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    The Truth Of Masks -a Note On Illusion

    by Oscar Wilde
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    In many of the somewhat violent attacks that have recently been
    made on that splendour of mounting which now characterises our
    Shakespearian revivals in England, it seems to have been tacitly
    assumed by the critics that Shakespeare himself was more or less
    indifferent to the costumes of his actors, and that, could he see
    Mrs. Langtry's production of Antony and Cleopatra, he would
    probably say that the play, and the play only, is the thing, and
    that everything else is leather and prunella. While, as regards
    any historical accuracy in dress, Lord Lytton, in an article in the
    Nineteenth Century, has laid it down as a dogma of art that
    archaeology is entirely out of place in the presentation of any of
    Shakespeare's plays, and the attempt to introduce it one of the
    stupidest pedantries of an age of prigs.

    Lord Lytton's position I shall examine later on; but, as regards
    the theory that Shakespeare did not busy himself much about the
    costume-wardrobe of his theatre, anybody who cares to study
    Shakespeare's method will see that there is absolutely no dramatist
    of the French, English, or Athenian stage who relies so much for
    his illusionist effects on the dress of his actors as Shakespeare
    does himself.

    Knowing how the artistic temperament is always fascinated by beauty
    of costume, he constantly introduces into his plays masques and
    dances, purely for the sake of the pleasure which they give the
    eye; and we have still his stage-directions for the three great
    processions in Henry the Eighth, directions which are characterised
    by the most extraordinary elaborateness of detail down to the
    collars of S.S. and the pearls in Anne Boleyn's hair. Indeed it
    would be quite easy for a modern manager to reproduce these
    pageants absolutely as Shakespeare had them designed; and so
    accurate were they that one of the court officials of the time,
    writing an account of the last performance of the play at the Globe
    Theatre to a friend, actually complains of their realistic
    character, notably of the production on the stage of the Knights of
    the Garter in the robes and insignia of the order as being
    calculated to bring ridicule on the real ceremonies; much in the
    same spirit in which the French Government, some time ago,
    prohibited that delightful actor, M. Christian, from appearing in
    uniform, on the plea that it was prejudicial to the glory of the
    army that a colonel should be caricatured. And elsewhere the
    gorgeousness of apparel which distinguished the English stage under
    Shakespeare's influence was attacked by the contemporary critics,
    not as a rule, however, on the grounds of the democratic tendencies
    of realism, but usually on those moral grounds which are always the
    last refuge of people who have no sense of beauty.

    The point, however, which I wish to emphasise is, not that
    Shakespeare appreciated the value of lovely costumes in adding
    picturesqueness to poetry, but that he saw how important costume is
    as a means of producing certain dramatic effects. Many of his
    plays, such as Measure for Measure, Twelfth Night, The Two
    Gentleman of Verona, All's Well that Ends Well, Cymbeline, and
    others, depend for their illusion on the character of the various
    dresses worn by the hero or the heroine; the delightful scene in
    Henry the Sixth, on the modern miracles of healing by faith, loses
    all its point unless Gloster is in black and scarlet; and the
    denoument of the Merry Wives of Windsor hinges on the colour of
    Anne Page's gown. As for the uses Shakespeare makes of disguises
    the instances are almost numberless. Posthumus hides his passion
    under a peasant's garb, and Edgar his pride beneath an idiot's
    rags; Portia wears the apparel of a lawyer, and Rosalind is attired
    in 'all points as a man'; the cloak-bag of Pisanio changes Imogen
    to the Youth Fidele; Jessica flees from her father's house in boy's
    dress, and Julia ties up her yellow hair in fantastic love-knots,
    and dons hose and doublet; Henry the Eighth woos his lady as a
    shepherd, and Romeo his as a pilgrim; Prince Hal and Poins appear
    first as footpads in buckram suits, and then in white aprons and
    leather jerkins as the waiters in a tavern: and as for Falstaff,
    does he not come on as a highwayman, as an old woman, as Herne the
    Hunter, and as the clothes going to the laundry?

    Nor are the examples of the employment of costume as a mode of
    intensifying dramatic situation less numerous. After slaughter of
    Duncan, Macbeth appears in his night-gown as if aroused from sleep;
    Timon ends in rags the play he had begun in splendour; Richard
    flatters the London citizens in a suit of mean and shabby armour,
    and, as soon as he has stepped in blood to the throne, marches
    through the streets in crown and George and Garter; the climax of
    The Tempest is reached when Prospero, throwing off his enchanter's
    robes, sends Ariel for his hat and rapier, and reveals himself as
    the great Italian Duke; the very Ghost in Hamlet changes his
    mystical apparel to produce different effects; and as for Juliet, a
    modern playwright would probably have laid her out in her shroud,
    and made the scene a scene of horror merely, but Shakespeare arrays
    her in rich and gorgeous raiment, whose loveliness makes the vault
    'a feasting presence full of light,' turns the tomb into a bridal
    chamber, and gives the cue and motive for Romeo's speech of the
    triumph of Beauty over Death.

    Even small details of dress, such as the colour of a major-domo's
    stockings, the pattern on a wife's handkerchief, the sleeve of a
    young soldier, and a fashionable woman's bonnets, become in
    Shakespeare's hands points of actual dramatic importance, and by
    some of them the action of the play in question is conditioned
    absolutely. Many other dramatists have availed themselves of
    costume as a method of expressing directly to the audience the
    character of a person on his entrance, though hardly so brilliantly
    as Shakespeare has done in the case of the dandy Parolles, whose
    dress, by the way, only an archaeologist can understand; the fun of
    a master and servant exchanging coats in presence of the audience,
    of shipwrecked sailors squabbling over the division of a lot of
    fine clothes, and of a tinker dressed up like a duke while he is in
    his cups, may be regarded as part of that great career which
    costume has always played in comedy from the time of Aristophanes
    down to Mr. Gilbert; but nobody from the mere details of apparel
    and adornment has ever drawn such irony of contrast, such immediate
    and tragic effect, such pity and such pathos, as Shakespeare
    himself. Armed cap-a-pie, the dead King stalks on the battlements
    of Elsinore because all is not right with Denmark; Shylock's Jewish
    gaberdine is part of the stigma under which that wounded and
    embittered nature writhes; Arthur begging for his life can think of
    no better plea than the handkerchief he had given Hubert -

    Have you the heart? when your head did but ache,
    I knit my handkerchief about your brows,
    (The best I had, a princess wrought it me)
    And I did never ask it you again;

    and Orlando's blood-stained napkin strikes the first sombre note in
    that exquisite woodland idyll, and shows us the depth of feeling
    that underlies Rosalind's fanciful wit and wilful jesting.

