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Using your head

Shakespeare’s Restless World is currently being broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Today’s episode City Life, Urban Strife examines an apprentice’s cap from 400 years ago.


James Shapiro, Professor of English, Columbia University

When I think about how ubiquitous hats were in Shakespeare’s day it makes me think of going to Yankee Stadium in the Bronx and seeing everybody wearing a baseball cap or watching Mad Men and seeing so many working men wearing fedoras back in 1960.

We no longer live in a culture where everybody wears caps or hats – and hats no longer signify the same things. Shakespeare did live in such a time and he understood exactly what it meant. On stage, that moment in several of his plays when actors all throw their caps in the air would have meant something quite specific to theatre-goers. The survival of this cap speaks to things from the Elizabethan era that have almost been lost to us.

Throwing caps in the air could be a sign of celebration, it could be an expression of joy, or it could also be an expression of let’s throw the social order over.

In early modern culture, almost everybody from the highest to the lowest levels of society lived and worked in somebody else’s household in one capacity or another. An apprentice was somebody who was learning a trade and to become a master at that trade you had to undergo an apprenticeship. So in terms of what we think of as social class, the early modern ‘apprentice’ is a more fluid term than we might imagine, not the 19th century Dickensian image that it typically evokes.

Those who wore the cap in Elizabethan England were not just apprentices. There was a law, instituted in 1571, that every male aged six and above who was not a gentleman had to wear a wool cap—an effective way for the government to support the crucial wool trade. These caps had to be worn by every male on Sundays and on holidays. They didn’t have to wear them seven days a week but it was the law that you had to wear a woollen cap quite like this one.

The Elizabethan government had an investment in what people wore. These sumptuary laws would ordinarily tell you what you should not wear. In 1597, for example, Queen Elizabeth issued a proclamation ordering people of lower social orders not to wear various kinds of clothing or trim limited to those above their social station. This was a way of visibly creating, or reinforcing, social divisions. Most sumptuary laws were meant to ensure that when you walked down the street you knew who was your social superior and who your inferior.

In specifying what you should wear, instead of what you shouldn’t or couldn’t, the ‘statute cap’ is an exception to that. The cap is the only sumptuary law we know in which the government said you are going to wear this on Sundays and holidays – and obviously not everybody liked that.

In fact, Shakespeare’s own uncle flouted the law.

In October 1583 (when Shakespeare was still living in Stratford and was probably 19 years old or so) his uncle Henry, who lived nearby in Snetterfield, was fined eight pence for refusing to wear his cap to church, according to the form of the statute. When uncle Henry refused to pay up he was fined him another two pence.

Henry was a farmer and this is a time in the Midlands when enclosure was on the rise. I suspect that he was not the only farmer who deeply resented rich land owners enclosing fields and turning fields into places for sheep rather then for grain or workers to earn a living. So I don’t think his refusal to wear a cap was a fashion statement so much as a political statement that not everybody had signed onto these statute caps.

Shakespeare’s Restless World is on BBC Radio 4
from 16 April to 11 May, at 13.45 and 19.45 weekdays.

Listen to today’s programme City Life, Urban Strife

Filed under: Shakespeare's Restless World, What's on, ,

One Response - Comments are closed.

  1. Such an illuminating, stimulating and eye-opening series. Thank you. Being an ardent advocate of hats, I found this programme particularly gripping. Long live the hat.

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