Reading Silk: England's Search for a National Identity, 1590-1630

Reading Silk: England’s Search for a National Identity, 1590-1630

Emily Elizabeth Rendek (Florida State University)
Master of Arts, The Florida State University, Paper 1894 (2007)


In this thesis, I explore the relationship between the silk industry and England’s search for a national identity as seen through the theater of 1590-1630. I have decided to focus on these years because of the exponential growth in the number of people who worked in London with foreign raw silk; in doing so, I have chosen plays which show the progression of the power of silk—from initially creating conflicting desires both to reject all things foreign and yet to emulate foreign fashions to eventually uniting the country through the quest to form England’s own silk industry and in turn lay the foundation for an empire. In this project, I interrogate the relationship between silk and the formation of a national identity for England through the dramas of Thomas Middleton, Thomas Dekker, and James Shirley. In Middleton’s Michaelmas Term I focus on class anxieties and the manner in which the play reflects the decline of the landed gentry and the rise of the merchant class. Satin, a type of silk, plays a large part throughout the play; it in fact creates a problem in the transmission of identity as certain characters forget their original stations and ancestry.

In Dekker’s The Shoemaker’s Holiday I try to demonstrate how this play promotes English nationalism by subordinating the foreign and advocating unity amongst the peoples of England regardless of social status. Theatergoers are given the chance to see what England as a nation is capable of if it bands together against the (idea of the) foreign. The formation of nationhood centers around trade in luxury items and matters of apparel. In Shirley’s The Triumph of Peace, the most expensive court masque ever staged, I explore the form of the court masque and show how Shirley’s masque enables the lawyers of the Inns of Court to usurp the power of the monarchy through ostentatious display in the form of silks. The Inns of Court use the medium of luxury as a signal to the King that the throne could not rule without law. This project aims to demonstrate that silk becomes a tool for nation building for England.

Click here to read this thesis from Florida State University

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