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2. “The Dyer’s Hand”: Colours in Early Modern England

General Introduction: “Chamelion like” England


Texte intégral

Yee sonnes of craft bearing as many faces,
Proteus, takes among the marine places,
And force your natures all the best you can,
To counterfeit the grace of some great man
Chamelion like, who takes him in each hew,
Of blacke or white, or yellow, greene, or blew,
That comes him next, […].
Th. Hudson. Transl.
(Robert Allott, Englands Parnassus, 1600, “Flatterer”, 95)

  • 1 Hudson (who died in or before 1605) is chiefly known for The historie of Judith in forme of a poeme (...)

1Englands Parnassus is a vast compilation whose merits do not simply consist in “redirecting texts that normally circulated in manuscript […] into the more public world of print” (Marotti n.p.), but also in putting to the fore the poetic clichés of Shakespeare’s England. Translated by Thomas Hudson,1 the above-quoted lines reveal that the iconoclasm thought to have characterized the English Reformation was still everywhere apparent in Elizabethan England, where colours could be regarded as symbols of falsehood.

  • 2 See for example his treatise entitled Siris: A Chain of Philosophical Reflexion and Inquiries (1744 (...)

2So, Elizabethan England was apparently hostile to vivid hues, and the traditional views are indeed that it was essentially in the 18th century that the question of colours aroused fresh interest in the wake of Bishop Berkeley’s reflexions on colours2 and, above all, of Isaac Newton’s innovative ideas on the colour spectrum. As a matter of fact, in the history of colours, the mid- 17th century represents both a revolution and a starting point. Newton began to work on optics in 1666, when he found out that colours could be recombined to produce white light. His Optiks (1704) was one of the most influential scientific works of the era. As Newton’s readers discovered that the seven colours of the spectrum were red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet, and that each colour could merge into the next to generate more nuanced hues, they were confronted with an entirely new vision of the natural world.

3Yet, recently, some scholars have followed in the footsteps of Michel Pastoureau so as to argue that, in the Middle Ages, conceptual schemes of colour configuration already existed and were no less important than Newton’s experiments to understand the wide range of colour symbolism which is still relevant nowadays. It is a well-known fact that, for example, heraldry changed the names and the meanings of colours, and today, both stained glass windows and manuscript illuminations testify to the rich symbolism of the vivid medieval palette.

4But what happened after that? As the issue of polychromy, dyes and pigments in the early modern world is only beginning to be investigated thoroughly, Anna Marie Roos rightly calls attention to the pioneering work of some of Newton’s predecessors:

  • 3 i.e. mercury, sulphur and salt.

[b]efore Newton’s seminal work on the spectrum, seventeenth-century English natural philosophers such as Robert Boyle, Robert Hooke, Nehemiah Grew and Robert Plot attributed the phenomenon of color in the natural world to salts and saline chymistry. They rejected Aristotelian ideas that color was related to the object’s hot and cold qualities, positing instead that saline principles not only governed principles of matter in the Paracelsian tria prima,3 but color and color changes in flora, fauna and minerals as well. (Roos n.p.)

  • 4 Carla Mazzio therefore duly observes that “‘science,’ to Shakespeare’s ears and eyes, would have en (...)
  • 5 Significantly, in his Principall Navigations (1589), Hakluyt disclosed “an itemized list of secrets (...)

5If Grew was first and foremost interested in plant physiology, Plot was an antiquarian and a great admirer of Pliny’s Natural History while Boyle first embarked on a literary career before the mid-17th century – i.e. before he turned to ‘science’ (including alchemy) and set up a laboratory in his own house in Stalbridge. As to Hooke, he had been a chorister at Christ Church, Oxford, in his youth. These natural philosophers had therefore many others fields of interest than what would today be regarded as science. That is not unusual if one considers that artistic, literary and scientific aspirations never were poles apart in pre-modern Europe.4 However, the ‘pre-Newtonian’ function and symbolism of colours in 16th-, and 17th-century England remain surprisingly unexplored as far as the artistic, and especially the literary production of the period is concerned, partly because the Aristotelian theories of vision and colours have long been regarded as relatively limited ones, and partly because, until the 17th century, most skills related to the art and uses of colour were protected by a number of trade secrets and only circulated by word of mouth.5 Moreover, as a new black and white print culture was gradually taking precedence over the lavish colours of medieval manuscripts, the advent of Protestantism was at the origin of several violent reactions against the use of bright colours.

1. “The dyer’s hand”: the issues at stake

6Nevertheless, for all the exhortations of a handful of ‘chromophobic’ Puritan zealots like Philip Stubbes against what they regarded as artifice, the iconoclastic fever that swept across early modern England never really put an end to the use of polychromy. Indeed, in spite of the corruptibility of pigments and of the limited range of available hues, cloth manufactures flourished and English artists continued to use many different hues in their works. The court miniaturist Nicholas Hilliard relied on vibrant shades in his jewel-like paintings; he paid particular attention to flesh colour and shadows and invented new techniques to imitate the textures he liked. In the meantime, Shakespeare’s “dyer’s hand” (Sonnet CXI) exploited a whole range of colours in his plays and poems, from the Dark Lady of the sonnets and the black Moor of Venice to the white and red roses of Henry VI, the yellow stockings of Malvolio in Twelfth Night, or Autolycus’s “ribbons of all the colours i’ th’ rainbow” (The Winter’s Tale, 4.4.206).

  • 6 In his Leviathan (1651), Hobbes suggested that, like tastes and odours, colours were actually subje (...)

