the core of identity. In Belmont, Jessica is ignored by Portia and Bassanio and only regarded as an “infidel” (3.2.217). Clothing has its limitations. Although it can allow for a performance of power this is often only temporary, explaining why all characters did not use clothing to self-mark.
Shakespeare explores the power of clothing in both The Merchant of Venice and Twelfth Night. In these two plays, identity is constructed through perceptions. Some characters like Portia, Nerissa and Viola take it upon themselves to alter their clothing and challenge the prescribed social order; through cross-dressing they experience new identities and freedoms. On the other hand, Malvolio only gets to dream about wearing the clothes that will grant him power. Furthermore, Jessica cannot escape her Jewish bloodline once her page costume is taken off. Shylock and Prince Morocco are judged for their attire and outer complexions. Shakespeare explores the construction of different gender and class roles showing them “to be a function of culture – constructed, relative, and mobile rather than natural, essential, fixed” (Tudeau-Clayton 67) that can be reinforced or challenged through clothing: the very core of identity.
Adelman, Janet. Blood Relations: Christian and Jew in the Merchant of Venice. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2008. Print.
Breitenberg, Mark. Anxious Masculinity in Early Modern England. New York: Cambridge U P, 1996. Print. Cambridge Studies in Renaissance Lit. and Culture 10.
Dusinberre, Juliet. Shakespeare and the Nature of Women. 2nd ed. New York: St. Martin's P, 1996. Print.
Fisher, Will. Materializing Gender in Early Modern English Literature and Culture. New York: Cambridge U P, 2006. Print. Cambridge Studies in Renaissance Lit. and Culture 52.
Hooper, Wilfrid. "The Tudor Sumptuary Laws." The English Historical Review 30.119 (1915): 433-49. JSTOR. Web. 04 Nov. 2013.
Lelyveld, Toby Bookholtz. Shylock on the Stage. Diss. Columbia U, 1951. London: Routledge & K. Paul, 1961. Print.
"livery.” Def. 1a. Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford U P, n.d. Web. 11 November 2013. .
Orgel, Stephen. Impersonations: The Performance of Gender in Shakespeare's England. New York: Cambridge U P, 1996. Print.
Shakespeare, William. Merchant of Venice. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd ed. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard and Katharine Eisaman Maus. Vol. 1. New York: Norton, 2008. 1121-1175. Print.
Shakespeare, William. Twelfth Night. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd ed. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard and Katharine Eisaman Maus. Vol. 1. New York: Norton, 2008. 1691-1744. Print.
Stallybrass, Peter. “Worn Worlds: Clothes and Identity on the Renaissance Stage.” Subject and Object in Renaissance Culture. Ed. Margreta De Grazia, Maureen Quilligan, and Peter Stallybrass. New York: Cambridge U P, 1996. 289-320. Print. Cambridge Studies in Renaissance Lit. and Culture 8.
Tudeau-Clayton, Margaret. “The ‘trueborn Englishman:’ Richard II, The Merchant of Venice, and the Future History of (the) English.” This England, that Shakespeare: New Angles on Englishness and the Bard. Ed. Margaret Tudeau-Clayton and Willy Maley. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2010. 63-85. Print.
Weimann, Robert, and Douglas Bruster. Shakespeare and the Power of Performance: Stage and Page in the Elizabethan Theatre. New York: Cambridge U P, 2008.
"class.” Def. 2a. Oxford British and World English Dictionary. Oxford U P, n.d. Web. 10 November 2013. .
"fashion.” Oxford British and World English Dictionary. Oxford U P, n.d. Web. 11 November 2013. .
"fetish.” Def. 2a. Oxford British and World English Dictionary. Oxford U P, n.d. Web. 11 November 2013. .
"gender.” Def. 1a. Oxford British and World English Dictionary. Oxford U P, n.d. Web. 10 November 2013. .
Greenblatt, Stephen. Introduction. Twelfth Night. By William Shakespeare. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd ed. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard and Katharine Eisaman Maus. Vol. 1. New York: Norton, 2008. 1683-1690. Print.
Howard, Jean E. The Stage and Social Struggle in Early Modern England. New York: Routledge, 1994. Print.
"identity.” Def. 2a. Oxford British and World English Dictionary. Oxford U P, n.d. Web. 11 November 2013. .
Maus, Katharine Eisaman. Introduction. The Merchant of Venice. By William Shakespeare. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd ed. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard and Katharine Eisaman Maus. Vol. 1. New York: Norton, 2008. 1111-1120. Print.
"purse.” Oxford British and World English Dictionary. Oxford U P, n.d. Web. 11 November 2013. .
"ring.” Def. 1a. Oxford British and World English Dictionary. Oxford U P, n.d. Web. 11 November 2013. .
Shmoop Editorial Team. "The Merchant of Venice." Shmoop.com. Shmoop U, 2008. Web. 9 Nov. 2013.
Shmoop Editorial Team. "Twelfth Night, or What You Will." Shmoop.com. Shmoop U, 2008. Web. 9 Nov. 2013.
"suit.” Oxford British and World English Dictionary. Oxford U P, n.d. Web. 10 November 2013. .
i For more information on the importance of clothing during the Renaissance era, particularly in regards to staging, consult Peter Stallybrass’s “Worn Worlds: Clothes and Identity on the Renaissance Stage” in Subject and Object in Renaissance Culture.
ii For more information on the one-sex model and the threat to male superiority, particularly in regards to Phillip Stubbs and the Hic Mulier (1620) pamphlet, see Mark Breitenberg’s Anxious Masculinity in Early Modern England, Will Fisher’s Materializing Gender in Early Modern English Literature and Culture and Juliet Dusinberre’s Shakespeare and the Nature of Women .
iii For information on the Englishman in The Merchant of Venice, consult Margaret Tudeau-Clayton’s work “The ‘trueborn Englishman” in This England, that Shakespeare.
iv For more information about how Jews were depicted throughout theatre from the early 1800s to the late 1900s, consult Toby Lelyveld’s Shylock on Stage.
v For more information on household livery, see Peter Stallybrass’s “Worn Worlds: Clothes and Identity on the Renaissance Stage” in Subject and Object in Renaissance Culture.
vi For more information on the expensiveness of clothing in the Renaissance era consult Peter Stallybrass’s “Worn Worlds: Clothes and Identity on the Renaissance Stage” in Subject and Object in Renaissance Culture.
vii For further information on female experiences through cross-dressing, see Weiman’s and Buster’s Shakespeare and the Power of Performance: Stage and Page in the Elizabethan Theatre.