Navigation – Plan du site
2. “The Dyer’s Hand”: Colours in Early Modern England
III/ A World of Greens

How green!”: The Meanings of Green in Early Modern England and in The Tempest



Chez Shakespeare, la couleur verte, tout comme d’autres teintes, est investie de bon nombre de significations censées stimuler la vue, l’odorat et même le toucher. Tandis que les célèbres vers d’Enobarbus vantent la beauté de Cléopâtre par le biais de couleurs qui s’avèrent être des réminiscences de textures et de parfums précis (Antony and Cleopatra 2.2.191-205), Ophélie, Marina et Perdita sont autant d’héroïnes associés à des fleurs odorantes et colorées. Les sonnets décrivent quant à eux l’amour et les amants par le truchement de la couleur. Mais si l’on s’intéresse plus particulièrement au vert, la variété de ses significations a de quoi surprendre. Cette couleur peut évidemment évoquer la nature, la végétation, ou la mer. De manière plus surprenante, elle est parfois associée à l’amour, à la jalousie, au déclin, et à la nouveauté, alors même que ces notions paraissent fortement contradictoires. Dans La Tempête, pièce où l’action se situe dans une nature utopique, on retrouve cette couleur dans la célèbre exclamation lancée par Gonzalo au cours du deuxième acte : « How green ! » (2.1.54).
Cet article s’attachera donc à explorer la fonction de la couleur dans les pièces de Shakespeare et se concentrera plus précisément sur l’usage que le dramaturge fait du vert. Il abordera notamment La Tempête et tentera d’analyser la référence cryptique de Gonzalo à la couleur verte.

Haut de page

Texte intégral

1Although actors generally avoided green, in early modern England, this colour was used for various effects in Shakespeare’s works. If it was thought to bring bad luck to the stage, it was due to a tradition going back to Judas’s costume in the medieval mystery plays, which was green and/or yellow. It was indeed said that a number of actors lost their lives after playing the role (Pastoureau 2014, 159). In Shakespeare’s plays and poems, green is sometimes the colour of jealousy and sickness. However, it can also be the colour of the eyes of a noble man, the colour of love, and the colour of youth. Green, therefore, functions to present various figurative meanings and it stimulates the visual sense of the readers/audience as well as their imagination. In The Tempest (1611), Gonzalo, a honest counselor to King Alonso of Naples, expresses how green the island is. Yet his short line, “How green!” (2.1.54), does not simply describe the colour and commonwealth of nature. It can also be interpreted as one of the main themes of the comedy.

2A romance play, The Tempest opens with a threat to sovereignty and invokes a change of sovereignty that occurred in the past. Both the plot and the subplot involve ownership and rule of land. The first concerns Sebastian, brother to the King of Naples, and Antonio, the current Duke of Milan, who are instigating a plan to murder the king, Alonso. The second focuses on Caliban, a native of the island and son of the Algerian sorceress, Sycorax, who intends to kill Prospero with the aid of Stephano, a drunken steward, and Trinculo, a court jester. In addition, a love plot revolves around inheritance rights and sovereignty, since Ferdinand, the Prince of Naples, and Miranda, Prospero’s daughter, fall in love. Is it possible, then, to say that such a simple line as “How green!” has the power to evoke the play’s most complex issues? This will be my contention. Analyzing Gonzalo’s line in context, I will explore the function of the colour green as well as other related issues in the play. I will therefore first consider the use of colours in Shakespeare’s works, including the sonnets, plays, and some of their sources. This part will thus introduce readers with the various effects of colour terms in the Shakespearean canon. I will then address the meanings of green, including its general functions and particular significance in Shakespeare’s plays, before exploring thoroughly the symbolizations of green enclosed and controlled by humans, via gardens, orchards, and other green spaces. This will eventually lead me to reconsider the significance of green in The Tempest.

1. The use of colours in Shakespeare’s oeuvre: an overview

3In the case of Shakespeare’s poetry, the profound significance of colours is evident in sonnets 12, 68, 73, 99, 112, 114, 127, 130, and 132. For instance, in sonnet 12, the vivid colour of an aging violet flower first stimulates the reader’s senses and precedes the sable hue of a beast’s coat now turned silver because of its white hair. In this sonnet visibly influenced by Ovid, the green of a past summer has turned as white as a beard:

When I behold the violet past prime,
And sable curls [all] silver’d o’er with white;
When lofty trees I see barren of leaves,
Which erst from heat did canopy the herd,
And summer’s green up girded up in sheaves
Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard’
(Sonnet 22, 3-8)

4All these vivid hues have faded and turned monochrome, and here, colour terms serve to embolden a beauty that may fade with the inexorable march of time. Sonnet 99 — strangely composed of fifteen lines instead of the usual fourteen lines — features various tinges while the invocation of the violet suggests both an agreeable colour and a sweet smell:

The purple pride
Which on thy soft cheek for complexion dwells
In my love’s veins thou hast too grossly dy’d.
The lily I condemned for thy hand
And buds of marjoram had stol’n thy hair;
The roses fearfully on thorns did stand,
[One] blushing shame, another white despair;
A third, nor red nor white, had stol’n of both,
And to his robb’ry had annex’d thy breath,
But for his theft in pride of all his growth
A vengeful canker eat him up to death.
(Sonnet 99,

5“The purple pride” of line 3 is associated with the colour of human veins, a white lily with hands, the colour and smell of whitish marjoram buds are associated with the youth’s hair illuminating the beloved body of the speaker’s lover, and roses offer delicate hues of white and red (even though the third rose, “nor red nor white”, is probably damasked). Now unlike sonnet 99, which explores a wide range of hues and their effects, in sonnet 127 (the first of the ‘Dark Lady’ series), only a tangible “raven black” perspires through lines associated with beauty, providing a completely different colour effect:

Therefore my mistress’ eyes are raven black,
Her eyes so suited, and they mourners seem
At such who, not born fair, no beauty lack,
Sland’ring creation with a false esteem.
Yet so they mourn, becoming of their woe,
That every tongue says beauty should look so.
(Sonnet 127, 9-14)

  • 1 The colour green, in particular, may be seen as “the fulcrum of the analogy between natural and hum (...)