7Generally speaking, the circulation of clothes, cosmetics, gemstones, recipes, heraldic devices, botanical drawings, and university textbooks then partly depended on the shades which characterized them. As an increasing number of dyes were put on the market, day-to-day habits quickly evolved. To cite but one amusing example, many early modern Englishmen then started to wear red beards and to dye their hair. During the Civil War, the differentiated use of colours became an important means to identify troops, while in the 1650s, philosophers like Thomas Hobbes attempted to reconsider colour in order to question the reliability of the senses.6

  • 7 Remarkable for its accuracy and reliability, Stow’s book appeared in an expanded second edition in (...)

8Now, if early modern men and women enjoyed and promoted a variety of tinges, tones and tinctures, they were also disturbed by the uncanny power of colouring and dyeing. Theories about the significance of skin colour proliferated and contributed to the emerging construction of race with a whole series of binary oppositions between black and white. Researchers now acknowledge that colours may have served to crystallize the sexual, religious and political anxieties of an era when the use of vivid tints was often seen as a transgression of sorts. In A suruay of London (1598),7 John Stow shows that, as early as the mid-14th century, some colours were forbidden to specific categories of the London population:

1352. The 26. sheriffes, Iohn Peche, Iohn Stotley. M. Adam Frauncis Mercer.

This Mayor procured an act of Parliament, that no knowne whore, should weare an hoode, or attire on her head, except reied, or striped cloth of diuers colours, &c. (“Temporall government”, 436)

9Under Elizabeth I, the London Parliament still tried in vain to colour-code the citizens in order to facilitate the identification (and the exclusion) of subversive or dangerous individuals. The latter category was not necessarily composed of criminals: in times of plague, the population avoided infected households, which were necessarily marked out by specific colours. This is recorded in The duetie of a faithfull and wise magistrate, a Latin book Englished by John Stockwood in 1583:

Wherefore in the time of such sicknesse raygning and infecting, […], the preseruers must first of all and foorthwith haue care of this, that the house infected be noted and marked out by certaine signes & toke~s, as by setting of torches before ye doore, which after ye maner of the Gentiles vse to be caried before the dead, or by clubbes betokening punishment, or rolles of strawe, or hanging vp a blacke, white, or redde sheete, signifiyng sicknesse or death […]. (Ewich, trans. Stockwood, The second Booke, cap. 1, “Of those into whose the Plague is gotten”, 53)

10Seen by some as a form of divine punishment, the plague was much commented upon by the Puritans who were also keen to denounce the daily excesses and superfluities of life. In the early 17th century, Thomas Tuke, a Church of England clergyman, won a lasting fame with his Discourse against painting and tincturing of women (1616) in which he attacked the painted faces of his time. Tuke bitterly observed that

[i]f we were thankful to [God] for our complexions and fauour, how meane so euer, we would humble our selues before him, and not goe about to cozen the world with our borrowed feathers, or shew our selues altogether vnpatient of his handy-worke, yea, wee would labour to supply the want of good outward parts by inward vertues, and by the offices of pietie, charitie, and humilitie; things, which (I feare me) are sildome and little thought of amongst the Painters, who, if we may beleeue the speeches of the world […] are too many of them, not much vnlike ill cloth of a good die; or to a Letter fairely written, and with good inke, but not without some false English, or ill contents. (“Of Painting the Face”, 13-14)

  • 8 In some respects, the anonymous author of Arden of Faversham (1592) foreshadows Tuke’s views. In th (...)

11We notice here how easily cosmetics give way to pigments, themselves perceived as elements of deceit. Painters, according to Tuke, work against God’s creation itself.8 As a consequence, the number of those seditious citizens should be more tightly controlled.

12These examples tend to show that, in the early modern period, a wide array of glows, paints and tinctures still codified gender as well as religious, political and social distinctions. In other words, colour was a symbolical and literary construct worth exploring for scholars interested in the multiple facets of the construction of identity in early modern England. So, this special issue aims at tracing the changing meanings of colour(s) in England from the Tudor period until the Caroline era. Its thirteen contributions deal with the material, literary, aesthetic and sociological dimensions of colour, and while they resort to a variety of methodological approaches, all of them testify to the fact that shades, hues and pigments must be seen as part and parcel of the cultural codes followed or else questioned by Shakespeare’s contemporaries.

2. A very short history of colours

13On a purely lexicographical level, words designating basic colour terms have been part and parcel of the English lexicon since the 5th century. We know that that “[s]even basic colour terms, all derived from Indo-European ancestral sources, were encoded in Old English: white, black, grey, red, yellow, green, and blue” (Casson 227). The “three remaining Modern English basic terms – purple, orange, and pink – were added later in the evolution of the basic colour lexicon, and were always strictly hue terms” (Casson 231).

14On a more historical plane, it should be noted that the early modern English conception of polychromy owes much to treatises from the Antiquity and the Middle Ages. While the Greek theories of colour mainly emphasized the contrast between light and darkness (Gage 11), the Aristotelian view articulated in On the senses (c. 350 BC) posited that chromatic variation was a function of brightness, not hue, and that the entire spectrum was composed of several combinations of superimposed white and black. This meant that white, yellow, red, violet, green, blue and black were all composed of varying proportions of white and black. Soon after Aristotle, physicians such as Galen linked the four humours (black bile, yellow bile, blood and phlegm) to Aristotle’s primary colours.

15In his Natural History (35.50), Pliny the Elder (A.D. 23-79) criticizes the extensive variety of colours characterizing the works of his era and praises the ingenuity of ancient painters who resorted to only four colours: white (albis) from Melos, Attic yellow (silaciis), red (rubris) from Sinope on the Black Sea, and black (nigris). Nikomachos, Apelles, Aetion and Melanthios are all quoted as models to emulate, as Pliny obviously admires their science and their talent. Incidentally, this ‘tetrachromatism’ turned out to correspond to the austerity promoted by the Reformation and it was taken up by some of the major playwrights of the period – i.e. on a purely metaphorical level. But this palette deprived of blues and greens was totally impractical for early modern artists, who “inclined towards the unpainterly colors of the rainblow” (Lee and Fraser 211).