    Last night 'twas on my arm; I kissed it;
    I hope it be not gone to tell my lord
    That I kiss aught but he,

    says Imogen, jesting on the loss of the bracelet which was already
    on its way to Rome to rob her of her husband's faith; the little
    Prince passing to the Tower plays with the dagger in his uncle's
    girdle; Duncan sends a ring to Lady Macbeth on the night of his own
    murder, and the ring of Portia turns the tragedy of the merchant
    into a wife's comedy. The great rebel York dies with a paper crown
    on his head; Hamlet's black suit is a kind of colour-motive in the
    piece, like the mourning of the Chimene in the Cid; and the climax
    of Antony's speech is the production of Caesar's cloak:-

    I remember
    The first time ever Caesar put it on.
    'Twas on a summer's evening, in his tent,
    The day he overcame the Nervii:-
    Look, in this place ran Cassius' dagger through:
    See what a rent the envious Casca made:
    Through this the well-beloved Brutus stabbed. . . .
    Kind souls, what, weep you when you but behold
    Our Caesar's vesture wounded?

    The flowers which Ophelia carries with her in her madness are as
    pathetic as the violets that blossom on a grave; the effect of
    Lear's wandering on the heath is intensified beyond words by his
    fantastic attire; and when Cloten, stung by the taunt of that
    simile which his sister draws from her husband's raiment, arrays
    himself in that husband's very garb to work upon her the deed of
    shame, we feel that there is nothing in the whole of modern French
    realism, nothing even in Therese Raquin, that masterpiece of
    horror, which for terrible and tragic significance can compare with
    this strange scene in Cymbeline.

    In the actual dialogue also some of the most vivid passages are
    those suggested by costume. Rosalind's

    Dost thou think, though I am caparisoned like a man, I have a
    doublet and hose in my disposition?


    Grief fills the place of my absent child,
    Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form;

    and the quick sharp cry of Elizabeth -

    Ah! cut my lace asunder! -

    are only a few of the many examples one might quote. One of the
    finest effects I have ever seen on the stage was Salvini, in the
    last act of Lear, tearing the plume from Kent's cap and applying it
    to Cordelia's lips when he came to the line,

    This feather stirs; she lives!

    Mr. Booth, whose Lear had many noble qualities of passion, plucked,
    I remember, some fur from his archaeologically-incorrect ermine for
    the same business; but Salvini's was the finer effect of the two,
    as well as the truer. And those who saw Mr. Irving in the last act
    of Richard the Third have not, I am sure, forgotten how much the
    agony and terror of his dream was intensified, by contrast, through
    the calm and quiet that preceded it, and the delivery of such lines

    What, is my beaver easier than it was?
    And all my armour laid into my tent?
    Look that my staves be sound and not too heavy -

    lines which had a double meaning for the audience, remembering the
    last words which Richard's mother called after him as he was
    marching to Bosworth:-

    Therefore take with thee my most grievous curse,
    Which in the day of battle tire thee more
    Than all the complete armour that thou wear'st.

    As regards the resources which Shakespeare had at his disposal, it
    is to be remarked that, while he more than once complains of the
    smallness of the stage on which he has to produce big historical
    plays, and of the want of scenery which obliges him to cut out many
    effective open-air incidents, he always writes as a dramatist who
    had at his disposal a most elaborate theatrical wardrobe, and who
    could rely on the actors taking pains about their make-up. Even
    now it is difficult to produce such a play as the Comedy of Errors;
    and to the picturesque accident of Miss Ellen Terry's brother
    resembling herself we owe the opportunity of seeing Twelfth Night
    adequately performed. Indeed, to put any play of Shakespeare's on
    the stage, absolutely as he himself wished it to be done, requires
    the services of a good property-man, a clever wig-maker, a
    costumier with a sense of colour and a knowledge of textures, a
    master of the methods of making-up, a fencing-master, a dancing-
    master, and an artist to direct personally the whole production.
    For he is most careful to tell us the dress and appearance of each
    character. 'Racine abhorre la realite,' says Auguste Vacquerie
    somewhere; 'il ne daigne pas s'occuper de son costume. Si l'on
    s'en rapportait aux indications du poete, Agamemnon serait vetu
    d'un sceptre et Achille d'une epee.' But with Shakespeare it is
    very different. He gives us directions about the costumes of
    Perdita, Florizel, Autolycus, the Witches in Macbeth, and the
    apothecary in Romeo and Juliet, several elaborate descriptions of
    his fat knight, and a detailed account of the extraordinary garb in
    which Petruchio is to be married. Rosalind, he tells us, is tall,
    and is to carry a spear and a little dagger; Celia is smaller, and
    is to paint her face brown so as to look sunburnt. The children
    who play at fairies in Windsor Forest are to be dressed in white
    and green--a compliment, by the way, to Queen Elizabeth, whose
    favourite colours they were--and in white, with green garlands and
    gilded vizors, the angels are to come to Katherine in Kimbolton.
    Bottom is in homespun, Lysander is distinguished from Oberon by his
    wearing an Athenian dress, and Launce has holes in his boots. The
    Duchess of Gloucester stands in a white sheet with her husband in
    mourning beside her. The motley of the Fool, the scarlet of the
    Cardinal, and the French lilies broidered on the English coats, are
    all made occasion for jest or taunt in the dialogue. We know the
    patterns on the Dauphin's armour and the Pucelle's sword, the crest
    on Warwick's helmet and the colour of Bardolph's nose. Portia has
    golden hair, Phoebe is black-haired, Orlando has chestnut curls,
    and Sir Andrew Aguecheek's hair hangs like flax on a distaff, and
    won't curl at all. Some of the characters are stout, some lean,
    some straight, some hunchbacked, some fair, some dark, and some are
    to blacken their faces. Lear has a white beard, Hamlet's father a
    grizzled, and Benedick is to shave his in the course of the play.
    Indeed, on the subject of stage beards Shakespeare is quite
    elaborate; tells us of the many different colours in use, and gives
    a hint to actors always to see that their own are properly tied on.
    There is a dance of reapers in rye-straw hats, and of rustics in
    hairy coats like satyrs; a masque of Amazons, a masque of Russians,
    and a classical masque; several immortal scenes over a weaver in an
    ass's head, a riot over the colour of a coat which it takes the
    Lord Mayor of London to quell, and a scene between an infuriated
    husband and his wife's milliner about the slashing of a sleeve.

