Can you spot the differences?

Have a look at the coat of arms worn by Edwin Booth (1833–1893) in the title role of Shakespeare’s King Richard III. Notice something wrong?

Richard III tunic worn by Edwin Booth in the 1870s.

Richard III tunic worn by Edwin Booth in the 1870s.

Hint: The conventions Victorian aesthetics aren’t the same as the conventions of medieval heraldry.

Give up?

Aesthetic rules call for heavier design elements below lighter ones (hence a pyramid of fleurs-de-lis) and bilateral symmetry (hence sets of lions facing each other). But compare the costume’s arms with the actual royal arms, seen here in a detail from a severely unflattering etching of Henry VIII: 

Coat of arms with 3 fleurs-de-lys in inverted pyramid and both sets of lions facing left

Detail of etched portrait of Henry VIII by Cornelis Metsys, 1548 (click to see full image)

And seen here in the upper right of the Sieve Portrait of Elizabeth I (on display in the Founders’ Room at the Folger):

Coat of arms with 3 fleurs-de-lys in inverted pyramid and both sets of lions facing left

Detail of the Sieve Portrait of Elizabeth I, 1579 (click to see full image)

And seen here on the “tails” side of an Elizabethan gold coin in the Folger collection:

Coat of arms with 3 fleurs-de-lys in inverted pyramid and both sets of lions facing left

Detail of Elizabethan gold pound, 1594-1596 (click to see full image)

The actual royal arms of Richard III, like those of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, have inverted pyramids of fleurs-de-lis and all lions facing to the viewer’s left.

Edwin Booth’s aesthetically balanced but heraldically off-kilter Richard III costume is on display at the Folger through January 12, 2014, in Here is a Play Fitted: Four centuries of staging Shakespeare, curated by Denise A. Walen.

Author: Erin Blake

ERIN BLAKE is Interim Head of Collection Information Services and Cataloging at the Folger Shakespeare Library, and also the Folger's Curator of Art & Special Collections, a remit that covers prints, drawings, photographs, paintings, porcelain figurines, playbills, Shakespeare souvenirs, and anything else that isn't a printed book or manuscript. She teaches History of Printed Book Illustration in the West at Rare Book School, and is chief editor of Descriptive Cataloging of Rare Materials (Graphics).

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