  • 9 This oscillation between green and red (which did not imply a systematic confusion) was still relev (...)

16If not completely forgotten, Pliny’s observations were relatively left aside in the Middle Ages, in which no dominant colour theory emerged. Colours were then particularly unstable, and as has already been noted, the language of heraldry testifies to their difficult apprehension. John Gage reminds us that, in the 12th century, the word sinople “probably meant red” but that, strangely enough, “it later came to mean green” (81).9 The subtleties of heraldic language were of course also known in England, since in The Book of the Faytes of Armes and Chivalrye (1489) – William Caxton’s translation of Christine de Pisan’s Fais d’armes et de chevalerie, published only one year earlier in France – the canonical colours of heraldry are clearly mentioned: these are “gold, purpre, azure, silver, sable and sinople or verte” (290.2-28 quoted in Anderson 480). Colours, in daily life, were also increasingly associated with art and medicine. Lapis lazuli, for example, was used by medieval illuminators in order “to furnish a brilliant blue” in their manuscripts, while at the same time, it was “an apothecary’s exotic medicament” (Johns 108).

17In a vast Latin work produced between 1230 and 1260 by the Dominican scholar Vincent de Beauvais and known as The Great Mirror, Aristotle’s theories were expanded and refined, even though they proved “intrinsically unverifiable” and, still more embarrassingly perhaps, “bore no resemblance to people’s practical experience of colour mixture” (Jones 171). At the same time, around 1230, the scholar and philosopher Robert Grosseteste wrote a text entitled De colore, much influenced by Aristotle. It happened to have a long-lasting influence in England because it was recycled almost word for word by Bartholomaeus Anglicus, whose encyclopaedia, De rerum naturalis (1245), encapsulated all the scientific knowledge of the time. John of Trevisa then translated it into English at the end of the 14th century, and William Caxton printed a Latin version of the volume in 1471. In 1582, Stephen Batman retranslated – and could not help revising – the text. Fortunately for us, in section 8 (“De Coloribus”) of Liber XIX, Batman rather faithfully follows his model, and he concentrates on the definition of light as well as on the Aristotelian conception of colour. He explains that

[s]ome men déeme or suppose, that light is of the substaunce of colour […]. And lyght is diuided in foure manners: for light is cléere, or dimme, lyttle, or much: […]. And if the light be little & dim in cléere matter, and not full cléere, but somedeale and dim, then blacknesse must néedes bée gendered, and this expoundeth the word of Aristotle, and of Auetrois, that meaneth, that blacknesse is priuation of cléernesse […]. And this is knowne, and thrée thinges maketh whitenesse, brightnesse of light, and plentye thereof, & purenesse of cléere matter. And while meane coulour maye abate then in this wise is generation of thrée coulours, if one abideth alone, the other two abate: and so of white commeth 7. colours, & stretch from the white toward blacke: also from black to white stretcheth 7. And by this consideratio~ colours be 16. two principall, blacke and white, and 14. meane, for 7. stretch from white toward blacke, & 7. from black toward white, & in the stretching, the first 7. abate in whitnes, & the other 7. abate in blacknes, & méeteth in the middle. In euery meane colour, be as it were endles meane degrées of déep colour & of lyght, as they be farre from white or blacke or nigh thereto. (Bartholomaeus Anglicus, trans. Batman, “Of the opinion of them which would haue light, to be of the substance of coulour”,1582, 389r)

18The fourteen intermediate (or “meane”) colours mentioned are never named, but we can nonetheless understand that Grosseteste originally followed a “brightness-order linear scale”, in which the “lighter colors ‘stretch’ from white and become […] darker, while the dark colours stretch from black and become […] lighter” (Kuehni and Schwarz 36).

  • 10 Alhazen’s Optics was translated from Arabic into Latin at the end of the 12th century. Roger Bacon, (...)

19In fact, the thesis according to which colours are not visible without light had already been developed in Alhazen’s Optics.10 What can be deduced from this is that Bartholomaeus Anglicus, and Grosseteste before him, partly relied on the Arabic philosopher’s findings. Obviously, they were not the only ones to do so in the 13th century, as Grosseteste’s pupil, Roger Bacon, also subsumed Alhazen’s idea “of medium-transmitted forms of light and color under the broader Aristotelian concept of multiplicatio specierum, which implied the ordered replication of any […] distributed quality of the object […] from one layer to the next” (Darrigol 21).

  • 11 For further details, see Jacobson 174.

20Optical knowledge was thus greatly increased in the late Middle Ages and a number of theories on light and colours were then transmitted to subsequent generations. These theories also had practical applications on glass, wood or cloth. Even though vegetable dyes were still relatively unreliable because they were prone to changes in hue and contributed to make colours impermanent (one thinks here of the costly crimson ‘grains’, i.e. kermes beetles, imported from Eastern Europe, and which helped to produce red dyes whose colour generally faded after a few months),11 the end of the Middle Ages was marked by important advances in the field of dyeing techniques, and these progresses were correlated by new moral trends, later emphasised by the Reformation. There were, from time to time, stunning inversions of values: black, which had heretofore been regarded as the shade of evil, night and death, quickly turned into a fashionable hue and, from the 15th century onwards, Renaissance courts in Europe selected sumptuous tinctures of back as a sign of elegance and superiority (Pastoureau 2011, 17-18). The new significance of black actually called to mind the long-established positive connotations of white, frequently associated with innocence and virginity. This accounts for the fact that black and while gradually became interrelated. Chessboards, which had been red and white until the 1320s, were now black and white, and this apparently insignificant trend paved the way for the spread of black and white images which was to mark the 16th century (Pastoureau 2011, 20).

