With their exquisite craftsmanship and intricate tailoring, several of the suits and accessories on display in a new exhibit at the Folger Shakespeare Library encapsulate 16th- and 17th-century high fashion.
But the suits, gloves and various other pieces are not your typical wardrobe staples — these high society must-haves are actually steel-plated armor.
“You didn’t want to be caught dead on the battlefield in last year’s armor,” explained Jeffrey Forgeng, the curator of exhibit.
“Now Thrive the Armorers: Arms and Armor in Shakespeare” showcases more than 40 pieces of arms and armor from the Higgins Armory Museum in Worcester, Mass., and 34 books, manuscripts and works of art from the Folger collection.
The exhibit is more than just a nod to the top trends of William Shakespeare’s times. Beginning with “Richard II,” it traces how the changing role of armor and weaponry in society was depicted in eight of the bard’s plays.
The exhibit highlights the underlying symbolism of the weapons Shakespeare’s characters wield, said Forgeng, who is also the curator at the Higgins museum. For example, while the swords used to stage Tybalt and Benvolio’s duel in “Romeo and Juliet” might seem to the untrained eye to be simple props, the Italian-made rapiers can actually be interpreted as a nod to growing public concern that these foreign weapons were the culprit behind a rise in violence. The exhibit also shows the extent to which plays such as “Othello” and “Hamlet” capture fundamental shifts in the nature of military tactics and thinking during the era.