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2. “The Dyer’s Hand”: Colours in Early Modern England
V/ Illusion and Polychrome Games

Polychrome sculptures in Romeo and Juliet and The Winter’s Tale



Depuis la Réforme, le public anglais a été habitué à des sculptures sans fioritures ni peinture. Cependant, dans Le Conte d’hiver, Shakespeare structure son intrigue autour de la statue peinte d’Hermione. Son apparence vivante permet au roi de prendre conscience de ses anciennes erreurs. Fait troublant, dans Roméo et Juliette, le dramaturge avait déjà présenté Juliette, censée être morte et enterrée, comme une statue de gisant.
Ces deux pièces peuvent donc être lues comme formant un diptyque du point de vue de la fonction dramatique et esthétique. En effet, lorsqu’ils sont confrontés aux « statues » colorées de leurs bien-aimées, Roméo et Leontes soulèvent par leurs réactions diverses questions quant au rôle que joue l’œuvre d’art.
Cet article commencera par mettre l’accent sur l’ambivalence de la couleur au début de l’Angleterre moderne afin d’analyser la signification des statues polychromes, avant d’aborder les « scènes de la statue » dans les deux pièces pour mettre en valeur leurs diverses fonctions. Enfin, je montrerai que, pour être comprises, Roméo et Juliette et Le Conte d’hiver doivent être replacées dans un contexte artistique complexe, celui d’une époque où les Anglais s’inspiraient d’un style continental et plus spécifiquement italien pour remodeler l’identité de leur pays.

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  • 1  In 1611, Randle Cotgrave defines the term in his manual, A dictionarie of the French and English t (...)

1Although colours have always been very much present in everyday life, they have also been socially, religiously, politically and symbolically encoded. In the same manner, sculptures have been modelled since time immemorial, reproducing shapes and colours according to specific social and aesthetic rules and canons. In England, this was true until the early modern era when, under King Henry VIII, state-sponsored iconoclasm began to affect parish churches, and when, under his successor Edward VI, most religious pictures were either defaced or whitewashed. Unsurprisingly, the statues still authorised under Elizabeth’s reign were strictly controlled. As recently pointed out by the “Art Under Attack” exhibition at the Tate Britain (2 October 2013 – 5 January 2014), the Protestant Reformation generally condemned the use of pictures (also referred to as ‘images’)1 and statues in places of worship, and they had to be as plain as possible in order to be accepted, if not encouraged, by the authorities. As a consequence, a wide number of sculptures turned pale and became undecorated, unadorned, unpainted effigies (Frere and Kennedy vol. 3, passim). Yet, in The Winter’s Tale (1611), Shakespeare chose to chisel his plot around Hermione’s painted statue – a statue which turns out to be part and parcel of the happy family reunion at the end of the play. Similarly, in Romeo and Juliet (1595) the final scene confronts the spectator with statuesque stillness where the title parts are first depicted with hues of certain colours, to be finally immortalized in the erection of statues representing the star-crossed lovers. So, this article aims at presenting an analysis of the subtle meaning(s) of colours in early modern England. Were the colour schemes and codes then settled once and for all, or were they fluctuating? Did colours stand for precise symbolical meanings? Last but not least, might the use of colours in Romeo and Juliet and The Winter’s Tale suggest something of a transition taking place in the approach to early modern sculpture?

1. A tale of colours

  • 2  See, too, Pastoureau 1994, t. 4, 27-46.
  • 3  Thanks to new techniques coming mainly from the Continent, for instance the use of egg tempera or (...)
  • 4  Men of science were also conducting experiments on colours so as to understand and classify them, (...)
  • 5  As colours were associated with social status and / or beliefs, they were forbidden to some social (...)

