Style Lessons From Shakespeare
Illustration by Mr Joe McKendry
So there is this writer, Mr William Shakespeare – not sure if you’ve heard of him? Supposedly, he’s rather good. In fact, over the 400 years since he breathed his last (he faced his final curtain on 23 April 1616), various formidable minds, including Mr TS Eliot, Mr CS Lewis and Mr Sigmund Freud have made pronouncements as to the wit and deep, deep wisdom of his 38 plays, 154 sonnets and various B-side-y poems such as “Lucrece” and “Venus And Adonis”. If, on this auspicious occasion, you feel like boning up on your knowledge of the bard, Mr Jonathan Bate’s brilliant biography The Genius Of Shakespeare – which covers everything from the controversy about whether Mr Shakespeare actually wrote the plays to what the word “genius” actually means – has been reissued this month by Picador Classic, and comes highly recommended. If, on the other hand, you’re more in the market for a sacrilegious thought poem in which we force the greatest writer in history to pick out a few items from spring 2016 – please see below.
Dress for Success
“Apparel oft proclaims the man,” is one of those quotes oft-proclaimed by men that have heard of, but not read Hamlet. In fact, it’s spoken by the awful Polonius, a windbag who spends the opening scenes of the play saying silly things before Hamlet puts him out of his misery by stabbing him through a curtain. So this little soundbite, nippy as it is, should hardly be considered the height of wisdom. However, given that so many of the plots in Mr Shakespeare’s plays are driven by disguises and mistaken identities, from Viola’s genderbending get-up in Twelfth Night (which gets her into the service of her beloved Duke Orsino), to Florizel and Autolycus’s clothes-swapping antics in The Winter’s Tale (which helps the former to elope to Sicily), the lesson stands – dress as you wish to be perceived, and people tend to fall for it. It’s probably less applicable to contemporary reality than a candle-lit wooden stage with no roof, circa 1600, (where it was probably easier to identify someone by their smell than their face) but it’s worth a try at least. See below for your king-of-the-world outfit.
Don’t Overdo It
The biggest style disaster in all of Mr Shakespeare’s work? There are some contenders here – in The Taming of the Shrew, Petruchio turns up to his wedding in “an old jerkin” (gasp), a pair of “breeches thrice turned” (inside out) and boots “that have been candle cases” (ie used as spittoons). In Henry IV, Part 1, we have “fat-witted” Falstaff caught “unbuttoning… after supper” and then spending the next 12 hours lying on a bench, which is not so elegant either. But the booby prize has to go to Twelfth Night’s Malvolio – who starts off with an outfit that’s not to everyone’s taste, but is at least a thing (“kind of puritan,” says Maria) and ends up careening around in bright yellow stockings, a silly grin spread across his face, because he thinks his mistress, Olivia, is in love with him, and is trying to impress her. This sartorial misdeed lands him in a cell, as part of one of the most harsh theatrical smackdowns of the 17th century. From this, we can learn that so-called “statement pieces” should be judiciously applied to one’s person. Not everyone can pull them off. Nor should they.
Keep a sharp eye on your accessories
If only so many Shakesperean protagonists had kept their wits about them, and, more importantly, their bits about them, then maybe things would have gone a little better for them (although, yes the entire history of English literature would have been the worse off). In Cymbeline, the rascal Iachimo pretty much destroys the marriage of Posthumus and Imogen because he makes off with their love tokens – a ring and a bracelet. Gold-digging hero Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice is also quick to part ways with a ring, given to him by new betrothed Portia as a symbol of her love. And that obviously doesn’t end well either. But the most glaring example of sheer carelessness (and its terrible consequences) is in Othello. If the titular character had stuffed Desdemona's proffered handkerchief into, say, a nice backpack, instead of dropping it on the floor (Act III, scene iii), then perhaps he wouldn’t have had to strangle her. You can mull that over as you peruse the following leather goods.
A Bonus Tip
Dress for the weather.
Because King Lear didn’t. And he died.