21From the mid- 15th century onwards, writers and artists alike began to focus on the respective merits of colour and form in painting, and in Italy, the dispute between colore and disegno caused tempers to flare up. Meanwhile, the garish colours of the Middle Ages, generally derived from rare minerals, gave way to delicate modelling and to a subtle balance of light and shadow. In 1435, Leon Battista Alberti published his Della Pittura, which was translated into Italian the following year. This study included a number of important remarks on colour and was a new kind of theoretical text, even though Alberti’s identification of colour primaries, i.e. blue, red, green and earth colour, remained heavily dependent on the Aristotelian tradition. In fact, what was new in Della Pittura was the importance given to light and shade: “the same colour”, he explained, “according to the light and shade it receives will alter its appearance – we must consider how the painter ought to use black and white […] with great restraint you will commence to place the black where you need it and at the same time oppose it with white” (quoted in Lamb and Bourriau 12).

22This concern with the proper use of black and white goes hand in hand with the attention paid to the function of shadows in painting. In Libro A (c. 1510), Leonardo Da Vinci penned a variety of observations related to colours, all of them influenced by Aristotle’s treatise on colours which had been translated into Latin in 1537. Da Vinci, however, also brought in new remarks, and he particularly insisted on the fact that shadows must be endowed with definite chromatic value: “And remember that the shadows should never be so dark that you must lose color in the area where they are found […]”. For him, painting was “a composition of light and shade, combined with all the various kinds of simple and compound colours” (Pedretti 20). But for all their brilliant insight, these technical notes were not published in Da Vinci’s lifetime, so it is impossible to say if his views truly mattered for other contemporary artists. Yet, they tend to show that the 16th century was increasingly preoccupied with the ways of nuancing colours and of making them more life-like for the viewers. Against all odds, such specific concerns sometimes found an echo on the English stage. For instance, in the anonymous Arden of Faversham (1592), a domestic tragedy surprisingly rich in colour symbolism, a local painter associated with poisonous tricks casually asserts that “[t]he painter lays his colours to the life, / His pencil draws no shadows in his love” (1.596-97, my emphasis). Had Clarke been reputed for the beauty of his works, an opposite definition would probably have sprung to his mind: the pencil of any good painter should definitely draw shadows in his love.

23In 1584, Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo, a Milanese painter acquainted — albeit superficially — with Galen’s theories, published his Trattato dell’arte de la pittura. Through “the classical concept of the four Humours”, he indeed managed to crystallise “a formulary for expressing the four Temperaments through colour in painting, inspired by his observation of Titian’s colouring” (Pavey 7). Moreover, he interpreted colours as the products of cold and heat:

Now there be 7 sortes of simple colours, from which all the rest arise. Of these 2 are extreames, as white and Blacke; and 5 middle, as light yeallow, redde, purple, Blewe and Greene. Now concerning the generation of colours, Colde produceth white, whereonto much light is required. Heate engendereth Blacke, proceeding from a smale quantity of light and much heate. Redde is made by the mixture of white and Blacke. Violet or pale of much white and a little redde; saffron colour or yeallow of much redde and litte white. Purple of much redde and a little Blacke, and greene of a little blacke and much redde. And this may suffice for the foundation and originall of colours (Lomazzo, trans. Haydocke, 98).

  • 12 For further details see Sherlock 216.

24In England, Lomazzo’s writings contributed to make the practice of colouring acceptable. Yet, Lomazzo’s translator, Richard Haydocke – a student in medicine whose eminent grandfather, Thomas Bill of Ashwell, had been physician to Henry VIII and Edward VI – felt free either to revise Lomazzo’s precepts or to omit them altogether when they too ostentatiously supported Roman Catholic arguments. As a result, while Lomazzo made it clear that God “ought to be represented with perfect cleere colours”, Haydocke openly disagreed, specifying in the fourth part of his Tracte containing the artes of curious paintinge carving buildinge that God “should not be painted at all” (Lomazzio, trans. Haydocke, 152).12

3. The English rhetoric of colours

25More surprisingly, in his translation, Haydocke skipped the apparently innocuous section devoted to pigments. He actually replaced it with “a briefe Censure of the booke of Colours, where I have also taken occasion to use a word or two, concerning the Artificiall Beauty of Women, for those good I have published it” (quoted in Smith 62). As a consequence, readers were made familiar with cosmetics and other offensive substances, or paintings, “antipathetical to living flesh” (ibid.). The perils of indulgence in the application of excessive makeup were thus duly pointed out, and these perils were explicitly associated with colours. So, paradoxically, while the portraits of Elizabeth I represented her with fair hair, snow-white skin and red cheeks and lips, the Protestants almost unanimously rejected the artificial colours of painted women who were generally assimilated to whores. A passage written by the zealous Protestant William Averell and taken from A Diall for Dainty Darlings (1584) reads as a violent diatribe against painted and perfumed ladies. As such, it is quite representative of a general attitude betraying deep masculine anxieties:

Draw néere you wanton woorms, that leane your lofty heades, vpon the dainty pyllowes of pride, you that haue periwigs to curle your heaire, colours to paint your face, art to square your shoulders, bolsters to fashio~ your wast, inuentions to chaunge nature, and deuises to alter kinde, consider what Cyprian sayth: De habitu virginis, quod natum est, ex Deo est, quod mutatu~ est ex demone: That which is borne, is of God, that which is chaunged, is of the deuill. Your washing in swéet waters, your anoynting with swéete odours, your muske, your ciuitte, your baulme, and a number of deuises, to make the body swéete, when your pride and whordome, with the rest of prides companions, do make your soules to stincke, as the Poet Martial sayth: Non bene olent, qui semper bene olent, They smell not well, that alwayes smell well. (sig. B iii)

26Averell’s moralizing and anti-feminist prose was successful enough to be reissued and expanded under the new title of Four Notable Histories in 1590.

  • 13 The mercury- and lead-based whiteners found at the time were all utterly toxic. Queen Elizabeth I h (...)