    As for the metaphors Shakespeare draws from dress, and the
    aphorisms he makes on it, his hits at the costume of his age,
    particularly at the ridiculous size of the ladies' bonnets, and the
    many descriptions of the mundus muliebris, from the long of
    Autolycus in the Winter's Tale down to the account of the Duchess
    of Milan's gown in Much Ado About Nothing, they are far too
    numerous to quote; though it may be worth while to remind people
    that the whole of the Philosophy of Clothes is to be found in
    Lear's scene with Edgar--a passage which has the advantage of
    brevity and style over the grotesque wisdom and somewhat mouthing
    metaphysics of Sartor Resartus. But I think that from what I have
    already said it is quite clear that Shakespeare was very much
    interested in costume. I do not mean in that shallow sense by
    which it has been concluded from his knowledge of deeds and
    daffodils that he was the Blackstone and Paxton of the Elizabethan
    age; but that he saw that costume could be made at once impressive
    of a certain effect on the audience and expressive of certain types
    of character, and is one of the essential factors of the means
    which a true illusionist has at his disposal. Indeed to him the
    deformed figure of Richard was of as much value as Juliet's
    loveliness; he sets the serge of the radical beside the silks of
    the lord, and sees the stage effects to be got from each: he has
    as much delight in Caliban as he has in Ariel, in rags as he has in
    cloth of gold, and recognises the artistic beauty of ugliness.

    The difficulty Ducis felt about translating Othello in consequence
    of the importance given to such a vulgar thing as a handkerchief,
    and his attempt to soften its grossness by making the Moor
    reiterate 'Le bandeau! le bandeau!' may be taken as an example of
    the difference between la tragedie philosophique and the drama of
    real life; and the introduction for the first time of the word
    mouchoir at the Theatre Francais was an era in that romantic-
    realistic movement of which Hugo is the father and M. Zola the
    enfant terrible, just as the classicism of the earlier part of the
    century was emphasised by Talma's refusal to play Greek heroes any
    longer in a powdered periwig--one of the many instances, by the
    way, of that desire for archaeological accuracy in dress which has
    distinguished the great actors of our age.

    In criticising the importance given to money in La Comedie Humaine,
    Theophile Gautier says that Balzac may claim to have invented a new
    hero in fiction, le heros metallique. Of Shakespeare it may be
    said he was the first to see the dramatic value of doublets, and
    that a climax may depend on a crinoline.

    The burning of the Globe Theatre--an event due, by the way, to the
    results of the passion for illusion that distinguished
    Shakespeare's stage-management--has unfortunately robbed us of many
    important documents; but in the inventory, still in existence, of
    the costume-wardrobe of a London theatre in Shakespeare's time,
    there are mentioned particular costumes for cardinals, shepherds,
    kings, clowns, friars, and fools; green coats for Robin Hood's men,
    and a green gown for Maid Marian; a white and gold doublet for
    Henry the Fifth, and a robe for Longshanks; besides surplices,
    copes, damask gowns, gowns of cloth of gold and of cloth of silver,
    taffeta gowns, calico gowns, velvet coats, satin coats, frieze
    coats, jerkins of yellow leather and of black leather, red suits,
    grey suits, French Pierrot suits, a robe 'for to goo invisibell,'
    which seems inexpensive at 3 pounds, 10s., and four incomparable
    fardingales--all of which show a desire to give every character an
    appropriate dress. There are also entries of Spanish, Moorish and
    Danish costumes, of helmets, lances, painted shields, imperial
    crowns, and papal tiaras, as well as of costumes for Turkish
    Janissaries, Roman Senators, and all the gods and goddesses of
    Olympus, which evidence a good deal of archaeological research on
    the part of the manager of the theatre. It is true that there is a
    mention of a bodice for Eve, but probably the donnee of the play
    was after the Fall.

    Indeed, anybody who cares to examine the age of Shakespeare will
    see that archaeology was one of its special characteristics. After
    that revival of the classical forms of architecture which was one
    of the notes of the Renaissance, and the printing at Venice and
    elsewhere of the masterpieces of Greek and Latin literature, had
    come naturally an interest in the ornamentation and costume of the
    antique world. Nor was it for the learning that they could
    acquire, but rather for the loveliness that they might create, that
    the artists studied these things. The curious objects that were
    being constantly brought to light by excavations were not left to
    moulder in a museum, for the contemplation of a callous curator,
    and the ennui of a policeman bored by the absence of crime. They
    were used as motives for the production of a new art, which was to
    be not beautiful merely, but also strange.

    Infessura tells us that in 1485 some workmen digging on the Appian
    Way came across an old Roman sarcophagus inscribed with the name
    'Julia, daughter of Claudius.' On opening the coffer they found
    within its marble womb the body of a beautiful girl of about
    fifteen years of age, preserved by the embalmer's skill from
    corruption and the decay of time. Her eyes were half open, her
    hair rippled round her in crisp curling gold, and from her lips and
    cheek the bloom of maidenhood had not yet departed. Borne back to
    the Capitol, she became at once the centre of a new cult, and from
    all parts of the city crowded pilgrims to worship at the wonderful
    shrine, till the Pope, fearing lest those who had found the secret
    of beauty in a Pagan tomb might forget what secrets Judaea's rough
    and rock-hewn sepulchre contained, had the body conveyed away by
    night, and in secret buried. Legend though it may be, yet the
    story is none the less valuable as showing us the attitude of the
    Renaissance towards the antique world. Archaeology to them was not
    a mere science for the antiquarian; it was a means by which they
    could touch the dry dust of antiquity into the very breath and
    beauty of life, and fill with the new wine of romanticism forms
    that else had been old and outworn. From the pulpit of Niccola
    Pisano down to Mantegna's 'Triumph of Caesar,' and the service
    Cellini designed for King Francis, the influence of this spirit can
    be traced; nor was it confined merely to the immobile arts--the
    arts of arrested movement--but its influence was to be seen also in
    the great Graeco-Roman masques which were the constant amusement of
    the gay courts of the time, and in the public pomps and processions
    with which the citizens of big commercial towns were wont to greet
    the princes that chanced to visit them; pageants, by the way, which
    were considered so important that large prints were made of them
    and published--a fact which is a proof of the general interest at
    the time in matters of such kind.