6Thus, Shakespeare’s sonnets abound with ingenious applications of colour terms, sensations, and their hidden implications.1

7In the plays, colour terms are used in a similarly complex manner but they trigger different effects. They are, in fact, so compressed that they immediately flourish when presented on stage. In Antony and Cleopatra, Enobarbus famously alludes to Cleopatra’s magnificence thanks to colour terms (2.2.191-205). Yet in Thomas North’s 1579 translation of Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romanes, the gold poop deck, purple sails, silver oars, and cloth of gold are all featured, which means that a variety of different shades was already present in Shakespeare’s main source:

Therefore when she was sent unto by divers letters, both from Antonius him selfe, and also from his friendes, she made so light of it, and mocked Antonius so much, that she disdained to set forward otherwise, but to take her barge in the river of Cydnus, the poope whereof was of gold, the sailes of purple, and the owers of silver, which kept stroke in rowing after the sounde of the musicke of flutes, howboyes, cithernes, violls, and such other instruments as they played upon in the barge. And now for the person of her selfe: she was layed under a pavilion of cloth of gold of tissue, apparelled and attired like the goddesse Venus, commonly drawen in picture: and hard by her, on either hand of her, pretie faire boyes apparelled as painters doe set forth god Cupide, with little fannes in their hands, with the which they fanned wind upon her. Her Ladies and gentlewomen also, the fairest of them were apparelled like the nymphes Nereides (which are the mermaides of the waters) and like the Graces, some stearing the helme, others tending the tackle and ropes of the barge, out of the which there came a wonderfull passing sweete savor of perfumes, that perfumed the wharfes side, pestered with innumerable multitudes of people. (2.2.274)

8However, in Shakespeare’s playtext, colour terms are enhanced to become vivid reminders of textures and scents, stimulating and titillating the audience’s senses. Describing the gold deck, Shakespeare associates it with burnished and burning colours reflected on the water. The purple sail is given a perfume that makes the winds love-sick and the silver oars gently stroke the water to the tune of flutes:

The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne
Burned on the water.
The poop was beaten gold;
Purple the sails, and so perfumed that
The winds were love-sick with them. The oars were silver,
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made
The water which they beat to follow faster,
As amorous of their strokes. For her own person,
It beggar’d all description. She did lie
In her pavilion—cloth-of-gold, of tissue—
O’er-picturing that Venus where we see
The fancy outwork nature. On each side her
Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids,
With divers-colour’d fans whose wind did seem
To [glow] the delicate cheeks which they did cool,
And what they undid did.

9Here, colour seems tactile, olfactory, and auditory at the same time. The playwright may have also intentionally changed Plutarch’s reference to Venus. Here, the comparison between the eroticized Cleopatra in the pavilion of golden tissue with Venus in a picture invokes both the magnificence of Elizabeth I herself and her painted representations such as the Darnley portrait (Eggert 134).

  • 2 “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray you, love, remember. And there is pansies, that’s f (...)
  • 3 This is the case when she grieves: “I will rob Tellus of her weed / To strow thy green with flowers (...)
  • 4 “Give me those flow’rs there, Dorcas. Reverend sirs, / For you there’s rosemary and rue; these keep (...)

10As an Oriental femme fatale, Cleopatra does not rely on typically European herbs and plants to assert her powers of seduction. But girls dedicating flowers in Shakespeare’s plays, like Ophelia referring to flowers with vulgar names in Hamlet, Marina in Pericles, and Perdita in The Winter’s Tale, testify to the powerful and sometimes coarse sensuality that flowers can evoke in the reader’s or audience’s thoughts. The fragility and delicacy of the girls lend the colours of their flowers both lightness and freshness, although the reasons for their dedications differ. The colours of Ophelia, the “rose of May” (4.5.158), paint her beauty while paradoxically conveying the fragility of her madness,2 whereas Marina’s flowers contrast with grief over her misfortunes3 and Perdita’s colours emphasize her youth and delicate appearance.4 Thus colours are systematically given meaningful associations that lead the audience to link them to a theme or motif in Shakespeare’s works.

11The Tempest is, of course, no exception. In this play, Ceres’ lines in 4.1 significantly resort to colours in order to emphasize the attributes of Iris, the goddess of the rainbow and to enliven the mood of the scene. Indeed, Ceres greets Iris and calls upon her “many-coloured messenger” (76) with “saffron wings” (78). “Saffron,” a term taking its name from a plant, is both a spice and dye compound, and it invokes a scent, a texture, a colour, and a taste at the same time. The goddess also mentions Iris’ “blue bow” (80), thereby recalling the belief that the rainbow draws water from the sea and blesses the land with rain. As a result, in this scene, colourful images associated with nature gradually emerge and underline the mythical mood of the scene on the green island.

2. The paradoxical meanings of green

  • 5 Girls then often “failed to get enough iron to keep up with the dual demands of growth and iron los (...)

