Academic journal article Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England

Malvolio's Yellow Stockings: Coding Illicit Sexuality in Early Modern London

Academic journal article Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England

Malvolio's Yellow Stockings: Coding Illicit Sexuality in Early Modern London

Article excerpt

In her survey of the symbolism of yellow for apparel in early modern England, M. Channing Linthicum argues that "Certainly, yellow was not limited to the costume of one type or condition of person" ("Malvolio," 93). So too, stockings in this period were also not limited since they varied in terms of material, design, color, and usage. As Joan Thirsk points out, "many different kinds of stockings were made to suit all purses and purposes" ("Fantastical," 59). (1) Nevertheless, the wearing of yellow stockings had particular resonance, as two well-known usages suggest. The wearing of yellow stockings may be most commonly associated with two contexts: the children at Christ's Hospital, which opened in 21 November 1552 and was officially founded on 26 June 1553, and the dramatic figure Malvolio in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, the first performance of which was 6 January 1601/2. Indeed, evidence of this sartorial practice from other literary and legal texts supplements and refines our understanding of their meaning by indicating the sexual symbolism of wearing yellow stockings in early modern London. Specifically, this evidence indicates that some early modern Londoners understood the wearing of yellow stockings to signal illicit sexuality and marital betrayal.

While precisely when the children at Christ's Hospital started wearing yellow stockings remains hazy, the use of this sartorial practice by Shakespeare's Malvolio is easier to date. (2) In act 2, scene 5 of Twelfth Night, while Malvolio fantasizes about being "Count Malvolio ... sitting in my state ... in my branched velvet gown, having come from a day-bed, where I have left Olivia sleeping ... telling them I know my place, as I would they should do theirs" (35-54), (3) he learns of Olivia's supposed desire for this attire in the letter Maria dropped to bait him:

  If this fall into thy hand, revolve. In my stars I am above thee, but
  be not afraid of greatness. Some are born great, some achieve
  greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon'em. Thy fates open
  their hands, let thy blood and spirit embrace them, and to inure
  thyself to what thou art like to be, cast thy humble slough, and
  appear fresh. Be opposite with a kinsman, surly with servants. Let thy
  tongue tang arguments of state; put thyself into the trick of
  singularity. She thus advises thee, that sighs for thee. Remember who
  commended thy yellow stockings, and wished to see thee ever cross-
  gartered: I say, remember. Go to, thou art made, if thou desir'st to
  be so. If not, let me see thee a steward still, the fellow of
  servants, and not worthy to touch Fortune's fingers. Farewell. She
  that would alter services with thee. (2.5.143-58) (4)

The letter confirms Malvolio's own suspicions, as he comments on the stockings: "She did commend my yellow stockings of late, she did praise my leg being cross-gartered, and in this she manifests herself to my love, and with a kind of injunction drives me to these habits of her liking" (2.5.166-70). (5)

The scholarly debate about the meaning attached to the color of Malvolio's stockings in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night is more varied than for the children at Christ's Hospital. Yet, in the many discussions of Malvolio, surprisingly many readers do not comment on the apparel Olivia supposedly requests, leaving the particular color of his stockings to "what you will." Of those few scholars who do address the color of Malvolio's stockings, some, for instance, attempt to contextualize the color with respect to contemporary attitudes to yellow. Leslie Hotson, for example, interprets this issue within the context of contemporary politics: "Queen Elizabeth (whose own personal colours were white and black) abhorred yellow. For six years yellow had been the colour of danger in her Court--being flaunted by the faction of the Duke of Norfolk until his attainder and execution in 1572. And the flag of her arch-enemy, Spain, was yellow" (113). …

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