    And this use of archaeology in shows, so far from being a bit of
    priggish pedantry, is in every way legitimate and beautiful. For
    the stage is not merely the meeting-place of all the arts, but is
    also the return of art to life. Sometimes in an archaeological
    novel the use of strange and obsolete terms seems to hide the
    reality beneath the learning, and I dare say that many of the
    readers of Notre Dame de Paris have been much puzzled over the
    meaning of such expressions as la casaque a mahoitres, les
    voulgiers, le gallimard tache d'encre, les craaquiniers, and the
    like; but with the stage how different it is! The ancient world
    wakes from its sleep, and history moves as a pageant before our
    eyes, without obliging us to have recourse to a dictionary or an
    encyclopaedia for the perfection of our enjoyment. Indeed, there
    is not the slightest necessity that the public should know the
    authorities for the mounting of any piece. From such materials,
    for instance, as the disk of Theodosius, materials with which the
    majority of people are probably not very familiar, Mr. E. W.
    Godwin, one of the most artistic spirits of this century in
    England, created the marvellous loveliness of the first act of
    Claudian, and showed us the life of Byzantium in the fourth
    century, not by a dreary lecture and a set of grimy casts, not by a
    novel which requires a glossary to explain it, but by the visible
    presentation before us of all the glory of that great town. And
    while the costumes were true to the smallest points of colour and
    design, yet the details were not assigned that abnormal importance
    which they must necessarily be given in a piecemeal lecture, but
    were subordinated to the rules of lofty composition and the unity
    of artistic effect. Mr. Symonds, speaking of that great picture of
    Mantegna's, now in Hampton Court, says that the artist has
    converted an antiquarian motive into a theme for melodies of line.
    The same could have been said with equal justice of Mr. Godwin's
    scene. Only the foolish called it pedantry, only those who would
    neither look nor listen spoke of the passion of the play being
    killed by its paint. It was in reality a scene not merely perfect
    in its picturesqueness, but absolutely dramatic also, getting rid
    of any necessity for tedious descriptions, and showing us, by the
    colour and character of Claudian's dress, and the dress of his
    attendants, the whole nature and life of the man, from what school
    of philosophy he affected, down to what horses he backed on the

    And indeed archaeology is only really delightful when transfused
    into some form of art. I have no desire to underrate the services
    of laborious scholars, but I feel that the use Keats made of
    Lempriere's Dictionary is of far more value to us than Professor
    Max Muller's treatment of the same mythology as a disease of
    language. Better Endymion than any theory, however sound, or, as
    in the present instance, unsound, of an epidemic among adjectives!
    And who does not feel that the chief glory of Piranesi's book on
    Vases is that it gave Keats the suggestion for his 'Ode on a
    Grecian Urn'? Art, and art only, can make archaeology beautiful;
    and the theatric art can use it most directly and most vividly, for
    it can combine in one exquisite presentation the illusion of actual
    life with the wonder of the unreal world. But the sixteenth
    century was not merely the age of Vitruvius; it was the age of
    Vecellio also. Every nation seems suddenly to have become
    interested in the dress of its neighbours. Europe began to
    investigate its own clothes, and the amount of books published on
    national costumes is quite extraordinary. At the beginning of the
    century the Nuremberg Chronicle, with its two thousand
    illustrations, reached its fifth edition, and before the century
    was over seventeen editions were published of Munster's
    Cosmography. Besides these two books there were also the works of
    Michael Colyns, of Hans Weigel, of Amman, and of Vecellio himself,
    all of them well illustrated, some of the drawings in Vecellio
    being probably from the hand of Titian.

    Nor was it merely from books and treatises that they acquired their
    knowledge. The development of the habit of foreign travel, the
    increased commercial intercourse between countries, and the
    frequency of diplomatic missions, gave every nation many
    opportunities of studying the various forms of contemporary dress.
    After the departure from England, for instance, of the ambassadors
    from the Czar, the Sultan and the Prince of Morocco, Henry the
    Eighth and his friends gave several masques in the strange attire
    of their visitors. Later on London saw, perhaps too often, the
    sombre splendour of the Spanish Court, and to Elizabeth came envoys
    from all lands, whose dress, Shakespeare tells us, had an important
    influence on English costume.

    And the interest was not confined merely to classical dress, or the
    dress of foreign nations; there was also a good deal of research,
    amongst theatrical people especially, into the ancient costume of
    England itself: and when Shakespeare, in the prologue to one of
    his plays, expresses his regret at being unable to produce helmets
    of the period, he is speaking as an Elizabethan manager and not
    merely as an Elizabethan poet. At Cambridge, for instance, during
    his day, a play of Richard The Third was performed, in which the
    actors were attired in real dresses of the time, procured from the
    great collection of historical costume in the Tower, which was
    always open to the inspection of managers, and sometimes placed at
    their disposal. And I cannot help thinking that this performance
    must have been far more artistic, as regards costume, than
    Garrick's mounting of Shakespeare's own play on the subject, in
    which he himself appeared in a nondescript fancy dress, and
    everybody else in the costume of the time of George the Third,
    Richmond especially being much admired in the uniform of a young