27Nothing truly changed under James I’s reign. In his 1621 Superbiae flagellum, or, The whip of pride, John Taylor still railed against those who “practise everyday the painter’s trade, / And strive to mend the worke that God hath made”, and he noted that these deceivers were in fact the most utterly deceived because “With devlish dawbing, plast’ring they do spread, / Deforming so themselves with white and red” (sig. C7r). Virulent writers such as Averell and Taylor, to a lesser extent, did not have to be very imaginative in order to impress their readers by showing the disastrous consequences of outrageous painting, since actual poisonings were often caused by the use of dangerous makeup.13

28Incensed at the profusion of cosmetics, the Puritans also frowned at gaudy clothes. Yet, a vast majority of moderate Protestants acknowledged the competence of English dyers. Geoffrey Whitney’s emblem 134, “In colores”, drawn from a reworking of Andrea Alciati’s Emblematum Liber (1531), namely A Choice of Emblemes (1586), does not only establish clear links between colours and temperaments (like Alciati’s original emblem), but in a more personal way, it also focuses “on the dyer as a technician” and defends “English dyestuffs” (Smith 61).14

  • 15 This fascination led to important discoveries in the 17th century, since in 1629, Robert Fludd publ (...)

29This testifies to the fact that, even in a Protestant country like England, the population continued to value polychromy in spite of the dangers which it represented for the human soul, first of all because colours, when used properly, were thought to help physicians to heal their patients. A number of anonymous treatises (and especially treatises of urology) like Here begynneth the seynge of urynes of all the couloures that urynes be of with medecynes annexed to euery uryne, and euery uryne his urynall muche profytable for euery man to knowe (1540), whose long evocative title speaks for itself, evince the early modern medical community’s fascination with colours as symptoms of potential diseases.15 While yellow, in particular, was associated to medical symptoms, other shades were regarded as highly beneficial for health. Against all odds, the colour green, whose mutability has been emphasised time and again, was part of these positive hues, so much so that in chapter 269 of yet another anonymous treatise entitled A rich-store-house or treasury for the diseased (1596), one can find the colour green listed along with red roses as “things” deemed “good for the eyes”. The inventory reads as follows:

Measurable sleepe.
Red Roses.
Veruaine Rootes.
Oculus Christi.
To wash your eyes with cleare water.
To looke vpon any manner of greene colours.
To looke in a faire Glasse.
Washing your hands and feete often.
(Liber 2, cap. 269, fol. 55v)

30Conversely, looking at white and red colours (with the notable exception of “Red Roses”, this particular item being listed as beneficial for the health) was one of the daily activities considered as “ill for the sight”:

To eate Garlicke,
Onyons and Leekes.
To eate Lettice.
To trauell or go too suddaine after meate.
Hote Wines. Cold ayre.
Drunkennes. Gluttony.
Milke. Cheese.
Ouermuch beholding of bright and red things, and also white.
Much sleepe after meate.
Too much lett. of bloud.
Cold worts. Dust. Fi
Much weeping, and ouermuch watching.

31Apart from revealing the author’s iconoclasm (at which point did one began practising “ouermuch watching”?), this shows, if anything, that most 16th-century precepts regarding the relevant use of colours were variable and contradictory. Indeed, while medical treatises warned against the ill effects of white for the sight, painters resorted to that very colour in order to add touches of brightness to their works and seduce their commissioners. Nicholas Hilliard revered white for its purity and he is known to have used white lead as a pigment. As to the colour red, it was particularly coveted. Several reds and purple pigments (such as “greening weed”, “berries”, “crimisine”, “Brasill”, “Lack” and “gall nuts”) are mentioned in Leonard Mascall’s 1583 Profitable booke declaring dyuers approoued remedies, to take out spottes and staines, in silkes, veluets, linnnen and woollen clothes (probably translated from Dutch or German) and even though “[n]one of these recipes were colorfast”, they must have been “widely used” at the time (Jacobson 174).

  • 16 Frank Whigham and Wayne A. Rebhorn note that whereas “flower” is “a metaphor for rhetorical figure (...)

32At the level of metaphors and style, it is worth noting that colours featured prominently and positively in the rhetorical treatises of the period, which tended to associate tropes and ornaments with colours. In his Arte of English Poesie (1589), George Puttenham contended that ornaments should be seen as the “colours that a poett setteth upon his language by arte, as the embroiderer doth his stone and perle, or passements of gold upon the stuffe of a Princely garment” (“Of Ornament”, 222).16 Hammering the point home, Puttenham also asserted that “the chief praise and cunning of our poet is in the discreet using of his figures, as the skilful painter’s is in the good conveyance of his colors and shadowing traits of his pencil” (ibid.). In other words, as far as measures and proportions were thought reasonable and were fully respected, colour was likely to be regarded as one of life’s safe embellishments.

  • 17 The formal expression of this law, however, was first published by René Descartes in La Dioptrique (...)
  • 18 In his entry on Harriot for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, J.J. Roche adds that “[h]e (...)
  • 19 In 1612, Peacham’s book was expanded and retitled Graphice. It was reissued once again the same yea (...)

33The gradual increase of literary metaphors connected with colour was paralleled by new scientific discoveries. During the early years of the 17th century, the mathematician and natural philosopher Thomas Harriot stayed at Syon House, Isleworth, where he managed to establish the law of refraction of light.17 Using spheres and triangular prisms, he was probably among the very first scientists to investigate the dispersion of light, even though he refrained from publishing his breakthrough discoveries – quite a puzzling fact for today’s scholars.18 Roughly at the same time, Henry Peacham, the son of a clergyman, published The Act of Drawing with the Pen, and Limning in Water Colours (1606).19 Here he makes it clear that “painting in general, is an art which either by draughte of bare lines, lively colours, cutting out or embossing, expresseth any thing the like by the same: which we may find in the holy Scripture both allowed, and highly commended by the mouth of God himself” (sig. B1r, my emphasis). If not totally accepted by the entire English population, colours (including bright ones) became more and more suitable for religious minds. This meant that, far from being regarded as a disgraceful activity (and as evidence of idleness), drawing “fair picture[s]” (B1v) was now increasingly seen as a form of gentlemanly accomplishment.