2In his article entitled “La Réforme de la couleur”, Michel Pastoureau asserts that for a long time, the history of colours had been more or less at rest in the West, i.e. had gone on without much variation (1992, 323-42).2 However, he observes that, from the mid-15th to the mid-16th century, a phase of acceleration and a period of profound change – technical,3 aesthetic, scientific4 and symbolic5 – did take place. From a religious point of view, colours in early modern England were at the heart of the theological concerns of most educated churchgoers, influenced as they were by the values of the Protestant Reformation. For the vast majority of Reformers, there were honest and dishonest colours. For instance, Martin Luther did tolerate some colours as long as they were rather pale, or if they were in accordance with the faith. As a matter of fact, the Luther Rose, also known as the Luther Seal, perfectly encapsulates Luther’s faith and its shades are highly significant. In a letter to Lazarus Spengler (1479-1534) in July 1530, Luther interprets the colours on his seal as follows:

Grace and peace from the Lord. As you desire to know whether my painted seal, which you sent to me, has hit the mark, I shall answer most amiably and tell you my original thoughts and reason about why my seal is a symbol of my theology.

The first should be a black cross in a heart, which retains its natural color, so that I myself would be reminded that faith in the Crucified saves us. “For one who believes from the heart will be justified” (Rom. 10:10). Although it is indeed a black cross, which mortifies and which should also cause pain, it leaves the heart in its natural color. It does not corrupt nature, that is, it does not kill but keeps alive. “The just shall live by faith” (Rom. 1:17) but by faith in the crucified.

Such a heart should stand in the middle of a white rose, to show that faith gives joy, comfort, and peace. In other words, it places the believer into a white, joyous rose, for this faith does not give peace and joy like the world gives (John 14:27). That is why the rose should be white and not red, for white is the color of the spirits and the angels (cf. Matt. 28:3; John 20:12).

Such a rose should stand in a sky-blue field, symbolizing that such joy in spirit and faith is a beginning of the heavenly future joy, which begins already, but is grasped in hope, not yet revealed.

And around this field is a golden ring, symbolizing that such blessedness in Heaven lasts forever and has no end. Such blessedness is exquisite, beyond all joy and goods, just as gold is the most valuable, most precious and best metal.

This is my compendium theologiae [summary of theology]. I have wanted to show it to you in good friendship, hoping for your appreciation. May Christ, our beloved Lord, be with your spirit until the life hereafter. Amen. (Luther 49: 356-59)

3This excerpt attests to the fact that gaudy colours, then regarded as artificial, were deemed abominable whereas black, white and grey shades were to be worn on a daily basis (Pastoureau 1992, 323-42; 1994, 27-46). The religious turmoil experienced at the time resulted in the destruction and the hiding away of many Roman Catholic paintings and sculptures since they were considered as too representative of real human beings, i.e. as too brightly coloured and too life-like. Images of all sorts (sculptures included) were put out of sight so as to protect the most naive believers from their power (Tassi passim). Consequently, in 16th century England, sculptures became mostly monochrome, covering a wide spectrum from white to black, including all hues of grey.

4It goes without saying that colours were also a crucial matter in relation to beauty – an issue mainly connected, at the time, to femininity. Farah Karim-Cooper underlines the fact that in early modern England, beauty refered to “a racially privileging standard: fair skin (fair meaning white, a glistening glow or shine), rosy cheeks, dark eyes, and coral lips” (Karim-Cooper 2007, 142). This description of beauty is closely linked to colours, as the 1587 definition given by the lexicographer Thomas Thomas demonstrates. Indeed, in his Dictionarium Linguae Latinae et Anglicanae, the latter explains the word “colour” as follows: “Cŏlŏr, ōris, m.g. A colour, the externall face or beauty of a thing, a cloke or pretense: figures, and ornaments, colourable proofes.”6 Indeed, colours were symbols of beauty or ugliness, and the ideal Elizabethan woman would go through a lot of trouble to achieve a paleness of skin which was a symbol of nobility since poorer women had tanned skin resulting from having to work outside in the sun. These canons of beauty for fair Elizabethan women appeared in a great number of works. In Astrophil and Stella (1580-82?), Philip Sidney gives Stella an architectural face, comparing her skin to a front of alabaster, her hair to a golden roof, her lip to a door of red porphyry, her cheeks to porches of red and white marble and her eyes to touch, which ignites fires in the poet made of straw (Sidney 156, Sonnet IX). Another example can be found in one of Edmund Spenser’s 1595 Amoretti sonnets, which turns Elizabeth into a real treasure-trove. She is said to contain in her eyes, lips, teeth, forehead, hair and hands the sapphires, rubies, pearls, ivory, gold and silver which merchants vainly seek from afar (Spenser 74, Sonnet XV). Here, the Queen is portrayed as a lavishly clad statue, bedecked with gems, and as such, she is comparable to the highly adorned sculptures which decorated Roman Catholic churches.