    For what is the use to the stage of that archaeology which has so
    strangely terrified the critics, but that it, and it alone, can
    give us the architecture and apparel suitable to the time in which
    the action of the play passes? It enables us to see a Greek
    dressed like a Greek, and an Italian like an Italian; to enjoy the
    arcades of Venice and the balconies of Verona; and, if the play
    deals with any of the great eras in our country's history, to
    contemplate the age in its proper attire, and the king in his habit
    as he lived. And I wonder, by the way, what Lord Lytton would have
    said some time ago, at the Princess's Theatre, had the curtain
    risen on his father's Brutus reclining in a Queen Anne chair,
    attired in a flowing wig and a flowered dressing-gown, a costume
    which in the last century was considered peculiarly appropriate to
    an antique Roman! For in those halcyon days of the drama no
    archaeology troubled the stage, or distressed the critics, and our
    inartistic grandfathers sat peaceably in a stifling atmosphere of
    anachronisms, and beheld with the calm complacency of the age of
    prose an Iachimo in powder and patches, a Lear in lace ruffles, and
    a Lady Macbeth in a large crinoline. I can understand archaeology
    being attacked on the ground of its excessive realism, but to
    attack it as pedantic seems to be very much beside the mark.
    However, to attack it for any reason is foolish; one might just as
    well speak disrespectfully of the equator. For archaeology, being
    a science, is neither good nor bad, but a fact simply. Its value
    depends entirely on how it is used, and only an artist can use it.
    We look to the archaeologist for the materials, to the artist for
    the method.

    In designing the scenery and costumes for any of Shakespeare's
    plays, the first thing the artist has to settle is the best date
    for the drama. This should be determined by the general spirit of
    the play, more than by any actual historical references which may
    occur in it. Most Hamlets I have seen were placed far too early.
    Hamlet is essentially a scholar of the Revival of Learning; and if
    the allusion to the recent invasion of England by the Danes puts it
    back to the ninth century, the use of foils brings it down much
    later. Once, however, that the date has been fixed, then the
    archaeologist is to supply us with the facts which the artist is to
    convert into effects.

    It has been said that the anachronisms in the plays themselves show
    us that Shakespeare was indifferent to historical accuracy, and a
    great deal of capital has been made out of Hector's indiscreet
    quotation from Aristotle. Upon the other hand, the anachronisms
    are really few in number, and not very important, and, had
    Shakespeare's attention been drawn to them by a brother artist, he
    would probably have corrected them. For, though they can hardly be
    called blemishes, they are certainly not the great beauties of his
    work; or, at least, if they are, their anachronistic charm cannot
    be emphasised unless the play is accurately mounted according to
    its proper date. In looking at Shakespeare's plays as a whole,
    however, what is really remarkable is their extraordinary fidelity
    as regards his personages and his plots. Many of his dramatis
    personae are people who had actually existed, and some of them
    might have been seen in real life by a portion of his audience.
    Indeed the most violent attack that was made on Shakespeare in his
    time was for his supposed caricature of Lord Cobham. As for his
    plots, Shakespeare constantly draws them either from authentic
    history, or from the old ballads and traditions which served as
    history to the Elizabethan public, and which even now no scientific
    historian would dismiss as absolutely untrue. And not merely did
    he select fact instead of fancy as the basis of much of his
    imaginative work, but he always gives to each play the general
    character, the social atmosphere in a word, of the age in question.
    Stupidity he recognises as being one of the permanent
    characteristics of all European civilisations; so he sees no
    difference between a London mob of his own day and a Roman mob of
    pagan days, between a silly watchman in Messina and a silly Justice
    of the Peace in Windsor. But when he deals with higher characters,
    with those exceptions of each age which are so fine that they
    become its types, he gives them absolutely the stamp and seal of
    their time. Virgilia is one of those Roman wives on whose tomb was
    written 'Domi mansit, lanam fecit,' as surely as Juliet is the
    romantic girl of the Renaissance. He is even true to the
    characteristics of race. Hamlet has all the imagination and
    irresolution of the Northern nations, and the Princess Katharine is
    as entirely French as the heroine of Divorcons. Harry the Fifth is
    a pure Englishman, and Othello a true Moor.

    Again when Shakespeare treats of the history of England from the
    fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries, it is wonderful how careful
    he is to have his facts perfectly right--indeed he follows
    Holinshed with curious fidelity. The incessant wars between France
    and England are described with extraordinary accuracy down to the
    names of the besieged towns, the ports of landing and embarkation,
    the sites and dates of the battles, the titles of the commanders on
    each side, and the lists of the killed and wounded. And as regards
    the Civil Wars of the Roses we have many elaborate genealogies of
    the seven sons of Edward the Third; the claims of the rival Houses
    of York and Lancaster to the throne are discussed at length; and if
    the English aristocracy will not read Shakespeare as a poet, they
    should certainly read him as a sort of early Peerage. There is
    hardly a single title in the Upper House, with the exception of
    course of the uninteresting titles assumed by the law lords, which
    does not appear in Shakespeare along with many details of family
    history, creditable and discreditable. Indeed if it be really
    necessary that the School Board children should know all about the
    Wars of the Roses, they could learn their lessons just as well out
    of Shakespeare as out of shilling primers, and learn them, I need
    not say, far more pleasurably. Even in Shakespeare's own day this
    use of his plays was recognised. 'The historical plays teach
    history to those who cannot read it in the chronicles,' says
    Heywood in a tract about the stage, and yet I am sure that
    sixteenth-century chronicles were much more delightful reading than
    nineteenth-century primers are.

    Of course the aesthetic value of Shakespeare's plays does not, in
    the slightest degree, depend on their facts, but on their Truth,
    and Truth is independent of facts always, inventing or selecting
    them at pleasure. But still Shakespeare's use of facts is a most
    interesting part of his method of work, and shows us his attitude
    towards the stage, and his relations to the great art of illusion.
    Indeed he would have been very much surprised at any one classing
    his plays with 'fairy tales,' as Lord Lytton does; for one of his
    aims was to create for England a national historical drama, which
    should deal with incidents with which the public was well
    acquainted, and with heroes that lived in the memory of a people.
    Patriotism, I need hardly say, is not a necessary quality of art;
    but it means, for the artist, the substitution of a universal for
    an individual feeling, and for the public the presentation of a
    work of art in a most attractive and popular form. It is worth
    noticing that Shakespeare's first and last successes were both
    historical plays.

