Gloves were an expensive luxury in the 16th century. They were often made with kid, sheep or deer leather, and richly decorated. Gloves were worn on the belt rather than hands as they were a symbol of wealth and status: the more ornate the glove on show, the wealthier the owner. Gloves could be jewelled, embroidered, laced and even scented. If scented gloves were too expensive, people could use scented oils or rose water.The style of cuff on the glove could change according to fashion, and glove makers would often unpick the stitching and attach new cuffs onto a pair of gloves, particularly if the leather was expensive.
The exchange of gloves was also common, particularly in deals, as payment, bribes or as a token of love. In The Merchant of Venice, when Portia is disguised as a lawyer she asks for Bassanio’s gloves as a token of thanks for having saved the life of his best friend, Antonio.
On the other hand, if a glove was thrown at or to someone, this was an insult and a challenge for a fight. In the history play Richard II, the Duke of Aumerle throws down his glove at Bagot in order to challenge him to armed combat. Have a look at this passage from the tragedy, now considered a problem play, Troilus and Cressida. Troilus and Cressida are two young Trojan lovers, who have just spent their first night together. The following morning they are told that Cressida must leave Troilus to join their enemies, the Greeks, as part of a peace deal. In this passage, the two lovers say farewell to each other, and Troilus asks Cressida to be true to him.
Hear me, my love: be thou but true of heart–
I true? How now! What wicked deem is this?
Nay, we must use expostulation kindly,
For it is parting from us.
I speak not ‘be thou true’ as fearing thee –
For I will throw my glove to Death himself,
That there’s no maculation in thy heart –
But ‘be thou true’ say I, to fashion in
My sequent protestation: ‘Be thou true,
And I will see thee’.
(Troilus and Cressida, 4.5.57-67)
thou = you
deem = thought
expostulation = conversation
thee = you
maculation = stain of unfaithfulness
fashion in = introduce
sequent = following
Shakespeare also uses gloves in a metaphorical sense. Consider this passage from the comedy Twelfth Night. In this passage, Viola (a girl dressed up as a boy to conceal her true identity) talks to Feste, the clown or fool. When Viola encounters him, Feste is playing the tabor (a small drum). He loves to confuse people by playing with language, and below is an example of this:
Save thee, friend, and thy music. Dost thou live by thy tabor?
No sir, I live by the church.
Art thou a churchman?
No such matter, sir. I do live by the church for I do live at my house, and my house doth stand by the church.
So thou mayst say the king lies by a beggar if a beggar dwell near him, or the church
stands by thy tabor if thy tabor stand by the church.
You have said, sir. To see this age! A sentence is but a chev’rel glove to a good wit,
how quickly the wrong side may be turned outward.
(Twelfth Night, 3.1.1-13)
Save thee = May God preserve you (traditional greeting)
Dost thou = do you
Art thou = are you
dwell = live
To see this age! = Look what the world has come to!
chev’rel = kid, a very soft, pliable leather
wit = intelligence
Very few people these days know what a “chev’rel glove” is. What modern object would you choose to make Feste’s statement about language today?