Babbling About Liveries

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It’s safe to say that I’m pretty obsessed with words, especially in regards to Shakespeare’s plays because it’s always interesting to see how many uses a word could have during that time. So it’s only natural that I discuss Shakespeare’s use of the word “livery” in the second act as it comes up several times. Did anyone else happen to notice that? Maybe the word is inconsequential or trite, but when a word is repeated, I can’t help but notice it and be interested in delving a little further into it.
According to the OED, a livery is the literally the “characteristic uniform or insignia worn by a household’s retainers or servants […] typically distinguished by colour and design […] the dress, uniform, or insignia […] by which a family, etc., may be identified.”
The first – and most interesting – use of the word appears in the opening scene, when Morocco describes his skin as “the shadowed livery of the burnished sun” (2.1.2). While the word is otherwise used to describe clothing – moreover, clothing that defines a person’s worth or status – it is interesting that Morocco describes his own flesh in this manner. On the one hand, this alludes to the racist concept that a person’s skin color defines who they are (much like the color of a livery defines a person’s station). However, he may also be suggesting that, like an article of clothing or social status, race is something to be worn (rather than something to be) and thus, can also be stripped off.
Later, in 2.2, Lancelot mentions to his father, who was looking to present Shylock with a gift, “Give me your present to one Master Bassanio, who indeed gives rare new liveries” (2.2.96-97). Here, Lancelot is comparing Bassanio’s generosity with Shylock’s miserliness (“I am famished in his service”) by way of liveries. While Morocco uses “livery” in a negative connotation as something that unfortunately characterizes a person, Lancelot views it as a gift, something to be proud to wear.
Like I said earlier, I’m sure liveries do not hold as much importance or relevance in this play as, let’s say, the anti-Semitic language or the fiscal language. And maybe, even after fleshing it out, I don’t quite have a definitive answer for its importance, beyond the metaphor of clothing as an identifier. However, I think that is what drew me into it, the idea that it’s not a blatantly obvious metaphor, but is still staring me in the face.

2 thoughts on “Babbling About Liveries

  1. Jeff Battersby

    Liz,Very interesting catch! I am always amazed at the way Shakespeare uses language and how, when you peel back a layer on a word or phrase, you often reveal far deeper meaning than at first may be apparent. Thanks for peeling this one back for me, you've added depth to my reading of the Merchant of Venice.

  2. Cyrus Mulready

    Fantastic word, Liz! Since reading your post, I've been seeing it in the play and reflecting on how Shakespeare is using the livery as a metaphor of possession, but also literally to construct identity within the play.


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