    It may be asked, what has this to do with Shakespeare's attitude
    towards costume? I answer that a dramatist who laid such stress on
    historical accuracy of fact would have welcomed historical accuracy
    of costume as a most important adjunct to his illusionist method.
    And I have no hesitation in saying that he did so. The reference
    to helmets of the period in the prologue to Henry the Fifth may be
    considered fanciful, though Shakespeare must have often seen

    The very casque
    That did affright the air at Agincourt,

    where it still hangs in the dusky gloom of Westminster Abbey, along
    with the saddle of that 'imp of fame,' and the dinted shield with
    its torn blue velvet lining and its tarnished lilies of gold; but
    the use of military tabards in Henry the Sixth is a bit of pure
    archaeology, as they were not worn in the sixteenth century; and
    the King's own tabard, I may mention, was still suspended over his
    tomb in St. George's Chapel, Windsor, in Shakespeare's day. For,
    up to the time of the unfortunate triumph of the Philistines in
    1645, the chapels and cathedrals of England were the great national
    museums of archaeology, and in them were kept the armour and attire
    of the heroes of English history. A good deal was of course
    preserved in the Tower, and even in Elizabeth's day tourists were
    brought there to see such curious relics of the past as Charles
    Brandon's huge lance, which is still, I believe, the admiration of
    our country visitors; but the cathedrals and churches were, as a
    rule, selected as the most suitable shrines for the reception of
    the historic antiquities. Canterbury can still show us the helm of
    the Black Prince, Westminster the robes of our kings, and in old
    St. Paul's the very banner that had waved on Bosworth field was
    hung up by Richmond himself.

    In fact, everywhere that Shakespeare turned in London, he saw the
    apparel and appurtenances of past ages, and it is impossible to
    doubt that he made use of his opportunities. The employment of
    lance and shield, for instance, in actual warfare, which is so
    frequent in his plays, is drawn from archaeology, and not from the
    military accoutrements of his day; and his general use of armour in
    battle was not a characteristic of his age, a time when it was
    rapidly disappearing before firearms. Again, the crest on
    Warwick's helmet, of which such a point is made in Henry the Sixth,
    is absolutely correct in a fifteenth-century play when crests were
    generally worn, but would not have been so in a play of
    Shakespeare's own time, when feathers and plumes had taken their
    place--a fashion which, as he tells us in Henry the Eighth, was
    borrowed from France. For the historical plays, then, we may be
    sure that archaeology was employed, and as for the others I feel
    certain that it was the case also. The appearance of Jupiter on
    his eagle, thunderbolt in hand, of Juno with her peacocks, and of
    Iris with her many-coloured bow; the Amazon masque and the masque
    of the Five Worthies, may all be regarded as archaeological; and
    the vision which Posthumus sees in prison of Sicilius Leonatus--'an
    old man, attired like a warrior, leading an ancient matron'--is
    clearly so. Of the 'Athenian dress' by which Lysander is
    distinguished from Oberon I have already spoken; but one of the
    most marked instances is in the case of the dress of Coriolanus,
    for which Shakespeare goes directly to Plutarch. That historian,
    in his Life of the great Roman, tells us of the oak-wreath with
    which Caius Marcius was crowned, and of the curious kind of dress
    in which, according to ancient fashion, he had to canvass his
    electors; and on both of these points he enters into long
    disquisitions, investigating the origin and meaning of the old
    customs. Shakespeare, in the spirit of the true artist, accepts
    the facts of the antiquarian and converts them into dramatic and
    picturesque effects: indeed the gown of humility, the 'woolvish
    gown,' as Shakespeare calls it, is the central note of the play.
    There are other cases I might quote, but this one is quite
    sufficient for my purpose; and it is evident from it at any rate
    that, in mounting a play in the accurate costume of the time,
    according to the best authorities, we are carrying out
    Shakespeare's own wishes and method.

    Even if it were not so, there is no more reason that we should
    continue any imperfections which may be supposed to have
    characterised Shakespeare's stage mounting than that we should have
    Juliet played by a young man, or give up the advantage of
    changeable scenery. A great work of dramatic art should not merely
    be made expressive of modern passion by means of the actor, but
    should be presented to us in the form most suitable to the modern
    spirit. Racine produced his Roman plays in Louis Quatorze dress on
    a stage crowded with spectators; but we require different
    conditions for the enjoyment of his art. Perfect accuracy of
    detail, for the sake of perfect illusion, is necessary for us.
    What we have to see is that the details are not allowed to usurp
    the principal place. They must be subordinate always to the
    general motive of the play. But subordination in art does not mean
    disregard of truth; it means conversion of fact into effect, and
    assigning to each detail its proper relative value

    'Les petits details d'histoire et de vie domestique (says Hugo)
    doivent etre scrupuleusement etudies et reproduits par le poete,
    mais uniquement comme des moyens d'accroitre la realite de
    l'ensemble, et de faire penetrer jusque dans les coins les plus
    obscurs de l'oeuvre cette vie generale et puissante au milieu de
    laquelle les personnages sont plus vrais, et les catastrophes, par
    consequeut, plus poignantes. Tout doit etre subordonne a ce but.
    L'Homme sur le premier plan, le reste au fond.'