  • 7  During the 17th century, painted ladies were stigmatized as proud, false, deceitful and whorish.

5On a day-to-day basis, women in England would use and abuse cosmetics such as ceruse and a sublimate of mercury, a skin-whitening material, and red-coloured facepaints to make their cheeks and lips rosy to improve their appearance and beautify themselves (Lichtenstein 201-11). Of course, such unnatural hues used to magnify beauty were attacked by the Puritans, even though makeup was already widely used among the higher classes eager to attain a perfect complexion. As a result, and somewhat paradoxically, the use of cosmetics to improve one’s beauty was socially accepted in the higher circles even though it was considered as toying with God’s work, and therefore kindred to sin and evil.7 In The Book of Homilies, first published in 1547, preachers warned women that “such painted and flourished visages, which common harlots most do use, to train therewith their lovers to naughtiness,” and that the use of face paint “do(es) rather deform and misshape thee, than beautify thee” (Welsby ed, 61-62). In other words, unnatural colours were “from the devil, from the corrupter of nature” (Tertullian 17). Shakespeare seems to adhere to this idea, and he praises natural beauty while rejecting cosmetics as ‘false art’. For instance, he relies on the imagery of bastardy in Timon of Athens to express Timon’s unnatural origin, revealing the painted faces of Timon’s false friends as visual symbols of their deceit. Indeed, here is what Timon’s steward asks in act 4:

Who would be so mock’d with glory, or to live
But in a dream of friendship?
To have his pomp and all what state compounds
But only painted, like his varnish’d friends?

6Such lines imply that some colours and their use were then distinctively labelled as good or evil. Michel Pastoureau underlines that, for the Reformers, black, grey and white were morally proper hues whereas red symbolized prurience and sin (Pastoureau 2004, 178-80). In this context, it should come as no surprise that statues, which had been polychromed until the schism of the Reformation, more precisely until 1536, when the Ten Articles were signed at the end of Henry VIII’s reign, started to disappear from churches and to be deprived of their painted garments and their coloured hair, lips, eyes and hands.

  • 8  In his manual, Paolo Lomazzo highlights the fact that in the 16th century, the symbolism of blue i (...)
  • 9  Book 3 of A Tracte Containing the Artes of Curious Paintinge is dedicated to colours.
  • 10  In Paris, in the Musée de Cluny, there is a collection of truly beautiful polychromed sculptures f (...)
  • 11  Margaret Beaufort’s tomb can be viewed on the following website: (...)

