Shakespearian shoes on show

The Museum of London is putting some Shakespeare-themed shoes on display in its Docklands branch. Punningly named “Treading the Bards“, the exhibit features centuries of footwear donned by actors and written about by Shakespeare.

One pair of Elizabethan slip-on shoes were found on the site of the Rose Theater. Another was once worn by famous actor and inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula Sir Henry Irving.

The earliest shoe was preserved in the damp mud of Southwark and is still decorated with pinked zig-zagged patterning – an embellishment common enough that in The Taming of the Shrew it is remarked upon when a servant’s “pumps were all unpink’d i’ the heel.” The pressures on actors at the time are highlighted by the hole at the toe end – deliberately cut to accommodate a painful bunion.

The later shoes were worn by a triumvirate of actors; each considered the greatest thespian of their day. Edmund Kean’s tasselled boots accompanied fiery performances as Richard III in England and America in the early 19th century. Samuel Phelps’ bright red silk boots costumed Cardinal Wolsey in Henry VIII, his final stage performance, in 1878. And Sir Henry Irving’s exquisitely decorative Elizabethan-styled shoes were worn as Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing in 1882.

Oh hey Shakespeare called shoes “pumps”. I did not know that. Although it would appear he wasn’t talking about the standard closed-toe slip-on heel that I refer to with the word.

Anyway, the museum’s Fashion and Decorative Arts Curator Hilary Davidson (cool damn job, sister) points out that these long-gone actors imbued the shoes with their physical presence. Between the bunion cut-outs and the tread patterns, you can envision how they moved, their walks, limps, drags, not to mention their overall dimensions.

Besides, shoes! Pretty! Okay maybe not so much the mudlark one, but the rest are still beautiful in design and fabric.

Curator Hilary Davidson and the shoes on display

5 thoughts on “Shakespearian shoes on show

  1. Actually Shakespeare used both words–shoe and pump:

    I do affect the very ground, which is base, where her shoe, which is baser, guided by her foot, which is basest, doth tread (Don Armado–Love’s Labours Lost)

    …follow me this jest now till thou hast worn out thy pump, that when the single sole of it is worn, the jest may remain, after the wearing, solely singular (Mercutio–Romeo and Juliet)

    pump in this passage has the expected double entendre of “penis”

    The shoes/pumps are cool, in any case.

  2. I actually wrote that comment twice b/c I thought your formatting wouldn’t allow the “P” word–it didn’t post at first. sorry if it shows up again in bowdlerized form.

    1. I was wondering about that. I don’t have any censors set that I know of, but for some reason both your posts went into moderation. I approved the original one because “penis” ftw.

  3. LOL @ previous comments! 😆

    The photo you used for this article…I swear it looks like it should be a renaissance-style painting. Any idea who the photographer was? Amazing piece of work.

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