Design Your Life: The Pleasures and Perils of Everyday Things
Ellen and I are previewing a new project at the University of Pittsburgh next week, on the lifestyles of the rich and famous in Shakespearean drama. Keeping up with the Tudors and the Stewarts — Martha Stewart, that is.
In search of a persona for the project, I invented Mrs. Polonius, a Renaissance matron with a dark side. (Polonius is the old counselor from Hamlet, both avuncular and sinister, who meets his end behind a tapestry.) Mrs. Polonius is a politic housewife: she cultivates a few poisonous plants in her tidy English garden (“just in case”), and the margins of her tapestries are embroidered with inverted phalloi.
This Caracci painting — a portrait of an upstanding Italian lady depicted as the Biblical heroine Judith, returned from decapitating the besieging Assyrian general Holofernes — captures Mrs. P. for me. The tight hair, the efficient carving, and the unblunted sense of purpose communicate Mrs. P’s Machiavellian approach to housekeeping. (She’s not happy about severing that head — but he just wouldn’t pick up his socks!)
There is no single character in Shakespeare who embodies the mix of civility, prudence, and cunning that I want Mrs. P. to purvey. Instead, I’m reconstructing her from minor characters, suppressed source texts, and figures of speech. Take Juliet’s lines to Night:
Juliet addresses the coming night as a “civil” and “sober-suited matron” whose very dignity will serve as the ideal cover for losing her virginity. Just the kind of office that Mrs. P. might agree to perform for a modest licensing fee.
Singing the praises of Target yesterday (Design Nation and all that), my husband Ken queried, “But the big question is … Would Mrs. Polonius shop there?”
I thought for a minute. Probably not. But she might agree to launch her own line.
— Julia Lupton · 2008-10-27