    This passage is interesting as coming from the first great French
    dramatist who employed archaeology on the stage, and whose plays,
    though absolutely correct in detail, are known to all for their
    passion, not for their pedantry--for their life, not for their
    learning. It is true that he has made certain concessions in the
    case of the employment of curious or strange expressions. Ruy Blas
    talks of M, de Priego as 'sujet du roi' instead of 'noble du roi,'
    and Angelo Malipieri speaks of 'la croix rouge' instead of 'la
    croix de gueules.' But they are concessions made to the public, or
    rather to a section of it. 'J'en offre ici toute mes excuses aux
    spectateurs intelligents,' he says in a note to one of the plays;
    'esperons qu'un jour un seigneur venitien pourra dire tout
    bonnement sans peril son blason sur le theatre. C'est un progres
    qui viendra.' And, though the description of the crest is not
    couched in accurate language, still the crest itself was accurately
    right. It may, of course, be said that the public do not notice
    these things; upon the other hand, it should be remembered that Art
    has no other aim but her own perfection, and proceeds simply by her
    own laws, and that the play which Hamlet describes as being caviare
    to the general is a play he highly praises. Besides, in England,
    at any rate, the public have undergone a transformation; there is
    far more appreciation of beauty now than there was a few years ago;
    and though they may not be familiar with the authorities and
    archaeological data for what is shown to them, still they enjoy
    whatever loveliness they look at. And this is the important thing.
    Better to take pleasure in a rose than to put its root under a
    microscope. Archaeological accuracy is merely a condition of
    illusionist stage effect; it is not its quality. And Lord Lytton's
    proposal that the dresses should merely be beautiful without being
    accurate is founded on a misapprehension of the nature of costume,
    and of its value on the stage. This value is twofold, picturesque
    and dramatic; the former depends on the colour of the dress, the
    latter on its design and character. But so interwoven are the two
    that, whenever in our own day historical accuracy has been
    disregarded, and the various dresses in a play taken from different
    ages, the result has been that the stage has been turned into that
    chaos of costume, that caricature of the centuries, the Fancy Dress
    Ball, to the entire ruin of all dramatic and picturesque effect.
    For the dresses of one age do not artistically harmonise with the
    dresses of another: and, as far as dramatic value goes, to confuse
    the costumes is to confuse the play. Costume is a growth, an
    evolution, and a most important, perhaps the most important, sign
    of the manners, customs and mode of life of each century. The
    Puritan dislike of colour, adornment and grace in apparel was part
    of the great revolt of the middle classes against Beauty in the
    seventeenth century. A historian who disregarded it would give us
    a most inaccurate picture of the time, and a dramatist who did not
    avail himself of it would miss a most vital element in producing an
    illusionist effect. The effeminacy of dress that characterised the
    reign of Richard the Second was a constant theme of contemporary
    authors. Shakespeare, writing two hundred years after, makes the
    king's fondness for gay apparel and foreign fashions a point in the
    play, from John of Gaunt's reproaches down to Richard's own speech
    in the third act on his deposition from the throne. And that
    Shakespeare examined Richard's tomb in Westminster Abbey seems to
    me certain from York's speech:-

    See, see, King Richard doth himself appear
    As doth the blushing discontented sun
    From out the fiery portal of the east,
    When he perceives the envious clouds are bent
    To dim his glory.

    For we can still discern on the King's robe his favourite badge--
    the sun issuing from a cloud. In fact, in every age the social
    conditions are so exemplified in costume, that to produce a
    sixteenth-century play in fourteenth-century attire, or vice versa,
    would make the performance seem unreal because untrue. And,
    valuable as beauty of effect on the stage is, the highest beauty is
    not merely comparable with absolute accuracy of detail, but really
    dependent on it. To invent, an entirely new costume is almost
    impossible except in burlesque or extravaganza, and as for
    combining the dress of different centuries into one, the experiment
    would be dangerous, and Shakespeare's opinion of the artistic value
    of such a medley may be gathered from his incessant satire of the
    Elizabethan dandies for imagining that they were well dressed
    because they got their doublets in Italy, their hats in Germany,
    and their hose in France. And it should be noted that the most
    lovely scenes that have been produced on our stage have been those
    that have been characterised by perfect accuracy, such as Mr. and
    Mrs. Bancroft's eighteenth-century revivals at the Haymarket, Mr.
    Irying's superb production of Much Ado About Nothing, and Mr,
    Barrett's Claudian. Besides, and this is perhaps the most complete
    answer to Lord Lytton's theory, it must be remembered that neither
    in costume nor in dialogue is beauty the dramatist's primary aim at
    all. The true dramatist aims first at what is characteristic, and
    no more desires that all his personages should be beautifully
    attired than he desires that they should all have beautiful natures
    or speak beautiful English. The true dramatist, in fact, shows us
    life under the conditions of art, not art in the form of life. The
    Greek dress was the loveliest dress the world has ever seen, and
    the English dress of the last century one of the most monstrous;
    yet we cannot costume a play by Sheridan as we would costume a play
    by Sophokles. For, as Polonius says in his excellent lecture, a
    lecture to which I am glad to have the opportunity of expressing my
    obligations, one of the first qualities of apparel is its
    expressiveness. And the affected style of dress in the last
    century was the natural characteristic of a society of affected
    manners and affected conversation--a characteristic which the
    realistic dramatist will highly value down to the smallest detail
    of accuracy, and the materials for which he can get only from

    But it is not enough that a dress should be accurate; it must be
    also appropriate to the stature and appearance of the actor, and to
    his supposed condition, as well as to his necessary action in the
    play. In Mr. Hare's production of As You Like It at the St.
    James's Theatre, for instance, the whole point of Orlando's
    complaint that he is brought up like a peasant, and not like a
    gentleman, was spoiled by the gorgeousness of his dress, and the
    splendid apparel worn by the banished Duke and his friends was
    quite out of place. Mr. Lewis Wingfield's explanation that the
    sumptuary laws of the period necessitated their doing so, is, I am
    afraid, hardly sufficient. Outlaws, lurking in a forest and living
    by the chase, are not very likely to care much about ordinances of
    dress. They were probably attired like Robin Hood's men, to whom,
    indeed, they are compared in the course of the play. And that
    their dress was not that of wealthy noblemen may be seen by
    Orlando's words when he breaks in upon them. He mistakes them for
    robbers, and is amazed to find that they answer him in courteous
    and gentle terms. Lady Archibald Campbell's production, under Mr.
    E. W. Godwin's direction, of the same play in Coombe Wood was, as
    regards mounting, far more artistic. At least it seemed so to me.
    The Duke and his companions were dressed in serge tunics, leathern
    jerkins, high boots and gauntlets, and wore bycocket hats and
    hoods. And as they were playing in a real forest, they found, I am
    sure, their dresses extremely convenient. To every character in
    the play was given a perfectly appropriate attire, and the brown
    and green of their costumes harmonised exquisitely with the ferns
    through which they wandered, the trees beneath which they lay, and
    the lovely English landscape that surrounded the Pastoral Players.
    The perfect naturalness of the scene was due to the absolute
    accuracy and appropriateness of everything that was worn. Nor
    could archaeology have been put to a severer test, or come out of
    it more triumphantly. The whole production showed once for all
    that, unless a dress is archaeologically correct, and artistically
    appropriate, it always looks unreal, unnatural, and theatrical in
    the sense of artificial.