12As a matter of act, Shakespeare often employs the word “green” in descriptions of young female characters, where it is, more often than not, associated with illness. One example is the image of an anemic disorder associated with young women or virginity in Pericles. Here, Pander curses Marina (“Now, the pox upon her green-sickness for me!” [4.6.13-14]) because she retains her chastity in a brothel. By talking to the men, she changes their minds and protects her virginity. This echoes a similar sickness in one of the playwright’s early tragedies, namely Romeo and Juliet, in which Romeo says, “not her [moon’s] maid, since she is envious; / Her vestal livery is but sick and green” (2.2.7-8). This, once again, refers to an anemic disorder commonly found in unmarried women5 and which can be interpreted as a premonition of Juliet’s feigned death before her marriage to Paris. The same image is recalled when Capulet cries out to Juliet, “Out, you green-sickness carrion!” (3.5.156), criticizing her stubbornness over the marriage, because the disorder was thought to occur in women before marriage. This reference also recalls the conversation between the lovers where Juliet says of Romeo:

Methink I see thee now, thou art so low,
As one dead in the bottom of a tomb,
Either my eyesight fails, or thou lookest pale.

13Here, green works as a device obviously connecting Juliet to her premarital death.

  • 6 “Was the hope drunk / Wherein you dress’d yourself? Hath it slept since? / And wakes it now to look (...)
  • 7 Which Pastoureau contends has implications of madness, sickness, and eccentricity (1999, 135-36).
  • 8 According to Jennifer Rae McDermott, “Galenic medicine believed that envy built up bile, which gave (...)

14This imagery of illness is transformed into the imagery of hangover in Antony and Cleopatra, when Enobarbus states, “Lepidus, / Since Pompey’s feast, as Menas says, is troubled / With the green-sickness” (3.2.4-6). This is also the case in Macbeth, where a hangover is described as “green and pale” by Lady Macbeth.6 Moreover, the virulence of the colour appears not only in the well-known lines uttered by Iago in Othello (“It is the green-ey’d monster which doth mock / That meat it feeds on” [3.3.166-67]) but also in The Merchant of Venice, a play which mentions “green-eyed jealousy” (3.2.110), a phrase uttered by Portia just before the crucial scene in which Bassanio opens the leaden casket and finds her portrait. In Twelfth Night, together with yellow,7 Viola refers to green as the “green and yellow melancholy” (2.4.113) as she talks with Orsino about the love of her father’s daughter. It should also be noted that green has additional connotations in Shakespeare’s works, since the playwright was fully aware of the fact that from the Middle Ages onward, green was the colour of the legendary wild men, of dragons and, of course, was connected to envy (Milward 41-44).8

15On the other hand, green is also associated with love in Shakespeare’s plays. Armado in Love’s Labour’s Lost observes that “[g]reen indeed is the colour of lovers” (1.2.86), and this association of love and green appears also in The Two Noble Kinsmen when the Doctor says, “Sing to her such green songs of love as she says Palamon hath sung in prison” (4.3.81-82).

  • 9 See for instance the following references in Shakespeare: “griefs are green”, which refers to the f (...)
  • 10 In Love’s Labour’s Lost, Moth asserts that Delilah “had a green wit’ (1.2.89). The notion of immatu (...)

16In keeping with this idea, green sometimes carries a positive association of freshness and fertility derived from images of vegetation, and yet, it can also convey quite opposite meanings derived from the poisonous bitterness of unripe fruits. The image of youth derived from young fruits metaphorically signifies the early days following naissance.9 Ulysses addresses Ajax’s age as “green” in Troilus and Cressida to Nestor (2.3.254), while Cleopatra famously recalls her young days as her “salad days”, when she “was green in judgement” in Antony and Cleopatra (1.5.73-74), in order to evoke the naïve judgments of her youth.10 This symbolism originates from the poisonous bitterness of plants, which functions to protect the pulp in its immaturity (Hutching 56). As a consequence, green is the hue of youth, health, and growth, but also of decay (Heather 172).

  • 11 Green as the colour of the sea can also be detected in A Midsummer Night’s Dream when Oberon says “ (...)

17This colour is therefore employed to designate a rather wide range of shades, including an almost bluish green, as in Love’s Labour’s Lost, “the sea-water green” (I.ii.82), which refers to the youth of Sampson’s love. This usage of blue/green matches the OED definition of the colour “said of the sea (properly, of the sea near the shore), and hence of Neptune” (“Green,” def. a. AI1b). This complex imagery suggests the easily changeable status of green and its unpredictability, which is why greenish hues can also symbolize the condition of love.11

3. The Elizabethan green: from dyeing to gardening

18With the benefit of hindsight, one can probably say that the remarkable versatility of green is not surprising given the way it was obtained at the time. According to A Profitable booke declaring dyuers aprooued remedies, to take out spots and staines, in Silkes, Veluets, Linnen, and Wollen Clothes (1596), there were several ways of dyeing cloth depending on the desired hue and on the available fabric. The anonymous treatise describes how the nuances of green could be controlled by using yellowish and bluish dyes. Interestingly, as the materials and methods used to produce the principal green hues indicate, green could occupy a place close to blue. Even though the colour spectrum was not yet discovered, thanks to their experiments and experience, the dyers already figured out how to obtain green by mixing the two colours. Moreover, there were natural colourings from natural plants such as the ‘green berry tree’ in addition to the materials the Elizabethans used for limning and painting (24, 25, 42, 46, 56-57).

