Angela Chang teaches English at ACE Technical Charter High School in Chicago, Illinois.
The Merchant of Venice
What's On for Today and Why
Dress is an important indicator of social status. In this lesson, students will use one of Queen Elizabeth I’s sumptuary proclamations in order to illustrate what the characters in The Merchant of Venice would wear and to compare the implications of dress to the characters' actions.
This lesson will take two class periods.
What You Need
Folger edition of The Merchant of Venice
Available in Folger print edition and Folger Digital Texts
Proclamation by the Queen, Title Page
What To Do
1. Explain to students that today, they will be looking at the “dress codes” people had to follow during the sixteenth century. Ask students:
What are some situations today that call for a certain kind of dress? (Examples might include dressing for a job, for an interview, for a sports team, etc.)
Why do people need to dress in certain ways in certain situations? What does a person's clothing say about him or her?
2. Like the uniforms of today, people in the sixteenth century also had certain dress codes to follow. Pass out copies of the proclamation by the Queen, attached below. (For more teaching ideas involving this source, follow this link .) Explain that Queen Elizabeth I issued many “sumptuary proclamations” like this one. Ask students:
What do you notice about the proclamation?
Are the rules the same for men and women? If not, what differences do you see?
What differences do you see in the “dress code” for different ranks and genders?
3. Assign each student a character from The Merchant of Venice: Portia, Bassanio, Antonio, Duke of Venice, Lorenzo, Jessica, Prince of Morocco, Prince of Arragon, Gratiano, Shylock, Tubal, Lancelet Gobbo, Old Gobbo, Nerissa, Salarino, Solanio, Balthazar, and Stephano. You may assign the same character to more than one person; the difference in perspectives can provide an interesting discussion.
4. Have students use the text of the play to first determine the class of their characters. Next, have students consult the proclamation as they draw a picture of what they believe their character would be allowed to wear. Emphasize accuracy in materials, textures, colors, and accessories.
5. Have students share their illustrations with the class. It may be easier to have students that drew the same character present consecutively. Students should be able to point to evidence in the play and the proclamation to justify their decisions in identifying class and way of dress. If more than one student designed clothing for the same character, ask students to discuss how these designs were similar and different.
6. After the presentations, have each student answer the following questions about his or her character in a journal:
Do you think that your character acted appropriately for his/her class in the play? Explain.
Did your character do anything unusual or surprising for a member of his/her class?
How do you think this sumptuary proclamation would have affected members of different classes in early modern England? What do you think were the advantages and disadvantages for different classes?
If time allows, have students share their responses with the class.
How Did It Go?
Were students able to identify the class of their character using evidence from the text? Were students able to use the proclamation to make accurate illustrations of their character's dress? Did students understand the meaning of dress in the sixteenth century and make connections to dress codes today?
If you used this lesson, we would like to hear how it went and about any adaptations you made to suit the needs of YOUR students.