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Shakespeare has, of course, always been a staple of theatrical performance - about thirty percent of plays performed are his work or a derivation. 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 (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 hence can sometimes put students off Shakespeare for life.


As most people know, female actors were not allowed in Shakespeare's time, so female parts were usually played by boys. On the other hand, if we are to believe the events of Oscar-winning film 'Shakespeare in Love', females disguised themselves as males to be able to join the cast, and act as female! Also some of the plays have 'females' disguising themselves as males (Rosalind - All's Well..; Viola - Twelfth Night), so there are some opportunities for cross-dressing.

A list of Shakespeare's plays and other works can be found here.

A Selection of Costumes & Characters

Subject to any novel settings and interpretations, many Shakespeare plays can make do with variations on the gowns, and doublet and hose, of Medieval/Tudor times (or the chiton or toga for plays set in Ancient Greek or Roman Times, although note Cymbeline is set in Ancient Britain for part of its action).

There are some interesting costuming concepts in the plays - Time the Chorus/Narrator (Winter's Tale); Wall and Moonshine (Midsummer Night's Dream); Hermoine, the living statue, and a troupe of dancing half-goat, half-man, Satyrs (Winter's Tale) and, of course, the Three Witches of Macbeth.


Antony (Antony and Cleopatra):- The Roman military look has always been popular, and the Gladiator films have renewed interest and hirings of this particular costume style.

Caliban, a savage and deformed Slave (The Tempest):- 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 a robot!

Cleopatra (Antony and Cleopatra):- One of the best strongest female parts in English drama. The 1963 Elizabeth Taylor film interpretation, overshadows the image painted by Shakespeare's words, but there are numerous other reference sources, and this remains a popular costume choice


Clown/Fool (Clown - All's Well..; Measure For Measure; Twelfth Night . Touchstone - As You Like It; Fool - King Lear; Costard- Love's Labour's Lost):- Most Shakespearian '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 possible, but it all depends on the play in question.

Fairies : Cobweb, Moth, Peasblossom & Mustard Seed (Midsummer ND):- Supernatural cohorts who attend the transformed Bottom, whilst Titania is in love with him. 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. 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.

Falstaff (Henry IV, Merry Wives):- 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 - the 'Merry Wives' run rings around him in his attempts at amorous deceit.

Friar (Romeo & Juliet):- Standard cleric with a sideline in interesting potions. A friar/monk's costume should suffice.

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. This notwithstanding, most costumes of Henry will take his portrait by Holbein as their model.

Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons (MidsummerND):- Amazons are usually female warriors but not so here - just a Grecian bride-to-be who appears only at the start and latter stages of the play. Usually this enables the actress to double as Titania, Queen of Fairies, so one costuming approach is a bridal outfit attempting to hide a fairy costume!

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Julius Caesar (Julius Caesar):- The play relates more to Julius in Rome than on the battlefield, so the toga and laurels approach to costume is probably more appropriate (and recognisable), than the military armour option.

Nurse (Romeo & Juliet):- Nurse-maid/nanny and close confidante of Juliet with her problem of preferring Romeo to Paris.

Oberon & Titania, King & Queen of the Fairies (MidsummerND):- 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, using his magic to befuddle others on the island and protect his daughter Miranda. A Gandalf-style wizard may be preferable as a role model - see Peter Greenaway's film 'Prospero's Books' for further reference.

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Puck (MidsummerND):- Also known as Robin Goodfellow, he's a cut above the standard fairy in Titania's court and allies himself with Oberon. He 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 Shakespearian event.

Rosalind (As You Like It):- Daughter of a banished Duke, Rosalind disguises herself as a boy, Ganymede, in order to avoid getting attacked in the Forest Arden. Noted as having a curtle-axe and a boar spear, the costume would seem to combine elements of a Principal Boy and Robin Hood.

Shepherdess (Mopsa & Dorcas - The Winter's Tale; Phebe and 'Aliena' - As You Like It):- Rustic representatives, though probably not in cute Bo-Peep mode - 'Aliena' is the disguised Celia, Rosalind's companion, and 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.

Tamora, Queen of the Goths (Titus Andronicus):- Despite a recent cinema version, Titus is not often performed, having an unusually high level of gruesome acts of tit-for-tat revenge. Tamora is a barbarian warrior queen captured by Titus and brought back to Rome as a trophy. A costume based on Boadicia or Xena, Warrior Princess, 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.

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