Shakespearian Character costume Ideas
A Shakespearian fancy dress theme is more popular around April 23rd (as well as being St, Georges Day), others will commemorate the date as marking the birth and death of one of the World’s great playwrights. He wrote thirty-seven plays in all, although about half of them are rarely performed (e.g. Henry VI and Henry VIII), and the practicality of performing several others is limited either by the subject matter (Violence and cannibalism in Titus Andronicus), or the number of persons required for the cast: A modern play usually works with a cast of six to eight, whereas many of Shakespeare’s works are looking for fifteen to twenty – he likes his fairies, rude mechanicals and extras! This latter point explains why his plays are often done by schools, and some students are then put off Shakespeare for life!
That said, a core of plays remain popular and in frequent performance. The success of films such as ‘Shakespeare in Love‘ and the all-star ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ featuring Michelle Pfeiffer, Anna Friel and Calista Flockhart, plus the recent production of Hamlet featuring David Tennant and Patrick Stewart, (given a wider audience through being broadcast on TV), continue to maintain interest in the Bard and his works.
As most people know, female actors were not allowed in Shakespeare’s time, so female roles were usually played by boys. On the other hand, if we are to believe the events depicted in ‘Shakespeare in Love’, females disguised themselves as males to be able to join the cast and act as females! Also some of the plays have ‘females’ disguising themselves as males (Rosalind – All’s Well..; Viola – Twelfth Night), so there are opportunities for cross-dressing in both directions.
At the end of our Character Suggestions, we also feature a list of Shakespeares plays.
Antony (Antony and Cleopatra):-.A military man manipulated by Cleopatra. Look at Roman male costumes including warriors and togas
Caliban, a savage and deformed Slave (The Tempest):- Caliban is a wild man (or sometimes half man, half beast). It is said he is the son of the witch Sycorax, (a native of the island upon which Prospero and his family are marooned) and a devil. The name is thought to play on the word Cannibal, of Spanish derivation. With such a character description, the costume is open to wide interpretation, from the Quasimodo-style outcast, to something more creature-based. For ‘Forbidden Planet’, the ‘Caliban’ role was played by Robbie the Robot, later seen in the TV series Lost in Space!
Cleopatra (Antony and Cleopatra):- Shakespeares Cleopatra is manipulative beguiling Antony to have him declare he and she rulers of Egypt (and a third of the Roman Empire), abandoning him to defeat and pretending to commit suicide. When she does kill herself, it is to avoid being paraded in Rome, as a trophy of war. One of the best strongest female parts in English drama. The 1963 Elizabeth Taylor film interpretation overshadows the image painted by Shakespeare’s words. We stock some lovely Egyptian accessories that you could use to make up your own costume, and we also have some lovely Cleopatra style costumes
Clown/Fool / Jester – All’s Well that ends well; Measure For Measure; Twelfth Night; Touchstone – As You Like It.Fool – King Lear; Costard- Love’s Labour’s Lost. Most Shakespearean ‘clowns’ are not a bundle of laughs (he gets more humour from drunkards and racial stereotypes), but they are usually servants intended to bring light relief (or naive wisdom) in the heat of the main plot.The majority of his non-historical plays have at least one, as Fools (or ‘Patches’, from the Italian for fool), were a part of Elizabethan life.The cap & bells jester approach is the most obvious, but it all depends on the play in question.
Fairies – Cobweb, Moth, Peasblossom & Mustard Seed (Midsummer ND) Also in Merry Wives of Windsor. Supernatural cohorts who attend the transformed Bottom, whilst Titania is in love with him. Whatever angle is taken may have to match the concepts for Oberon & Titania. For alternatives, note that the Merry Wives of Windsor also disguise themselves as fairies in the latter stages of that play. To get away from the standard fancy-frock and fairy-wing approach, a number of alternative costume concepts can be tried – Superheroes (Cobweb as Spiderman/woman, Peas-blossom as Poison Ivy, etc.),
or Nymph-like Spirits in earthy costume and body colour.
Falstaff (Henry IV Parts 1 & 2, Merry Wives of Windsor):- One of the few characters to appear in more than one play, Sir John Falstaff is often portrayed as a portly gent, frequenter of taverns and a bit of a buffoon. In Henry IV he is initially a bad influence on young Prince Hal, who in Part 2 rejects him to take a more responsible role. In the other play, the ‘Merry Wives’ run rings around him in his attempts at amorous deceit. Although the jolly wobbly is a popular costume-style, the Sir John Falstaff outfit has been strangely overlooked. A stereotypical tubby barfly, this at least is one costume where a plus-size historical outfit can be most useful.
Friar (Monk costume) (Romeo & Juliet):- Aside from being a man of the cloth, the Friar is also something of a medicine man, concocting the potion with which to simulate Juliets death-like state.Standard cleric with a sideline in interesting potions. A friar/monk’s costume should suffice, along with accessories of a few small bottles of interesting liquids
Henry VIII (Henry VIII)The play is not often performed and covers the period of Henry’s life involving his divorce of Queen Katherine, his subsequent marriage to Anne Bullen (rather than Boleyn) and the birth of Elizabeth. Notwithstanding the setting of the play in the early part of Henrys reign (when, by all accounts, he was a skilled athlete and horseman), most costumes for Henry will take his portrait by Holbein as their model.
Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons (MSND) Amazons are usually female warriors but not so here – just a bride-to-be who appears only in the early scenes and latter stages of the play (She is also an established character in Greek mythology). In most productions, the actress playing Hippolyta usually doubles as Titania, Queen of Fairies, so one costuming approach is a bridal outfit attempting to hide a fairy costume (or vice versa for Titania (below)!
Julius Caesar (Julius Caesar) The play relates more to Julius Caesar in Rome, than on the battlefield.The toga and laurels approach to costume is probably more appropriate (and recognisable), than the military armour option, but other possibilities are discussed below in the Character of the Month. Nurse (Romeo & Juliet)
Nurse-maid/nanny and close confidante of Juliet with her problem of preferring Romeo to Paris. In this context the nurse is usually portrayed in the long dress, long apron and hat (similar to a housemaid) of the period in question.
Oberon & Titania, King & Queen of the Fairies (MSND) Oberon and Titania are the supernatural counterparts to King Theseus of Athens and his intended, Hyppolyta. The play centres around their dispute over a foundling child. The opportunity for creativity is boundless – Peter Brook had them in hammocks, they were down and dirty in a mud-bath at the National Theatre, and a supernatural/sci-fi approach allows for spectacular effects with metallic and U-V make-up.
Prospero (Tempest) Deposed Duke of Milan stranded on an island following a shipwreck, and also a bit of a sorcerer. He uses his magic to befuddle others on the island and protect his daughter Miranda. A Gandalf-style wizard costume may be preferable as a role model – see Peter Greenaway’s film ‘Prospero’s Books’ for further reference.
Puck (MSND):- Also known as Robin Goodfellow, he’s a cut above the standard fairy in Titania’s court and allies himself with Oberon. Puck has a mischievous-cum-cruel aspect and thus is often modelled on an imp or little devil, rather than a fairy.
Romeo & Juliet (Romeo & Juliet):- The star-crossed lovers whose tale has been told in many ways and in many types of costumes. Nonetheless, an ideal couple for a Shakespearean event.These star-crossed lovers have been portrayed over the years in various ways Their portrayal in Baz Luhrmanns LA-set Romeo + Juliet (him in armour, her in angel wings at her parents fancy-dress party) can prove a popular alternative to the Medieval costume period style.
Rosalind (As You Like It) Daughter of a banished Duke, Rosalind flees to the Forest of Arden and disguises herself as a boy, Ganymede, in order to avoid getting attacked. The costume description of Rosalind/Ganymede notes a curtle-axe and a boar spear, so the outfit would seem to combine elements of a Principal Boy and Robin Hood.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Hamlet et al.) Ostensibly a couple of minor characters in Hamlet: Old school friends-cum-courtiers and turncoats in the pay of King Claudius. However the pair have lived in other guises in a 1870s comedy by WS Gilbert and in Tom Stoppards 1966 play. As minor characters, they can sport the classic courtiers doublet and hose but other double-act outfits may be possible.
Shepherdess (Mopsa & Dorcas – The Winter’s Tale; Phebe and ‘Aliena’ – As You Like It):- ‘Aliena’ is the disguised Celia, Rosalind’s companion, and she chooses a shepherdess so as not to be set upon in Arden Forest – so the pastorals must be a rough bunch in that particular neck of those woods. These are rustic representatives, though in this case the costumes are probably not in cute Bo-Peep mode although of course in a modern dress production anything is possible.
Tamora, Queen of the Goths (Titus Andronicus):Tamora is a barbarian warrior queen captured by Titus and brought back to Rome as a trophy. Despite a cinema version, Titus is not often performed, having an unusually high level of gruesome acts of tit-for-tat revenge. A costume based on Boadicia or Xena with shades of the more modern Siouxsie Sioux is possible. Also following ‘modern’ trends, this character offers an opportunity for woad/tattoo body art if desired.
Witches (Macbeth, the Tempest (unseen character mother of Caliban) – although not authentic to the era you could wear a modern day witch costume.
Shakespeare’s plays (In alphabetical order)
All’s Well That End’s Well
Antony & Cleopatra
As You Like It
Comedy of Errors,
Prince of Denmark
King Henry IV, Parts 1 & 2
King Henry V
King Henry VI, Parts 1, 2 & 3
King Henry VIII
Life and Death of King Richard II
Life and Death of King Richard III
Love’s Labour’s Lost
Measure For Measure
Merchant of Venice, The
Merry Wives of Windsor
Midsummer Night’s Dream, A
Much Ado About Nothing
The Moor of Venice
Prince of Tyre
Romeo & Juliet
Taming of the Shrew, The
Timon of Athens
Troilus and Cressida
Twelfth Night or What You Will
Two Gentlemen of Verona
Winters Tale, The