4. Thirteen approaches to colours

34The articles in this special issue problematize the contradictions, tensions, and evolutions just pointed out. By displaying the multiple interactions of colours with painting, drama, gardening or medicine, they offer new perspectives on the typical early modern English palette. They fall into five broad sections, all of them analysing the production and reception of colours and colour symbolism by Shakespeare’s contemporaries.

35In the First Part devoted to aesthetics, Raphaëlle Costa de Beauregard dwells on early modern limning and focuses on two miniatures, namely John Donne (1616) and the Head of Christ (c. 1610), painted by Isaac Oliver when he was at the height of his reputation as an independent artist. Paying attention to the chromatic composition of each image, she studies how the artist captured light and reproduced shadows in his works, and how his technique gradually evolved towards a more baroque symbolism of colours in art. Anne-Valérie Dulac then insists on the concept of “lustre” also used as a technique by Nicholas Hilliard. In her analysis of Hilliard’s Treatise Concerning the Arte of Limning (c. 1598-1599) and of Edward Norgate’s Miniatura or the Art of Limning (c. 1627), she shows that “lustre” cannot be reduced to mere “glistening” and she explains its importance in connection with the colouring techniques of the period. As a goldsmith, Hilliard was naturally attracted by the colours of precious stones, and his five favourite colours, apart from back and white, were unsurprisingly associated with gems: purple was linked to amethysts, red to rubies, blue to sapphires, green to emeralds, and yellow to topazes.

  • 20 This refers to one of Henry Peacham’s sections in his treatise The Art of Drawing (1606).

36The Second Part of this special issue, entitled “Of Yealowes and their Mingling”,20 is thus devoted to a particular hue drawn from Hilliard’s palette. Helen Hickey first connects yellow with medical diagnosis, since the medical community appears to have been much concerned with colour-related issues. On the one hand, early modern painters always needed pigments which could be bought from apothecaries, and in Florence for example, painters belonged to the guild of Doctors and Apothecaries. On the other hand, physicians often had to appropriate recipes from the dyeing industry and they paid attention to the colours of their patients’ bodily fluids to establish their diagnosis. As a result, medicine was a field where colours occupied a prominent place. With such observations in mind, Hickey notices that yellow is related to health and bodily disorders in a number of English scientific treatises. She addresses some of its puzzling features and she notably documents the ready substitution of the words “red bile” with “yellow bile” – a substitution quite representative of the general oscillations of the colour yellow.

  • 21 Pink, moreover, never became a “basic color term until the Modern English period, by about 1720” an (...)

37Anita Butler also touches on this problem by focusing on pink, the “last basic color term to enter English”, and one which probably came into the language by 1573 “as the name for a species of flower”.21 Butler takes Laura Wright’s work on this shade one step further and examines the possibility that the words (not the colours) “pink” and “yellow” may have been interchangeable. Intriguingly, in 16th-century England, pink was also an ingredient used to enhance yellow paint (it possibly was a dye for cloth, therefore) but still, no one truly understands why pink was called “pink”. John Marston’s particular use of this colour, Butler shows, seems to be a one-off in the extant drama of the period. Of course, there may have been many lost plays referring to pink colour, but one will probably never know how many of them dealt with pink. Today, according to Butler, the only other uses one can find are two mentions of pink in the wardrobe accounts of Queen Elizabeth I.

38Part Three deals with another colour of Hilliard’s palette and it reassesses the major ideas developed in Pastoureau’s seminal study on green, first published in 2013 as Vert : Histoire d’une couleur, and translated into English the following year. Therefore, this section explores the paradoxical meanings of green and it resolutely brings Shakespeare in. In “Green Worlds: Shakespeare’s Plays and Early Modern Imagery”, Anne-Marie Costantini-Cornède takes stock of the current research on green as a symbol of inconstancy and mutability and she shows that ‘gay green’ and ‘lost green’ were not only used by Italian Renaissance painters but also by Shakespeare who surprisingly resorted to similar codes in order to suggest the disquieting transience of the early modern era. The metamorphic green worlds of his comedies, she argues, are permeated with mannerist brushes of green conveying Shakespeare’s disegno interno and provide readers and spectators with a reflexive frame to apprehend the artifice of his plays.

39Ayami Oki-Siekierczak explores the colour green from a more technical point of view as she insists on the prevalence of “green bice” and “vertgris” over “verditure” and “sap green” in treatises such as A very proper treatise, wherein is breefely set foorth the art of Limming, which teacheth the order in drawing and tracing leters (1583). This leads her to analyse Shakespeare’s Tempest, where the shade is referenced in Gonzalo’s observation, “How lush and lusty the grass looks! How green!” (2.1.54), which is certainly less naive than it seems at first glance. She eventually considers the functions and complex implications of green in the play with a particular focus on the interrelated issues of ownership and Elizabethan enclosures.

  • 22 Casson also tells us that “[h]wit, the Old English reflex of ‘kweit’, was primarily [...] a brightn (...)