7As far as statues were concerned, sculptors had resorted to coloured materials since Antiquity, and they had always applied pigments to give a lifelike quality to their works. While inlaid eyes aimed at creating a penetrating gaze, naturalistic complexions animated the sculpted face. Colours could also help identify at first sight the subject of a work, like the colour blue for instance (Pastoureau 2000 passim), traditionally associated with the Virgin Mary.8 The pigmentation of skin, garments, and accessories tended to convey prestige or nobility and it operated a clear-cut distinction between social categories. Moreover, sculptors frequently used pigments and coloured materials to alleviate the austerity of images that may otherwise appear stiff and iconic. According to Paolo Lomazzo, the author of Trattato dell’arte della Pittura (1584), a book translated into English as A Tracte Containing the Artes of Curious Paintinge (1598), colours allow any piece of visual art to be represented with as much reality as that of the copied subject: “It is manifest, that all those things which are first proportionably drawne, and then artificially coloured, will beare the true and naturall resemblance of the Life, by expressing all the actions and gestures thereof” (Lomazzo 93).9 The function of polychromy is thus primarily mimetic and this is the very reason why it has been at the heart of the religious debate during the Elizabethan period. Colours gave sculptures a life-like appearence and an illusion of volume which confered the sculpted form an almost human presence, likely to engage directly with its viewer and representing too much temptation for believers.10 It should also be noted that, even though the Protestants had banished Roman Catholic colours, i.e. mainly red and gold, Italian artists were not absent from the artistic scene. Xénia Muratova remarks that every now and then, the Italian influence could be perceived on English sculpture as early as the 14th century, at Exeter and Norwich for instance. The naked back-turned figure of the Norwich vault-boss could well echo an Italian manuscript prototype (Muratova 117-24). Phillip Lindley points out that, in the case of prestigious sculptural commissions, Italian sculptors were often employed for their skills, regardless of their creeds. The Florentine artist Pietro Torrigiano (1470-1522), who was Michelangelo’s contemporary and rival, is a case in point. Indeed, he signed the contract for the tomb of Margaret Beaufort (d. 1509),11 the mother of Henry VII. According to Lindley,

[…] it is clear that Torrigiano was decisively changing the course of English effigial culpture. Such a conception of his achievement finds confirmation in his other innovations in English sculpture. In the tomb for Dr Yonge in the Public Record Office […], which is wholly Renaissance in style, he introduced a new material, terracotta, into effigial sculpture. […] He introduced a new style of sculptural polychromy. His high altar design for Henry VII’s chapel was unprecedented in England. And he introduced at least one new form of devotional sculpture: the bust of Christ within a roundel. (Lindley 61)

8The appearance of a prestigious Florentine sculptor – one who apparently “inspired awe in his gestures” and looked like “a soldier” more than a sculptor (Wyatt 46) – at the English court highlights two of the deepest cultural contradictions characterizing Elizabethan society: its longing for plainness and its simultaneous desire for beauty. Now, bearing this issue in mind, I would like to focus on the symbolic significance of white and of various shades of red, since these hues appear in the sculptures presented in both Romeo and Juliet and The Winter’s Tale.

9White is the colour of purity, virginity and virtue, and whiteness or fairness were traditionally associated with beauty and innocence. Paolo Lomazzo connects this colour to modesty as well as to the purity of the soul:

White, because it is apt to receive all mixtures, signifieth simplicity, purities, and elation of the minde (as some say) of which colour Virgill writing AEn. 6. attributeth it to the garments of chaste Priestes, good Poets, and witty men, and such as defende there countrie. And Persius saith that a white man is interpreted to be a good and sincere man. (Lomazzo 114)

  • 12  It is worth noticing that only the wealthy could wear white, as it was difficult and expensive to (...)
  • 13  In the Bible, the beauty of the soul is given much more emphasis than bodily beauty, which is more (...)
  • 14  All quotations are from The Complete Works, eds. Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor.
  • 15 The phrase “white devil” comes from the well-known ploy of the devil who disguises himself as fair. (...)

