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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XIV. Some Political and Social Aspects of the Later Elizabethan and Earlier Stewart Period

§ 19. Tobacco

Long after its introduction, the use of tobacco was regarded as a fashionable, rather than a popular, indulgence, but its consumption must have increased with extraordinary speed, if Barnabe Rich had been correctly informed “that there be 7000 shops in and about London, that doth vent tobacco.” Shakespeare never mentions this article of Elizabethan luxury.

In the Elizabethan and early Stewart ages, an excessive care for dress was at least as marked a characteristic of large sections of English society as a fondness for the pleasures of the table. Neither sumptuary laws nor moral injunctions proved effectual preventives, though it may be asserted that, among social failings, the love of fine dress, on the whole, was that which puritans visited with their sternest censure. Andrew Boorde (who was by no means a puritan), a generation earlier, had dwelt on the fickleness exhibited by Englishmen in connection with this particular foible, and the mutability of the extravagance continued to remain one of its most constant features. “Falconbridge, the young baron of England,” we remember, “bought his doublet in Italy, his round hose in France, his bonnet in Germany.” But Spain and France were long the rival schools of apparel for young Englishmen of fashion, though, of the pair, notwithstanding the strong predilection for things Spanish which long prevailed at the court of James I, the French model, on the whole, maintained its ascendancy. In accordance with the general tendency, noticed above, of luxurious habits of life to efface class distinctions, censure of all this extravagance is found accompanied by regret that it is difficult to know who is a gentleman and who is not from his dress.” As a matter of course, it was inevitable that, in the matter of dress, the extravagance of men should be far outdone by that of the other sex, more especially in the way of those artificial supplements to the attractions of nature, which left women, in the severe words of Stubbes, “the smallest part of themselves.” While many effeminate men aped the devices of women’s toilets, women, quite as often in search of notoriety as for purposes of disguise, wore doublet and hose; and the confusion of the external attributes of the sexes to which exception was taken as a practice of the theatre thus, in this instance also, reflected, at least in some measure, a social licence of the age. In the matter of dress in general, the mimic life followed, while, perhaps, as in earlier and later times, it now and then suggested the extravagances of the society which the theatre at once served and imitated. The sumptuousness of actors’ costumes, both on and off the stage, is illustrated by direct evidence as well as by many well known passages and anecdotes—among the former, by Gosson’s assertion that “the verye hyrelings of some of our plaiers, which stand at reversion of vis. by the weeke, jet under gentlemens noses in sutes of silke.”

Thus, the increase of luxury and the desire of securing as large a share of it as money could buy must be reckoned among the chief causes of the auri sacra fames which contributed to the unrest of the Elizabethan age, and which, in the next age, remained a strong motive of private, and, too often, of public, action.