40Part Four addresses the symbolic use of black and white in early modern drama, from John Webster to Richard Brome. As Ronald W. Casson explains, “[w]hite is derived from an Indo-European root, ‘kweit’, which meant ‘to shine’”, and this explains why many occurrences of the colour white still suggested luminosity in the early modern era (227).22 The meaning “colourless, uncoloured” appeared later and was attested in 888 (ibid.). As to the colour black, it was paradoxically assigned with globally positive connotations under the Reformation, but was considered a deviant colour as soon as it came to describe a human being. In Purchas Pilgrimage (1613), Samuel Purchas seeks to understand why black people are black, and he describes the different interpretations of skin colour inherited from Classical Antiquity and still prevailing in Jacobean England:

Now if any would looke that we should here in our discourse of the Negro’s assigne some cause of that their black colour: I answere, that I cannot well answere this question, as being in it selfe difficult, and made more by the variety of answeres, that others give hereunto. Some alledge the heat of this Torrid Region [Africa], proceeding from the direct beames of the Sunne; And why then shoulde all the West Indies stretch from the one Tropike to the other, have no other people? […] Some […] attribute it to the drynesse of the earth: […] as though Niger were here dryed up […]. Some ascribe it (as Herodotus) to the blacknesse of the Parents sperme or seede; And how made they the search to know the colour thereof, which if it hath (a thing by others denyed), by what reason should it imprint this colour on the skinne? (Quoted in Boose 42-43)

41Even though the geographical compiler seems rather sceptical about these theories, he nonetheless circulates them, and the fact is that on the early modern stage, black characters are often more insistently stigmatized than the less exotic white ones. Yet, a number of early modern playwrights played with expectations and stereotypes, thereby revealing that another vision of the black and white colours was possible.

42In a close reading of Webster’s White Devil (1612), Natascha Wanninger explores the blackness of Zanche and focuses on the links between drama and cosmetics to study early modern fears of falsehood and mistaken identity. She eventually argues that Webster transgresses the colour codes of his time, not just because, in his play, the forces of blackness are actually embodied by white characters, but also because colours are endowed with particularly unstable meanings likely to disorient the audience.

43Next, Annaliese Connoly and Lisa Hopkins usefully complete Wanninger’s argument by examining colour imagery not just in The White Devil but also in The Duchess of Malfi (1613-14). They contend that whiteness, for Webster, was related to winter, mourning and death, and that the playwright’s use of light was principally aimed at generating sadness and fear.

44If Connoly and Hopkins astutely exploit the resources of whiteness, Chantal Schütz prefers to map the satirical representations of blackness in Middleton’s The Black Book (1604). Paying attention to colour contrasts, black clothing, quality ink and food similes, she observes that Middleton capitalizes on the unreliability of the black dyes to create new scenic effects and she is keen to describe how the playwright, literally obsessed with blackness, almost systematically resorts to a black-white duality to throw a new light on vice and dishonesty.

45In the last article of this Fourth Part, Cristina Paravano enlarges on the dichotomy and the meanings of black and white in the Caroline era. Taking Richard Brome’s The English Moor (first printed in 1659) as he main object of study, she investigates the symbolism of makeup and equates the idea of blackness with a wide geographical space encompassing England, Africa and Venice.

46The Fifth and last Part, “Illusion and Polychrome Games”, opens with Anne Geoffroy’s essay on the multifaceted representations of the Venetian chromatic variations in early modern England. Geoffroy points out that the Venetians’ ability to decolourize glass led to the later discovery of the prism, and she notes that, in 1594, Jacopo Verzelini was the first Venetian glassmaker to establish a successful business in London. She then carefully analyses the way English travellers perceived the majesty of the city of Venice in order to probe into the numerous and complex association between Venice and the vocabulary of colour in the English language.

47Then Armelle Sabatier’s paper brings to the fore the illusionistic power of painting in John Lyly’s Campaspe. Performed in 1584, this courtly comedy takes up the classical story of Apelles, the Greek painter, and Campaspe, Alexander the Great’s concubine. Scrutinizing Lyly’s dramatization of early modern debates about colours, Sabatier shows how and why Shakespeare’s predecessor exploited the four-colour palette (or the colores austeri) originally praised by Pliny.

48In conclusion to this issue, Olivia Coulomb turns to Shakespeare’s ‘statue scenes’ in Romeo and Juliet and in The Winter’s Tale. Primarily interested in the use of white and red, she examines the significance of these scenes in relation to the symbolism of polychrome statues in early modern England. According to her, while Shakespeare undoubtedly hinted at the powerful attraction of Roman Catholic statues, he also purposely fashioned his own living effigies, detached from their sacred functions and caught between life (movement) and death (stasis), so as to enhance the visual impact of early modern theatrical performance.

Epilogue: going multi-coloured

49So, this variety of essays shows that the early modern world of colours cannot be reduced to a sum of rigid codes and theories. Shakespeare’s England is indeed a fascinating universe in its ambivalent use of hues, shades and pigments, which are both criticized and eulogized, shunned and desired, repressed and called for. Such ambivalence is of course partly due to the religious context of the Reformation, but this explanation is only partly satisfactory. Indeed, Elizabethans and Jacobeans alike inherited a highly fluctuating medieval system while seeking to discover fresh meanings in the world around them.

50Sense experience was certainly not at odds with imaginative perceptions of polychromy. Alchemy, in particular, focused on metals changing colours, and this early modern ‘science’ resonated with the English Renaissance culture of searching, checking and experiencing. For alchemists, then, colour was a substance and it partook of an empirical way of apprehending reality.

51For painters, too, colour was “consistency” and the flourishing print industry of early modern England undoubtedly circulated and advertised such a materialist vision of colour. No wonder if in his Miniatura, Edward Norgate suggested to take as much pigment “as will lie in a muscle shell (which of all others are fittest for limning, or otherwise those of Mother Pearle) and with a little gum water temper it with your finger till it come to a fitting consistency or stiffnes” (10, my emphasis).

52With the advent of the “scientific revolution” (Shapin passim), a new English society was born – a society which definitely rejected the primacy of black and white, no matter what the Church authorities thought, and which aspired to see life in colours.