10Because white was said to convey goodness and sincerity, Queen Elizabeth I may have chosen to wear it for political reasons, i.e. in order to corroborate her role as “The Virgin Queen” even though she was probably far from being a maiden (Hibbert 68). Likewise, the Pope was notorious for wearing white clothes, also relevant in the Catholic Church because they were used for baptisms, marriages, ordinations and dedications.12 In times of religious turmoil, the colour white must have had a strong impact on people’s feelings. It definitely had effects on the visual arts since Protestantism advocated plain sculptures, which led English viewers to grow accustomed to monochrome sculpture. Besides, tinges and pigments were (and still are) associated either with light or shadow (that is to say with good or evil) by the Church authorities. Significantly, Morris Palmer Tilley collected proverbs from the 16th and 17th century which exemplify the association of evil with its coloured representation. It was not uncommon to hear that “the Devil can transform himself into an angel of light” (Tilley D231) or that “The white Devil is worse than the black” (Tilley D310), or again, that “Vice is often clothed in virtue’s habit” (Tilley V44). According to popular beliefs, the devil disguised himself with a fair face, as is shown by Juliet’s response on hearing that Romeo has killed Tybalt: “O serpent heart, hid with a flowering face” (3.2.73).13 In early modern England, some colours were thus clearly regarded as devilish. When, in Romeo and Juliet, Benvolio tells Romeo that: “[He] will make [him] think [his] swan a crow” (1.2.89),14 he successively compares Rosaline to a white bird and then to a black one when he wants to prove her false. Furthermore, he insists on Romeo’s erroneous vision (“you saw her fair” [1.2.96]), underscoring his misinterpretation and the result of resorting to white as a camouflage: facial alterations could indeed indicate fakeness and characterize the devil’s attempt to conceal himself.15 Hence, the colours perceived by the lover are often biased as in Shakespeare’s sonnet 130, “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun”, where the speaker relies on a wide variety of colour comparisons in order to debunk the usual Petrarchan clichés. Here, the devilish temptress appears to be characterized by her palette of black and brown.

11As dark hues can correspondingly describe infatuation and love, white could also connote death. When the dying Mercutio, after being hurt by Tybalt, calls himself a “grave man” (3.1.98), he depicts himself as cold, still and monochrome as if he had already been changed into an early modern tomb sculpture. Likewise, the Nurse describing Tybalt’s dead body recalls: “A piteous corpse, a bloody, piteous corpse – / Pale, pale as ashes; all bedauded in blood, / All in gore blood” (3.2.54-6). In such lines, white and red form a pattern of death and emerge as an unequivocal mix of tragic colours.

  • 16  When Capulet gets angry at his daughter’s refusal to marry Paris, his wife has to intervene as his (...)
  • 17  See Thomas Wilson, The Art of Rhetorique (1553): “When we heare one saie, such a man swelled, seei (...)

12Yet, red is actually an unsettled colour. Considered as threatening, it is often synonymous with love, sex, desire, sin, pride, anger, ambition, power, hell and fire in Shakespeare’s works.16 For instance, when Juliet desperately tries to get some information from the Nurse and harrasses her into telling her what Romeo has just said, the Nurse asks Juliet: “Are you so hot?” (2.4.62) which instils an idea of youth, impatience and sexual arousal through the term ‘hot’, linked to the colour red. In the same way, in The Winter’s Tale, King Leontes, who is much older than Juliet but still impulsive and made angry by the supposed infidelity of his wife, exclaims: “Too hot, too hot” (1.2.110), implicitly refering to red as a negative colour, one of sex and acrimony. A few scenes later, it is Paulina’s turn to associate anger with red, more explicitly this time, as she talks about her “red-looked anger” (2.2.37). Clearly, her fury turns her into a feminine devil.17 As to Juliet’s nurse, she carries on with her red-hot sexual allusions when she declares: “Now comes the wanton blood up in your checks. They’ll be scarlet straight at any news” (2.4.70-71). When Capulet gets angry at his daughter’s refusal concerning her union with Paris, his wife has to intervene as his rage grows to unexpected proportions. She once more resorts to the symbolical bond between red and anger to tell him off (“You are too hot” [3.5.175]). One can thus notice that the heat provoked by passion is often conveyed by a red face in Shakespeare’s England. In 1571, Thomas Heel noted for example that

[t]he worthy Philosopher Aristotle, in Methaphoricis uttereth, that the cheeks appearing red above, doe witnesse such a creature to be a drunkarde, or greate drinker of wine: and referred unto the similitude of the passion: in that such which latelye haue bene angred and vexed, appeare of a blushing redenesse, especially about the eyes, kindled and caused in the beginning of the yre. (Heel 117)

13Heel observes here that, in a slightly different context, blushing may also suggest either shame or drunkenness.18

