Stephanie Appleton is studying for her PhD in History at University of Birmingham’s Shakespeare Institute.
William Shakespeare’s father, John, was a glover and whittawer [leather worker] by trade. Some biographers have speculated that the young William might have helped his father in his workshop, and visitors to the Birthplace can see an interpretation of how this space might have looked at the time. Indeed, it would hardly be surprising if Shakespeare had gained experience of his father’s trade, as we find numerous references to gloves throughout his works. The significance of these references becomes apparent when we consider that gloves were important markers of social identity at this time: their display could indicate social status, and they were also often given as courtship gifts. See, for example, the shepherdess Mopsa’s remark to her sweetheart in The Winter’s Tale (1610): ‘Come, you promised me a tawdry-lace and/a pair of sweet gloves.’ (4. 4. 241 – 242)
The gloves pictured are seventeenth-century kid [goat’s leather] gloves which are currently on display in the visitor centre at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. The superior quality and softness of this leather, along with the silver bullion braid applied to the cuffs and the pink silk lining inside, indicates their status as a luxury item, to be enjoyed only by the wealthy. Expensive gloves like these would have been displayed prominently as a sign of the wearer’s high social status and wealth: they could be worn on the hands or even tucked into a hat band or belt. Gloves also feature as a signifier of gentle status in many portraits of the Elizabethan and Jacobean period.
The most extended reference to gloves in Shakespeare’s work occurs in Henry V (1598). In Act 4 the king disguises himself and moves among his soldiers in order to gauge their loyalty, but in doing so comes into conflict with a soldier called Williams, who is unaware of Henry’s royal identity. Williams and the disguised Henry exchange words, and as a sign of their enmity agree to swap one of their own gloves for the other man’s. Williams leaves Henry with the parting threat:
‘This [glove] will I also wear in my cap. If ever thou come to
me and say, after to-morrow, ‘This is my glove’, by this hand, I
will take thee a box on the ear.’ (4. 1. 198 - 200)
The comedic potential of this encounter is exploited later on in Act 4, as Henry convinces the hapless Fluellen to wear the exchanged glove on his behalf, with orders to ‘apprehend’ (4. 7. 145) any man who should challenge him for doing so. The inevitable confrontation between Williams and Fluellen ensues, until eventually Henry intervenes, admits his part in the action, and sends Williams away with his glove full of crowns [coins worth five shillings] in consolation.
Shakespeare’s increasing wealth as his plays became ever more successful would have allowed him to purchase luxury items such as gloves, and he may have owned some very similar to those pictured. Perhaps in wearing them he thought of how far he had come from his father’s workshop in Stratford-upon-Avon.