The connections between texts and textiles (texere, to weave) are so familiar as to pass almost unremarked, and attention to material culture is a feature of much literary criticism, albeit often in uneven, general ways. Much criticism considering clothing gets distracted into familiar preoccupations with cross-dressing or the sumptuary laws; textiles are ‘relegated’ to the domestic sphere or seen only in elite terms. But in early modern London, men and women of all backgrounds produced and consumed textiles of many kinds.
One of the aims of ‘Textile Shakespeare’, my projected book-length study, is to thicken the texture of critical engagement with early modern material culture. Shakespeare was the son of a glover; some of his first plays were written for an entrepreneur whose businesses included starch-making and who retained a side-line as a dealer in second-hand clothes; later he lodged with a family of ‘tire-makers’. Shakespeare’s works imagine tapestries and painted cloths; their characters include tailors (why are they always thin?) and weavers, cobblers, and needlewomen. When Prospero refers to himself and his hearers as ‘such stuff as dreams are made on’, textiles (and larger ideas about textuality) are closer to the surface than they might seem: ‘stuff’ was a catch-all term for coarse material. ‘Bombast’ was the stuffing used in doublets and breeches before it referred to overblown rhetoric and, for Shakespeare’s characters, a handkerchief does not necessarily connote a nose and a button is more ornament than use.
A further aim of ‘Textile Shakespeare’ is more conceptual. Being interdisciplinary is ‘about’ more than writing better footnotes. My previous research explored the limitations of the still-evolving discipline of garden history; more recently, teaching at the Victoria and Albert Museum revealed some differences in approaches to material culture between literary critics and social and art historians. There are tensions between preservation, display, reconstruction and re-enactment in museum culture which have suggestive parallels in Shakespearean criticism and performance.
Dr Hester Lees-Jeffries (English, St Catharine's) is an Early Career Fellow at CRASSH, Easter 2011.