It may surprise you to know that Shakespeare’s plays were performed mostly in modern dress. By which I mean dress modern to him. We know this because of one of the most interesting historical artifacts to have survived and that is the Peacham drawing. It is the only surviving image of a Shakespeare play in performance from his own time. Here it is…
The picture shows a scene from Titus Andronicus. You can see Titus as the king facing Tamora the captured queen of the Goths. There are several interesting things to be considered in this picture amongst them costume. Here we see what seems from costume inventories to have been the usual theatrical practice of the time, of simply giving a nod to historical period with a few additions.
Titus is a Roman play and yet we see only some small concessions to Roman costume in the leaf crown and the toga worn by Titus himself. Titus’ sons – shown to the left of him are costumed in Tudor outfits as are the other characters. Plays were dressed by a combination of using costumes already owned by the theatre, accepting generous donations of slightly used costumes from well to do patrons and making new costumes for specific roles. Added to this they had a few outfits representing specific historical periods with which they dressed principle characters to create a historical feel. One assumes this avoided spending a lot of money on dressing a play completely in period costume before they knew whether it was popular enough to warrant repeated performances.
Also of interest in the picture are the ‘boy player’ in female costume as Tamora, and the character of Aaron, Tamora’s African lover. Despite this character being coloured in black we still don’t know if
- They used an African actor (thought to be unlikely as no one has indentified any record of such an actor)
- They used a white actor who blacked up, ie used make up to colour himself in. which is possible but if the picture is accurate this was quite a task.
- The artist just coloured in Aaron in ink because he knew the character was meant to have dark skin.
Historical treasures sometimes ask as many questions as they answer!
But the next time you feel baffled in the theatre when confronted by a postmodern mixture of doublets and jeans you might pause to remind yourself that it us actually quite Shakespearian.