Stephen Greenblatt, in his Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (1980) studies the sixteenth-century life and literature that spawned a new era of scholarly inquiry. Greenblatt examined the structure of selfhood as evidenced in major literary figures of the English Renaissance (More, Tyndale, Wyatt, Spenser, Marlowe, and Shakespeare) and observed that in the early modern period, questions surrounding the nature of identity heavily influenced the literature of the era. The book thus challenged conservative critical views on Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre based on aesthetics and the creative genius of the playwrights; instead Greenblatt suggested looking at the text as a product of the immediate social, political and cultural conditions of its production and interpretation.
Greenblatt used the term “self-fashioning” to describe the process of constructing one’s identity and public persona according to a set of socially acceptable standards, and the conscious effort to strive to imitate a praised model in society.
According to Greenblatt, during the Renaissance the upper class practised self-fashioning. Prescribed attire and behaviour was created for the noblemen and women, and was represented through portraits. Noble men were instructed to dress in the finest clothing they could afford, to be well-versed and educated in art, literature, sports, and other culturally determined noble exercises, and to generally compose themselves in a carefully intended manner. Additionally, the relationship between self-fashioning and the aesthetic media was a reciprocal one. Just as the art of creating oneself was highly influenced by the art and literature of the time, such as conduct books and religious iconography, such a concern for one’s outwardly projected image was reflected in the portraiture of the time.
The ideological traits portraying masculinity were symbols of authority and power, and therefore male rulers depicted themselves in armour or with weapons, while the most important characteristic attributed to women was beauty, which represented the concepts of purity, virtue and modesty.
In portraits, women performed these traits through idealized features, fancy dresses, and elaborate jewellery. The iconography of portraits displays the gender-specific qualities prescribed during the Renaissance through visual devices.
The Book of the Courtier, by Castiglione is one of the first texts that depicted behaviour individuals were expected to adopt in society. As an informal book of conduct, The Courtier included instructions on how people of the noble class were to dress and speak, and provided general rules of interaction to be followed in social situations. In his article, The Semiotics of Masculinity in Renaissance England, David Kuchta discusses the role of The Courtier concerning its influence on the self-fashioning of Renaissance England. Men of the noble class were to “create” themselves as a work of art, according to the conventions of dress and manner as set forth by the monarchs. Characteristics of Renaissance self-fashioning involve the use of “feminine” aspects of dress and conduct. One was to conduct and dress in a way that reflected their position in society. One was not supposed to act in an affected manner, but present naturalness and nonchalance.