19For drawing and limning, the green pigment was made according to certain recipes. The Art of Drawing, by Henry Peacham, introduces four hues in the fifth chapter, entitled “The Second booke intreating of the true ordering of all manner of water colours and painting vpon glasse”: “greene bice,” “vert-greace,’ “verditure,” and “sappe greene” (54-55). Here, “greene bice” is distinguished from “blue bice,” which means “azurite”, and therefore the term signifies “malachite”, i.e. a mineral with a greenish hue. “Vert-greace” refers to “nothing els but the rust of brasee, which in time being consumed and eaten with Tallow turneth into greene” (ibid.). This must be “verdigris”, which is in fact a copper acetate. The former is a bright green colour which can be obtained from minerals, while the later can be made by applying acetic acid to copper. As for “verditure” and “sappe greene,” the explanations do not indicate precise substances. The former, a faint and pale green hue, is applied with “a weak gum Arabeck water” whereas the latter, a dull and light green, should be applied after the following process: “laie it in sharpe vineger all night, put to it a little Alom, to raise his colour” (ibid.). In his book, Peacham also mentions a method of making green ink using “vert-grease” with the juice of a rotten apple and a little saffron, possibly to add an acidity that will brighten the hue (61). As the title of the second book suggests, it also discusses a method of painting glass with green pigment using turpentine, which may have changed the texture and was often applied warm (67). The author expatiates on similar methods elsewhere in the book, insisting on the origins of the term “green” and affirming that “green” is related to “grass” (81).

20Furthermore, in his work, Peacham makes it clear that the four nuances of green were commonly used in Elizabethan England (81-82). Among the four, “green bice” and “vertgris” seem to have been the most successful ones as they are often mentioned in other treatises devoted to drawing and limning, such as A very proper treatise, wherein is breefely set foorth the art of Limming, which teacheth the order in drawing and tracing leters […] by an anonymous author (6-7). Compared with “verditure” and “sap green”, “green bice” and “vertgris” are bright and rather standard green hues, and they have broader usage too, whereas “sap green”, for instance, was usually only applied with other green hues in limning.

21In a seminal work devoted to green, The Key of Green, Bruce R. Smith draws attention to the dialogue between Viola and Olivia as the two maids talk about Olivia’s complexion (59-64). Ironically emphasizing that the states of colours in limning, dyeing, and the like are impermanent, Olivia says, “’Tis in grain, sir, ‘twill endure wind and weather” (5.1.237-38). This is her riposte to Viola’s, “Excellently done, if God did all” (5.1.236), praising Olivia’s beauty. Here, lady Olivia says that her complexion will not wash away easily since it is not “an inch thick” paint on her face; however, even if engrained, the hues and freshness of vivid colours will gradually fade. As has already been contended, green hues were thought to be volatile. As Sonnet 12, discussed at the beginning of this paper, implies, the vivid hues of colours may remain in our memories, but they fade in reality and green is no exception. Actually, the hue must be properly cared for by humans, as is made clear by the anonymous Dutch author of A Profitable booke declaring dyuers aprooued remedies.

  • 12 “Thus I commit the to almighty god, who geue thee the furderance of true knowledge in this and othe (...)
  • 13 “This Garden within the enclosure of the Newwall […]” (Caius 3)

22As Jeffrey Theis points out in his Writing the Forest in Early Modern England, green was also a word deeply connected to the ownership of land in Elizabethan England. In an illustration from William Lawson’s New Orchard and Garden (1631), one can see people enclosing the land by making wooden pickets. In A most briefe and pleasaunte treatyse, teachynge how to dresse, sowe, and set a garden (1563) by Thomas Hill, green is perceived as a divine privilege for human beings.12 Remarkably, in the treatises of the period, the green elements belonging to nature can be modified by human hands, and these elements tend to emphasize enclosure. Isaac de Caius’s Wilton Garden (1645), for example, mentions enclosed green spaces.13 The image of an enclosed green space can also relate to a political movement and evoke the spread of the enclosure in 16th-century agriculture. Indeed, in early modern England, influential individuals declared ownership of lands by enclosing them. No wonder if Thomas More, in his Utopia (1516), criticizes the influence of the enclosure on employment and grain prices, insisting that sheep were devouring men. To do so, he skilfully invokes arguments both for and against the movement. Embracing both opinions, he therefore associates enclosed greens with the rule and control of the land (21-23).

23It must be said, moreover, green places such as gardens have always stimulated the senses. At a time when “amateur horticulture generally became both more widespread and more deeply associated with elite recreation in England” (Knight 7), these gardens were not a mere reflection of an idealized countryside, but an enclosed space of sensuality for wealthy citizens. In a city full of nuisances such as permanent noises and bad smells, they were desperately needed to balance pungent objects whose scents could not be masked by herbal deodorizers and this resulted in people’s sense of smell being harmed in crowded and polluted cities (Beck 44, 50, 54). In these enclosed oases, the public relished the pleasures of various plants. Flowers and shrubs that scented the air also offered some kind of visual comfort to those who used gardens for rest and recreation. Hence, the Elizabethans tried to encapsulate various sensations within green places. However, what sorts of smells and visual senses would they expect in artificial green areas?

24We can only assume the kinds of colours and scents Shakespeare’s contemporaries valued because today, the existing gardens in the Elizabethan formal style, such as knot gardens, are mostly revival versions from the Victorian era. Therefore, in order to find out what sorts of plants the Elizabethans cultivated, we need to consult historical documents and archaeological reports. In the case of gardens, archaeological evidence is unfortunately limited because a great number of archaeological stratifications of the 16th century has been damaged or lost. It is also hard to judge whether the available evidence indicates what was native or heterogenic. However, evidence from archaeological research samples reveals what actually existed in London. For example, the 1995 excavation at Battle Bridge Lane in Southwark uncovered plants used for cooking, including some from the New World (Schofield 83). This claim is supported by several contemporary document, such as Thomas Hill’s In A most briefe and pleasaunte treatyse, teachynge how to dresse, sowe, and set a garden (1563), later known as The Profitable Arte of Gardening, which mentions edible plants in gardening instructions. When reading the book closely, we realize how sensitive the Elizabethans were to scent, at least from Hill’s point of view. For instance, explaining how to make a garden properly, Hill tells us to make an “herber” with juniper wood, or alternatively willow poles, after fertilizing the ground with animal dung — sometimes mixed with chalk, in order to compensate for mineral deficiency, before planting roses. Roses seemed popular not only for their ability to attract the eye, but also for their medicinal use, a topic to which he devotes several pages focused on “all the Roses” (Hill 12, 70-74). Marigold, another popular flower is introduced as “[…] a flouew very well knowen, and to be founde in the most Gardens at this daye, which renueth every month, and is to be found as well in the winter as sommer” (Hill 77). These flowers were thus probably familiar to the vast majority of Elizabethans. In addition, Hill’s book provides his readers with a long list of herbs. Certainly, gardens had to be skillfully planned as pleasant places for visual and olfactory appeal. In a way, they were also artful, deceptively enclosed and framed as they were by boxwood. It is worth noting here that when a garden was positioned as an isolated entity, it existed as a recreation area for busy city life. When annexed to residential facilities, it was considered part of a house, no matter how big it was. If the house was large, extra structures may have been involved as it was often connected to the garden by a gallery and/or parlor (Schofield 81). These observations allow us to imagine how Elizabethans tried to enclose the colour green within their day-to-day lives.

