Nor can we be distinguished by our faces / For man or master.
– Tranio, Act I, scene i
The meanings attributed to the clothes people wore in Tudor society were not viewed as arbitrary or mere products of social construction and definition or of individual expression. Instead, clothing was viewed as an outward sign of inward—and inherent—differences of rank determined, not by a cultural point of view, but by nature. An individual's social status was determined, therefore, by his appearance. Expensive clothing was accepted as evidence of an individual's personal wealth and rank.
Detailed image of doublet and hose
Tudor law declared, in fact, that "silk or cloth mixed or embroidered with gold or silver" was only to be worn by "Barons and above that rank"; "lace of gold or silver mixed with gold or silver, or with gold or silver and silk" was only to be warn by "those with net income of 500 marks per year for life, knights and captains"; velvet in "gownes, clokes, coats and upper garments" was to be worn by "knights and all above that rank."
What a society enacts into law reflects what it feels it must control—but cannot successfully without the power of law. Tudor laws ordering clothing by social rank betray the time's anxiety about how easily a person could deceive others about his identity, simply by changing clothes.
Such external things are easy to change—and the theater, of course, constantly illustrated how readily identity changed with costume changes. It is no wonder that the theater in Elizabethan times was viewed as subversive and potentially dangerous. It posed a threat—real or imagined—to a social order being precariously held by an aristocratic society that faced the growing strength and power of the new merchant class—the bourgeoisie who, with their newly acquired wealth, could dress and live like nobility.
The characters of The Taming of the Shrew, like so many of Shakespeare's characters, assume new identities by merely changing their clothes. The play demonstrates how easily the elements of illusion can be mistaken for reality—and, of course, the setting of the play-within-a-play reinforces this theme. From the moment that Tranio successfully convinces Baptista of his elevated status because he is cloaked in his master's clothes, Shakespeare builds his plot based on a series of identities, assumed merely by the donning of another's garments.
George Gascoigne's play, Supposes, published in 1573, may have served as a primary source for Shakespeare's Shrew. A "suppose" is, according to Gascoigne, "nothing else but a mystaking or imagination of one thing for another." The young William Shakespeare appears to be celebrating in this early comedy in his career the persuasive power of "supposes"—the very power in which his art is rooted: the power of the human imagination.
–Contributed by the CST Education Department