Robert L. Lublin, Chair of Performing Arts at University of Massachusetts, seeks to answer two interrelated questions in his book Costuming the Shakespearean Stage: Visual Codes of Representation in Early Modern Theatre and Culture “[W]hat costumes were worn on the early modern English professional stage? And more importantly, what did these costumes mean to the London audiences that first saw them?” (2). Lublin explores these questions through the course of five chapters: “Sex and Gender,” “Social Station,” “Foreigners,” “Religion,” and a case study entitled “’An vnder black dubblett signifying a Spanish hart’: Costumes and Politics in Middleton’s A Game at Chess.” Derived from Lublin’s Ph. D. dissertation (portions of which, namely part of Chapter Four and all of Chapter Five, have previously been published), this work employs a different (and more effective) organization and includes updated secondary sources. Despite the new organization and inclusion of additional sources, the book retains a considerably large amount of material taken verbatim or nearly so from the dissertation. This observation is not intended as a criticism of either the book’s content or its style, although, several of Lublin’s more tentative points might have benefitted from additional development and refinement. Along with an index and bibliography, the book contains a number of useful illustrations of early modern attire.
Lublin synthesizes an impressive amount of research into early modern stage costuming published over the past three decades. Indeed, the book makes extensive use of secondary sources in part because of the paucity of primary evidence about theatrical costume other than the plays themselves. Although he scrutinizes the (apparently incomplete) inventory of that, Henslowe records in his diary, the well-known Peachem sketch, and a number of Tudor sumptuary laws, Lublin bases much of his argument upon internal evidence from a hundred or so plays either stated explicitly or implicitly. Such references, be they in stage directions or in dialogue, provide the strongest evidence for his examination of costume and its meaning. Of Robert Greene’s Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay (1589), for example, Lublin observes, “In renouncing his magic, Bacon draws a connection between Catholic vestments, magic, and devil worship,” citing Bacon’s reference to “stole and alb” among those diabolic things he rejects (4.3.86–97); Lublin thus argues that when costumed as a necromancer, the actor playing Friar Bacon would have worn recognizably-Catholic vestments and that the audience in turn would have assimilated this visual representation of Bacon into a collective Protestant belief conflating Catholicism with black magic (133–6). Lublin’s reading of this and other unambiguous references to costuming result in his strongest arguments, effectively supporting his analysis of the semiotics of early modern costume.
For plays lacking such strong textual support, however, Lublin deploys a highly speculative strategy to advance his thesis, and these portions of the book yield inconsistent results—for many of his arguments, although plausible, cannot be definitively proven. Lublin’s chapter upon foreigners, for instance, contains numerous instances of this approach. A notable example is his contention that Hamlet’s description of Claudius as “a king of shreds and patches” (3.4.102) refers to Danish pludderhoser “in which he most likely appeared” (87–8, emphasis mine); Pludderhoser, Lublin explains, “are extra wide breeches with slashed fabric that were stuffed with different colored material and ribbons” (88). However, Lublin can present little other textual evidence to support this tentative assertion about Claudius’s attire. Furthermore, Lublin does not consider textual variants, instead relying upon a modernized text; since Q1 contains the variant phrase “a king of clowts, of very shreads,” one may wonder if this reading lends further support to his pludderhoser argument or undermines it.
Lublin theorizes that if Claudius were thus costumed, an early modern audience would have regarded his gaudy sartorial statement as a visual signifier of the Danish drinking habits that Hamlet himself bemoans to Horatio. However, Lublin’s theory is predicated upon the reader’s acceptance of the words "most likely," as well as the assumption that early modern playgoers would recognize this particular Danish fashion and equate it with the stereotype of drunken Danes. Lublin supports the latter point effectively, offering sufficient evidence from Hamlet and other sources to illustrate that the English did regard Danes as drunkards, but he does not offer a convincing case for the former assertion: would enough audience members recognize Danish pludderhoser? Although Lublin suggests the possible existence of a powerful visual contrast between this implied costuming of Claudius with the textually supported attiring of Hamlet in sober black, Lublin cannot argue with absolute certainty. Here Lublin misses an opportunity to strengthen his hypothesis by also contrasting Claudius’s garments with King Hamlet’s martial armor and domestic nightgown. In lieu of this analysis, readers might even wonder whether the late king himself had sported pludderhoser when alive. To his credit, Lublin frequently acknowledges when his theories lack sufficient evidence and must be taken on faith. His arguments are intriguing, but they sometimes fall into a pattern of “If X is true about how a real Y would dress, then a character representing a Y would be costumed according to X and thus embodies a set of beliefs about Y that the audience communally share.”
Despite my assessment that Costuming the Shakespearean Stage: Visual Codes of Representation in Early Modern Theatre and Culture contains a quantity of difficult-to-prove conjectures and that several points deserve additional exploration and support, Lublin’s book succeeds in bringing together an abundance of scholarship and constructing a thought-provoking analysis of the semiotics of costuming, both on and off the early modern stage. His chapter on the significance of religious attire deserves special praise, covering not only the spectrum of Christianity from Catholicism to Puritanism but also Judaism and Islam. Also praiseworthy is his case study on Middleton’s A Game at Chess. Indeed, if Lublin continues his work with the general subject of costuming, he might do well to delve even deeper into the rich subject of religious costuming. This book is accessible enough for advanced undergraduates yet sophisticated enough to meet the needs of specialists in literature and theatre history. The book’s greatest strength lies in its broad overview of contemporary scholarship, offering readers an excellent grounding in the subject of early modern stage attire and directing them to myriad tightly-focused studies of specific aspects of costuming.