25Tellingly, The Orchard, and the Garden (1594), written by an anonymous author, instructs how to plant, grow, and take care of plants for different purposes. The section explaining the seasons for sowing and replanting introduces mostly edible plants, vegetables, and herbs, but against all odds, flowers such as the double marigold and white poppy are rarely mentioned in the book (27-29). From the descriptions of the tools and means of making knot gardens, readers can actually guess that the specific garden the author had in mind is neither a croft nor a vegetable garden. Gardens could therefore serve to entertain not only the eyes but other senses as well.

26In order to illustrate the wider significances of gardens, I would like to touch, if only very briefly, on the issue of embroideries. Compared with Elizabethan descriptions, which offer only fragments of information on seeds, flowers, and herbs, treatises devoted to embroidery give much more information on the typical colours found in the English Elizabethan garden. As such, they provide us with a broader overview of gardening at the time. For example, a book written by the “water-poet”, John Taylor, and published in 1634, explicates the particularities of embroidery design, here “posited as imitation endowed with the creative capacities of Nature itself” (Callaghan 78):

Flowers, Plants, and Fishes, Beasts, Birds, Flyes, and Bees,
Hils, Dales, Plaines, Pastures, Skies, Seas Rivers, Trees;
There’s nothing neare at hand, or farthest sought,
But with the Needle may be shap’d and wrought.
(John Taylor A3)

27Taylor also describes the patterns of these motifs in a useful appendix. Moreover, embroideries then functioned to convey the beauty of a colourful outside world in an interior space (Beck 44, 55). While gardens attached to houses extended the dwelling area to the outer world, embroidery succeeded in bringing the outside atmosphere, in a preserved form, into the house. This shows, if anything, that while olfaction was a key component of gardening, the visual stimulations generated by plants were varied and plentiful in the green places designed and controlled by human hands.

4. A green Tempest, or Gonzalo’s ideal commonwealth

28So far, this essay has discussed the functions of colour terms in Shakespeare’s works, the symbolizations of green, and the meaning of enclosed and controlled green spaces for Elizabethans. In the last section of this essay, I intend to explore the figurative meaning(s) of the colour green in Gonzalo’s line “How green!” and deal with problems closely related to land ownership and rule. Indeed, I would like to argue that The Tempest must not simply be read as a romance play full of extravagant motifs, but that it also concerns issues of sovereignty and land and that, as a result, it reflects the enclosure movement of Elizabethan times.

29Before The Tempest, issues of sovereignty and inheritance appeared in several other Shakespearean plays. For instance, the Henriad (i.e. Richard II, 1 and 2 Henry IV) embrace these issues. Richard II focuses on Henry Bolingbroke, a cousin and counterpart to the old king, who emerges as the new ruler of the nation, and it pays attention to the last years of Richard II’s life. The play also touches on the issue of property holding, especially when the king seizes John of Gaunt’s land and when Bolingbroke retakes his own property from the king. Henry VI deals with later sovereignty and heirs. Similar themes echo throughout the comedies as well. The Merchant of Venice contains the issue of property transfers due to marriage, theft, and confiscation. Likewise, King Lear throws light on the problematic issues of land distribution and examines the right to rule when a monarch divides his properties among his children. One could also cite here the last act of Hamlet, which mentions several terms pertaining to laws governing land ownership. The protagonist, for example, resorts to legal jargon while looking at a skull in a graveyard, and observes that “[t]his fellow might be in ’s time a great buyer of land, with his statutes, his recognizances, his fines, his double vouchers, his recoveries […]” (Hamlet 5.1.103-12).

30The theme of ownership and ruling of the land is referenced from the beginning of The Tempest. The plot revolves around a beautiful green island, located somewhere in the Mediterranean sea, where Prospero and his daughter, Miranda, live as refugees (Malieckal 115) after having been expelled from Milan. One day on the island, the King of Naples, Alonso, the current Duke of Milan, Antonio, and their entourage are washed ashore. By the sheer power of magic, a storm struck their ship while on their return from Tunis, where Alonso gave his daughter, Claribel, in marriage. The shipwreck was the work of Ariel, who had obeyed Prospero’s orders. Readers and spectators learn, therefore, that nature and magic both have the power to affect the sovereignty of the island.