    Nor, again, is it enough that there should be accurate and
    appropriate costumes of beautiful colours; there must be also
    beauty of colour on the stage as a whole, and as long as the
    background is painted by one artist, and the foreground figures
    independently designed by another, there is the danger of a want of
    harmony in the scene as a picture. For each scene the colour-
    scheme should be settled as absolutely as for the decoration of a
    room, and the textures which it is proposed to use should be mixed
    and re-mixed in every possible combination, and what is discordant
    removed. Then, as regards the particular kinds of colours, the
    stage is often too glaring, partly through the excessive use of
    hot, violent reds, and partly through the costumes looking too new.
    Shabbiness, which in modern life is merely the tendency of the
    lower orders towards tone, is not without its artistic value, and
    modern colours are often much improved by being a little faded.
    Blue also is too frequently used: it is not merely a dangerous
    colour to wear by gaslight, but it is really difficult in England
    to get a thoroughly good blue. The fine Chinese blue, which we all
    so much admire, takes two years to dye, and the English public will
    not wait so long for a colour. Peacock blue, of course, has been
    employed on the stage, notably at the Lyceum, with great advantage;
    but all attempts at a good light blue, or good dark blue, which I
    have seen have been failures. The value of black is hardly
    appreciated; it was used effectively by Mr. Irving in Hamlet as the
    central note of a composition, but as a tone-giving neutral its
    importance is not recognised. And this is curious, considering the
    general colour of the dress of a century in which, as Baudelaire
    says, 'Nous celebrons tous quelque enterrement.' The archaeologist
    of the future will probably point to this age as the time when the
    beauty of black was understood; but I hardly think that, as regards
    stage-mounting or house decoration, it really is. Its decorative
    value is, of course, the same as that of white or gold; it can
    separate and harmonise colours. In modern plays the black frock-
    coat of the hero becomes important in itself, and should be given a
    suitable background. But it rarely is. Indeed the only good
    background for a play in modern dress which I have ever seen was
    the dark grey and cream-white scene of the first act of the
    Princesse Georges in Mrs. Langtry's production. As a rule, the
    hero is smothered in bric-a-brac and palm-trees, lost in the gilded
    abyss of Louis Quatorze furniture, or reduced to a mere midge in
    the midst of marqueterie; whereas the background should always be
    kept as a background, and colour subordinated to effect. This, of
    course, can only be done when there is one single mind directing
    the whole production. The facts of art are diverse, but the
    essence of artistic effect is unity. Monarchy, Anarchy, and
    Republicanism may contend for the government of nations; but a
    theatre should be in the power of a cultured despot. There may be
    division of labour, but there must be no division of mind. Whoever
    understands the costume of an age understands of necessity its
    architecture and its surroundings also, and it is easy to see from
    the chairs of a century whether it was a century of crinolines or
    not. In fact, in art there is no specialism, and a really artistic
    production should bear the impress of one master, and one master
    only, who not merely should design and arrange everything, but
    should have complete control over the way in which each dress is to
    be worn.

    Mademoiselle Mars, in the first production of Hernani, absolutely
    refused to call her lover 'Mon Lion!' unless she was allowed to
    wear a little fashionable toque then much in vogue on the
    Boulevards; and many young ladies on our own stage insist to the
    present day on wearing stiff starched petticoats under Greek
    dresses, to the entire ruin of all delicacy of line and fold; but
    these wicked things should not be allowed. And there should be far
    more dress rehearsals than there are now. Actors such as Mr.
    Forbes-Robertson, Mr. Conway, Mr. George Alexander, and others, not
    to mention older artists, can move with ease and elegance in the
    attire of any century; but there are not a few who seem dreadfully
    embarrassed about their hands if they have no side pockets, and who
    always wear their dresses as if they were costumes. Costumes, of
    course, they are to the designer; but dresses they should be to
    those that wear them. And it is time that a stop should be put to
    the idea, very prevalent on the stage, that the Greeks and Romans
    always went about bareheaded in the open air--a mistake the
    Elizabethan managers did not fall into, for they gave hoods as well
    as gowns to their Roman senators.

    More dress rehearsals would also be of value in explaining to the
    actors that there is a form of gesture and movement that is not
    merely appropriate to each style of dress, but really conditioned
    by it. The extravagant use of the arms in the eighteenth century,
    for instance, was the necessary result of the large hoop, and the
    solemn dignity of Burleigh owed as much to his ruff as to his
    reason. Besides until an actor is at home in his dress, he is not
    at home in his part.

    Of the value of beautiful costume in creating an artistic
    temperament in the audience, and producing that joy in beauty for
    beauty's sake without which the great masterpieces of art can never
    be understood, I will not here speak; though it is worth while to
    notice how Shakespeare appreciated that side of the question in the
    production of his tragedies, acting them always by artificial
    light, and in a theatre hung with black; but what I have tried to
    point out is that archaeology is not a pedantic method, but a
    method of artistic illusion, and that costume is a means of
    displaying character without description, and of producing dramatic
    situations and dramatic effects. And I think it is a pity that so
    many critics should have set themselves to attack one of the most
    important movements on the modern stage before that movement has at
    all reached its proper perfection. That it will do so, however, I
    feel as certain as that we shall require from our dramatic critics
    in the future higher qualification than that they can remember
    Macready or have seen Benjamin Webster; we shall require of them,
    indeed, that they cultivate a sense of beauty. Pour etre plus
    difficile, la tache n'en est que plus glorieuse. And if they will
    not encourage, at least they must not oppose, a movement of which
    Shakespeare of all dramatists would have most approved, for it has
    the illusion of truth for its method, and the illusion of beauty
    for its result. Not that I agree with everything that I have said
    in this essay. There is much with which I entirely disagree. The
    essay simply represents an artistic standpoint, and in aesthetic
    criticism attitude is everything. For in art there is no such
    thing as a universal truth. A Truth in art is that whose
    contradictory is also true. And just as it is only in art-
    criticism, and through it, that we can apprehend the Platonic
    theory of ideas, so it is only in art-criticism, and through it,
    that we can realise Hegel's system of contraries. The truths of
    metaphysics are the truths of masks.
    If you're writing a The Truth Of Masks -a Note On Illusion essay and need some advice, post your Oscar Wilde essay question on our Facebook page where fellow bookworms are always glad to help!

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