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1 Hudson (who died in or before 1605) is chiefly known for The historie of Judith in forme of a poeme, penned in French by the noble poet, G. Salust, lord of Bartas, Englished by Tho. Hudson (1584).

2 See for example his treatise entitled Siris: A Chain of Philosophical Reflexion and Inquiries (1744), 423.

3 i.e. mercury, sulphur and salt.

4 Carla Mazzio therefore duly observes that “‘science,’ to Shakespeare’s ears and eyes, would have en- compassed fields of knowledge including but also exceeding what was called, in the medieval period, the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music) and the trivium (rhetoric, grammar, and logic)” (2).

5 Significantly, in his Principall Navigations (1589), Hakluyt disclosed “an itemized list of secrets to obtain from the Turks […] under the title ‘Remembrances for master S’. Among the list of techniques and materials to be gathered from the Turks ins ‘to learne of the Diers to discerne all kind of colours; as which be good and sure […] The to take the names of all the materials and substances used in this Cities or in the realme, in dying of cloth or silke’” (Jacobson 174).

6 In his Leviathan (1651), Hobbes suggested that, like tastes and odours, colours were actually subjective (or “sensible”) qualities that one could “discern” only “by Feeling” (6).

7 Remarkable for its accuracy and reliability, Stow’s book appeared in an expanded second edition in 1603, and was reprinted several times during the 17th century. It remains his most famous work.

8 In some respects, the anonymous author of Arden of Faversham (1592) foreshadows Tuke’s views. In the play, Clarke the painter, in love with Susan, is first and foremost depicted as a malevolent chemist since he “[…] can temper poison with his oil / That whoso looks upon the work he draws / Shall, with the beams that issue from his sight, / Suck venom to his breast and slay himself” (1.229-32). Later on in the tragedy, his rival Michael, who covets the same girl, taunts him “[b]ecause you painters make but a painting table of a pretty wench and spoil her beauty with blotting” (10.66-68). Incidentally, Clarke is modelled upon a real painter documented by Raphael Holinshed in his 1577 Chronicles (“There was a painter dwelling in Faversham who had skill of poisons, as was reported”, Appendix B, 291, quoted in Keith Sturgess’s edition of the play).

9 This oscillation between green and red (which did not imply a systematic confusion) was still relevant in the 16th and the 17th centuries, since the lexicographer Randle Cotgrave associated “synople” with “red lead” or “vermillion” in his 1611 dictionary. Yet, Cotgrave was also perfectly aware that the same term was used in heraldry, where it meant green (“Synople, Sinople; Greene, in Blazon”). Both examples are quoted in the OED entry “sinople”, 2 And 3.

10 Alhazen’s Optics was translated from Arabic into Latin at the end of the 12th century. Roger Bacon, Witelo, and John Pecham all widely disseminated Alhazen’s optical knowledge.

11 For further details, see Jacobson 174.

12 For further details see Sherlock 216.

13 The mercury- and lead-based whiteners found at the time were all utterly toxic. Queen Elizabeth I herself was used white lead, with which she created her ‘Mask of Youth’.

14 Whitney’s emblem can be seen online: (Date accessed: 11 April 2015). The commentary’s last lines are particularly telling: “But saye wee lacke, their herbes, their wormes, their flies, / And want the meanes: their gallant hues to frame. / Yet Englande, hath her store of orient dies, / And eeke therein, a DYER most of fame, / Who, alwaies hathe so fine, and freshe, a hewe, / That in their landes, the like is not to vewe”.

15 This fascination led to important discoveries in the 17th century, since in 1629, Robert Fludd published his Medicina Catholica. Recommending the use of a colour wheel to detect abnormalities in patients’ urine, he had the idea of arranging colours in a seven-part circle which consisted of black, white, red, yellow, orange, green and blue.

16 Frank Whigham and Wayne A. Rebhorn note that whereas “flower” is “a metaphor for rhetorical figure or device”, “colour” is “one for stylistic or rhetorical embellishments” (Puttenham 222, note 10). The latter metaphor can be traced back to Plato’s Phaedrus.

17 The formal expression of this law, however, was first published by René Descartes in La Dioptrique (1637).

18 In his entry on Harriot for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, J.J. Roche adds that “[h]e also recognized that red, yellow, and blue light are refracted differently and measured their refractions. Johann Kepler (1571–1630) heard of Harriot’s discovery and wrote to him in 1606 for information. Harriot sent Kepler some refraction data but did not reveal the law […]” (Roche n.p.).

19 In 1612, Peacham’s book was expanded and retitled Graphice. It was reissued once again the same year, with a new frontispiece, as The gentleman’s exercise. Further editions appeared in 1634 and 1661.

20 This refers to one of Henry Peacham’s sections in his treatise The Art of Drawing (1606).

21 Pink, moreover, never became a “basic color term until the Modern English period, by about 1720” and even more strikingly, it never was a “brightness term” (Casson, 232).

22 Casson also tells us that “[h]wit, the Old English reflex of ‘kweit’, was primarily [...] a brightness term” (227).

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Blaise Pascal University, Clermont-Ferrand, CERHAC, UMR 5037, French National Centre for Scientific Research
Sophie Chiari is Professor of English Literature at Blaise Pascal University, Clermont-Ferrand. She specializes in early modern studies as well as in literary translation. She has published extensively on Shakespeare and his contemporaries. She is the author of L’image du labyrinthe à la Renaissance (Champion, 2010), Renaissance Tales of Desire (CSP, 2012), and Love’s Labour’s Lost: Shakespeare’s Anatomy of Wit (PUF/CNED, 2014). She has also edited several collections of essays. Her latest publications include Transmission and Transgression: Cultural Challenges in Early Modern England, co-edited with Hélène Palma (PUP, 2014) and The Circulation of Ideas in Early Modern English Literature (Ashgate, 2015).

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