31Together with the love story of Miranda and Ferdinand, the Prince of Naples, there are two other plots involving the sovereignty of the island. The first is that of the current Duke of Milan who contemplates an uprising by murdering the King of Naples, abetted by the king’s brother. In the second, Caliban tries to kill Prospero using clownish characters as his allies. Because the sorceress, Sycorax, is one of the only natives of the island, Caliban, her son, could well be regarded as its rightful heir. Fully aware of such implications, Prospero educated Caliban until the latter attempted an outrage against Miranda. Since then, enmity between them has grown. Their opposition to Sycorax’s black magic and Caliban’s treacherous deeds give Prospero and Miranda the power to rightfully rule the land. As a consequence, most of the play’s events are dominated by the intertwined themes of ownership and inheritance rights and they reveal an interesting pattern of transaction and assurance of land holding authority.

32At first glance, it is hard to ascertain that the high-minded Gonzalo is a key character, since he is merely an old counselor. However, an analysis of the plot reveals the magnitude of his role. The character functions as a storyteller who tells of the beauty of the island, of its terrible experiences, miraculous reconciliations, as well as of other important incidents. In the chaotic jumble of the other characters (including the supernatural creatures), he is treated as a reliable narrator. Prospero speaks of him as the “Honest lord” (3.3.34), “the good old Lord Gonzalo” (5.1.15), and a “noble friend […] whose honor cannot / Be measur’d or confin’d’” (5.1.120-22). This respect is also apparent from the fact he is referred to as “[…] good Gonzalo, / My true preserver, and a loyal sir / To him thou follow’st!” (5.1.68-70)

33At this point, I would like to insist on the importance of the old counselor by examining an often-neglected event relating to Prospero’s magic book. The book provides Prospero with the sorcery necessary to dominate the island. According to what he tells Miranda, Gonzalo gave him the book, which he cherishes more than his own land (1.2.160-68). Without it, he would neither be able to rule the island in place of its legitimate ruler, Caliban, nor control the island’s nature. Caliban, who is now forced to be Prospero’s slave, also discusses the significance of the book in play (3.2.87-103). Therefore, a magic book that does never appear before the audience is surely at the origin of the power to control the world and it closely binds together the themes of ownership, rule, control, and colonialism.

34As seen in the lines of Iris and Ceres in the Masque (4.1.60-117) and in Prospero’s lines while drawing the circle of magic (5.1.33-57), the term “green” is closely related to the forces of nature in The Tempest. An analysis of the confrontation between the human and natural worlds makes it clear that cutting down the woods and enclosing the land are related to ownership and to issues of sovereignty (Theis 2-3). Relevant readings of The Tempest, therefore, should not be “divorced from the discursive field of the enclosure movement which was in full swing in Shakespeare’s very own Warwickshire during the play’s composition” (Dirk Delabastita in Keinänen and Salenius 196, note 24).

35Significantly, it is precisely when he is faced with a dispute over the ownership of the island that Gonzalo exclaims: “How lush and lusty the grass looks! How green!” (2.1.54). One should also note that the humble counselor’s reference to “green’ is followed by his words about Dido, a Queen who ruled a thriving civilization and an ideal social structure:

I ’th ’commonwealth I would, by contraries,
Execute all things; for no kind of traffic
Would I admit; no name of magistrate;
Letters should not be known; riches, poverty,
And use of service, none; contrast, succession,
Bourn, boud of land, tilth, vinard, none;
No use of metal, corn, or wine, or oil;
No occupation, all men idle, all;
And women too, but innocent and oure;
No sovereignty — […]

  • 14 Indeed, Antonio says that “his word is more than the miraculous harp” (2.181).

36Furthermore, Gonzalo goes on developing his arguments in front of Antonio and Sebastian, which may hide another implication around the ownership of the island. Antonio mocks Gonzalo by referring to the harp that Amphion played after being taught how to play by the god Hermes.14 With the magical harp, Amphion and his brother Zethus succeeded in building the walls of Thebes, an almost impossible task. Consequently, the mocking words of Antonio and Sebastian parallel the impossibility of Gonzalo’s claim. On top of that, the image of building a city as sovereignty is invoked in the same passage, and the discrepancy between Gonzalo’s ideal concept of society and the other characters’ understanding emphasizes the impracticality of Gonzalo’s idea of history.

37Of course, this moment serves to remind the readers and the audience of Montaigne’s essay, “Of Cannibals,” marrying the image of ideal policies in Carthage to the New World, all the more so as Carthage is alluded to in another scene. When Iris, with her “saffron wings” (4.1.78), calls Ceres to the “short-grass’d green” (4.1.83), it indeed calls to mind the voyage of Aeneas which also features Iris who, with “her saffron wings”, invokes Dido by setting her soul free from the body (118).

38David Scott Wilson-Okamura also insists that Gonzalo’s line implies connections to an ideal social structure (724). The idea of an imaginary island associated with Carthage is taken as reality when Gonzalo reminds us of Elizabethan settlers and adventurers. He indeed vividly describes the rewards of those who returned from strange and remote lands as follows:

Faith, sir, you need not fear. When we were boys,
Who would believe that there were mountaineers,
Dew-lapp’d, like bulls, whose throats had hanging at ’em
Wallets of flesh? Or that there were such men
Whose heads stood in their breasts? Which now we find
Each putter-out of five for one will bring us
Good warrant of.

  • 15 Cf. Othello’s stories, which similarly describe the barbarity of that world: “[…] Cannibals that ea (...)

39Hinting at John Mandeville’s improbable anecdotes, this depiction suggests the powerful attraction that the yet relatively unknown New World held for Shakespeare’s contemporaries.15 In the last act of the play, the old Gonzalo still shows how amazed he is by the miracles of the island:

All torment, trouble, wonder, and amazement
Inhabits here.
Some heavenly power guide us
Out of this fearful country!

40For many of today’s readers and spectators, an island isolated from the outside world brings colonialism to mind. For Shakespeare’s contemporaries, Gonzalo’s impression of the island certainly reflected the feelings of early modern settlers such as Sir Walter Raleigh exploring new lands (Olson passim).


