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Livery, Liberty, and Legal Fictions


  • I am grateful to the Huntington Library for permission to quote from MS EL 2578, and to Peter Stallybrass, Zachary Lesser, and David Wallace for their invaluable comments on earlier drafts of this essay.


In this essay, I argue that the etymology and function of livery in the early modern period suggests not only servitude, of which livery was a visual marker, but also forms of geographical, economic, and legal freedom. “Livery” itself was a fraught term, denoting clothing that identified one as a servant attached to a particular household or patron, while conceptually suggesting the “freedom” from which the word derived. Through readings of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, Dekker's The Shoemaker's Holiday, and Cooke's Greene's Tu Quoque, among several other texts, this essay reveals the paradoxes of freedom and constraint apparent in both the linguistic histories and the material markers of livery and explores the legal fictions they animate and sustain. Outlining five different kinds of livery in the period, this essay furthermore argues that early modern drama signals an understanding of livery both as an aspect of early capitalism, indebted to newer forms of credit and commerce, and as nostalgia for feudal attachment and constraint. (U.C.)