41In Shakespeare’s drama, colour terms carry important significations and motifs related to crucial themes. They usually characterize personae, emphasize or add meaning to ideas, concepts, or objects, and they stimulate the senses of the readers or the audience. Likewise, when Gonzalo says, “How green!” to describe the land before his eyes, this may hint at an ideology of ownership and rule. We have seen that, given its breadth of interpretation, the word “green” conveys various nuances. It seems to be a simple word, but layers of undertones lie beneath it and arise at crucial moments. Bruce R. Smith has already shown that, basically, “inhabitants of Renaissance England — at least those wealthy enough to possess a bed — did their sleeping, dreaming, copulating, and dying within green enclosures” (46). It should come as no surprise, therefore, that when uttered by Gonzalo, the word “green” symbolizes various ideals of enclosing, owning, and ruling land in addition to describing the land’s freshness and fertility. That the term carries a variety of rich implications is shown by various examples in Shakespeare’s works and relevant Elizabethan literature. Against concepts of medieval feudalism, the Renaissance revived old ideas of Republicanism. This does not necessarily mean that the English needed non-monarchical forms of government, but that a common good based on land owned by the people would be important to ensure a stable rule. In The Tempest, the green island is no fallow ground. It is cultivated and dominated by Prospero and his magic. Thus undermined, Gonzalo’s reference to “green” goes beyond the mere expression of the hue, the freshness, and the fertility of grass, in order to imply wealth and rule of land.

Haut de page


An. A Profitable booke declaring dyuers aprooued remedies, to take out spots and staines, in Silkes, Veluets, Linnen, and Wollen Clothes […], trans. L.M., London: Thomas Purfoot, 1596. Print.

An. The Art of Limming. (A Very Proper Treatise, Wherein is Briefly Sett For the Arte of Limming), Taken out of Dutche, and englished by L. M, Imprinted at London by him and W. Pounsonbie, 1583. Print.

An. The Orchard, and the Garden [Con]taining Cer[tai]ne Necessarie, Secret, and Ordinarie Knowledges in Grafting and Gardening. Wherein are Described Sundrie Waies to Graffe, and Diuerse Proper New Plots for the Garden. Gathered from the Dutch and French. Also to Know the Time and Season, When It Is Good to Sow and Replant All Manner of Seedes, London: Adam Islip, 1594. Print.

Beck, Thomas. “Gardens in Elizabethan Embroidery”, Garden History 3 (1974): 44-56. Print.

Caius, Isaac de. Wilton Garden, London: Thomas Rowlett, 1645. Print.

Callaghan, Dympna. “Looking Well to Linens: Women and Cultural Production in Othello and Shakespeare’s England” in Marxist Shakespeares, eds. Jean Howard and Scott Shershow, New York: Routledge, 2001: 53-81. Print.

Eggert, Katherine. Showing Like a Queen. Female Authority and Literary Experiment in Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000. Print.

Garrison, Cheryl. Iron Disorders Institute Guide to Anemia, Naperville, Illinois: Cumberland House, 2009. Print.

Harvey, Elizabeth D. “Flesh Colors and Shakespeare’s Sonnet” in A Companion to Shakespeare’s Sonnets, ed. Michael Schoenfeldt, Chichester: Blackwell Publishing, 2010: 314-28. Print.

Heather, P. J. “Colour Symbolism Part I”, Folklore 59 (1948): 165-83. Print.

Hill, Thomas. The Profitable Arte of Gardening Nowe the Third Time Set Forth, London: Henrie Bynneman, 1574. Print.

Hutching, John. “Folklore and Symbolism of Green”, Folklore 108 (1997): 555-63. Print.

Keinänen, Nely and Maria Salenius, eds. Authority of Expression in Early Modern England, Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009. Print.

Knight, Lea. Reading Green in Early Modern England, Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2014. Print.

Malieckal, Bindu. “‘Boat People’: Wars of Religion, Women Refugees, and Shakespeare’s The Tempest” in Shakespeare and Immigration, eds. Ruben Espinosa and David Ruiter, Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2014: 113-33. Print.

McDermott, Jennifer Rae. “‘There’s Magic in the Web of It’: Skin, Mind, and Webs of Touch in Othello” in Embodied Cognition and Shakespeare's Theatre: The Early Modern Body-Mind, eds. Laurie Johnson, John Sutton and Evelyn Tribble, New York: Routledge 2014 : 154-73. Print.

Milward, Peter. “The Silent World of Colour”: In English Words, eds. Shōichi Watanabe and Kazu Nagamori. Tokyo: Nan’un-Do, 1978. Print.

Montaigne, Michel de. The Essay of Montaigne, trans. John Florio. New York: AMS Press, 1967. Print.

More, Thomas. Utopia. Rockville, Maryland: Arc Manor, 2008. Print.

Olson, Steven P. Sir Walter Raleigh: Explorer for the Court of Queen Elizabeth, New York: Rosen Publishing Group, 2003. Print.

Pastoureau, Michel. Dictionnaire des couleurs de notre temps: symbolique et société, Paris: Christine Bonneton, 1999. Print.

Pastoureau, Michel. Green: the History of a Colour, trans. Jody Gladding, Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2014. Print.

Peacham, Henry. The Art of Drawing with the Pen, and limming in water colours, ... with the true manner of painting upon glasse, the order of making your furnace, annealing, […], London: R. Braddock for W. Jones, 1606. Print.

Peacham, Henry. The Gentlemens Exercise […], London: John Marriott and Francis Constable, 1634. Print.

Plutarch. “Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romanes, translated by Sir Thomas North (1579); The Life of Marcus Antonius” in Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, ed. Geoffrey Bullough, vol. 5. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1964: 254-321. Print.

Schofield, John. “City of London Gardens, 1500-c.1620.” Garden History 27 (1999): 73-88. Print.

Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare, eds. G. Blackmore Evans et al, Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997. Print.

Simpson, J.A. and E.S.C. Weiner. Eds. The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed., Oxford: Oxford University Press,1989. Print.

Smith, Bruce R. The Key of Green: Passion and Perception in Renaissance Culture, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2009. Print.

Taylor, John. The Needles Excellently a New Booke Wherin Are Diuers Admirable Workes Wrought with the Needle. Newly Inuented and Cut in Copper for the Pleasure and Profit of the Industrious, London: Iames Boler, 1634. Print.

Theis, Jeffrey. Writing the Forest in Early Modern England, Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 2010. Print.

Wilson-Okamura, David Scott. “Virgilian Models of Colonization in Shakespeare’s Tempest”, ELH 70.3 (2003): 709-37. Print.

Haut de page


1 The colour green, in particular, may be seen as “the fulcrum of the analogy between natural and human worlds, a kind a chromatic seepage from one register to the other that carries with it the inevitable progress of seasonal change” (Harvey 318).

2 “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray you, love, remember. And there is pansies, that’s for thoughts” (4.5. 175-77). Ophelia also says to the royal couple: “[To Claudius.] There’s fennel for you, and columbines. [To Gertrude.] There’s rue for you, and here’s some for me; we may call it herb of grace a ‘ Sundays. You may wear your rue with a difference. There’s a daisy. I would give you some violets, but they wither’d all when my father died” (180-85).

3 This is the case when she grieves: “I will rob Tellus of her weed / To strow thy green with flowers. / The yellows, blues, / The purple violets, and marigolds, / Shall as a carpet hang upon thy grave / While summer days doth last” (4.1.13-17).

4 “Give me those flow’rs there, Dorcas. Reverend sirs, / For you there’s rosemary and rue; these keep / Seeming and savor all the winter long” (4.4.73-75).

5 Girls then often “failed to get enough iron to keep up with the dual demands of growth and iron loss through menstruation”. So, their “pale faces […] often had a greenish-yellow tint, leading to the popular term ‘green sickness’ and the medical term ‘chorosis’ (from the Greek word for green)” (Garrison 17).

6 “Was the hope drunk / Wherein you dress’d yourself? Hath it slept since? / And wakes it now to look so green and pale / At what it did so freely? […]” (1.7.35-38).

7 Which Pastoureau contends has implications of madness, sickness, and eccentricity (1999, 135-36).

8 According to Jennifer Rae McDermott, “Galenic medicine believed that envy built up bile, which gave the skin a distinctive green hue” (161).

9 See for instance the following references in Shakespeare: “griefs are green”, which refers to the freshness of grief in Henry IV, Part 2 (IV.v.203), and “Though yet of Hamlet our dear brother’s death / The memory be green” in Hamlet (I.ii.1-2)

10 In Love’s Labour’s Lost, Moth asserts that Delilah “had a green wit’ (1.2.89). The notion of immaturity also appears in Hamlet when an impatient Polonius preaches on affection to his daughter, telling her that she “speak[s] like a green girl” (1.3.101).

11 Green as the colour of the sea can also be detected in A Midsummer Night’s Dream when Oberon says “Opening on Neptune with fair blessed beams, / Turns into yellow gold his salt green streams” (3.2.392-93); in Macbeth when the protagonist asks “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood / Clean from my hand? No; this my hand will rather / The multitudinous seas incarnadine, / Making the green one red” (2.2.57-60); and in Antony and Cleopatra when Antonio grieves the apparent death of Cleopatra, referring to the sea as “the green Neptune” (4.13.58).

12 “Thus I commit the to almighty god, who geue thee the furderance of true knowledge in this and other lyke pleasante Artes” (Hill Aiii verso).

13 “This Garden within the enclosure of the Newwall […]” (Caius 3)

14 Indeed, Antonio says that “his word is more than the miraculous harp” (2.181).

15 Cf. Othello’s stories, which similarly describe the barbarity of that world: “[…] Cannibals that each [other] eat, / The Anthropophagi, and men whose heads / [Do grow] beneath their shoulders” (Othello, 1.3.143-45).

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Ayami OKI-SIEKIERCZAK, « How green!”: The Meanings of Green in Early Modern England and in The Tempest », E-rea [En ligne], 12.2 | 2015, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2015, consulté le 29 mars 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/erea.4465

Haut de page



The Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum, Waseda University
After graduating from the University of the Sacred Heart (PhD in Literature, 2011), Ayami Oki-Siekierczak joined the Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum, Waseda University, as a Research Associate. Her research now focuses on the reception of Shakespeare in Japan, and her recent publications include “Meiji Japanese Shakespeare as a Source of Wisdom” (in Linguistics and Literature Studies 2.7, 2014), “Transforming Shakespeare into a Kabuki Piece for the Modern Audience: ‘Contemporary’ Elements in the Text and Conventional Factors in the Presentation of Ninagawa’s Twelfth Night” (in Translation in Theatre and Performance, Routledge, 2013), “Rendering the Blue Lights in Richard III: Function of the Suddenly Exposed Blue and Its Recent Japanese Translation” (in Szekspiromania, Warsaw University Press, 2013), and “Translating Mercutio: His Kaleidoscopic Colours in Tsubouchi’s 1910 Translation” (in The Text Made Visible: Shakespeare on the Page, Stage and Screen, Sairyusha, 2011). These studies have also helped her to translate a number of subtitles for theatre performances and movies.

Haut de page
  • Logo Laboratoire d’Études et de Recherche sur le Monde Anglophone
  • Logo DOAJ - Directory of Open Access Journals