14Unsurprisingly, crimson was then especially linked to the “old” religion where it referred to the sacrificial death of Christ in order to redeem sinners. In the Middle Ages, a vivid red was always a mark of power among the laity and the clergy. From the 13th and 14th century onwards, the Pope, until then dedicated to the colour white, adopted the colour red. For the Protestants, of course, all the bishops clad in black and red stood for the immorality of the Roman Catholic Church. To substantiate their claim, they referred to a passage in the Apocalypse of St. John which involved a sea beast riding the great prostitute Babylon (“the scarlet whore”), all dressed in red (Pastoureau and Simmonet, 31-41).

15Yet, for all its derogatory meanings, red could also be considered a gratifying colour suggesting revival and life. In The Winter’s Tale, as Autolycus sings a ballad about the changing of the seasons, he clearly associates red with vital strength:

When daffodils begin to peer,
With heigh, the doxy over the dale,
Why then comes in the sweet o’ the year,
For the red blood reigns in the winter’s pale.

16Florizel reiterates the same comparison as he merrily says to Perdita: “See, your guests approach. / Address yourself to entertain them sprightly, / And let’s be red with mirth” (4.4.52-54), thereby suggesting that gaiety gives a healthy complexion. Yet, in Romeo and Juliet, “rosy cheeks” must be decoded slightly differently, i.e. either as a colour of shyness or of sinfulness, all the more so as Shakespeare often “dramatize[d] the blush as a measure of sexual chastity” (Iyengar 123). Romeo confirms this dramatized ambiguity while declaring:

They may seize
On the white wonder of dear Juliet’s hand,
And steal immortal blessing from her lips,
Who, even in pure and vestal modesty,
Still blush, as thinking their own kisses sin.

17Here, the young man lionizes his lover whose pure white hand and “immortal blessing” turn her into a goddess of sorts. So, Juliet’s blushes convey her chastity. In other words, the mere thought of her kisses, which she probably regards as sinful, makes her shamefaced.

18At this point, it has become apparent that white and the various shades of red were endowed with ambiguous meanings, depending upon the context in which they were used and mentioned. We shall now focus on the coloured statues in both Romeo and Juliet and in The Winter’s Tale so as to highlight their symbolic meanings.

2. Colours of goodness and statues of life

  • 19  “The Emperor of Russia was my father” (3.2.118).

19The heroines of Romeo and Juliet and The Winter’s Tale are first introduced as beautiful and fair ladies. Polixenes does not hesitate to address Hermione in terms reminiscent of the typical Elizabethan sense of refinement. She is indeed addressed as “fair queen” (1.2.63), which implies that she possesses the traditional attributes of early modern beauty, i.e. a pale skin, fair hair, and rosy cheeks (all the more so as she is a Russian princess!).19 Leontes equally remembers her “white hand” (1.2.105), highlighting her purity and innocence through her alabaster complexion. However, the king will not gaze at his spouse in the same way again after her spotless, gracious hand is given to Polixenes. He will segregate her as a harlot, almost as if her coloured characteristics, her most delicate attributes were now part and parcel of her downfall. Leontes will see his queen again – or rather, see her so-called statue – after sixteen years of repentance. Discovering Hermione’s representation, Leontes cannot but notice an alteration on her face and exclaims: “Hermione was not so much wrinkled” (5.3.28). The colour of the queen’s face which he now remembers has indeed been remodeled. From an artistic point of view, the result of such realism is quite a challenge for the carver, as in addition to the complexion of the skin, another hue must be added in order to ‘mock life’ (5.3.19). The craft used by the sculptor has been repeated twice, first in order to paint Hermione, then a second time to age it.

20In a similar way, when Old Capulet in Romeo and Juliet sees his daughter asleep after swallowing Friar Laurence’s potion, he gazes at the palette of colours on her body for proof. As he notices the absence of the colour red, he describes Juliet’s pseudo-death in terms that emphasize the features of a statue. As he labels her dead, he resorts to such adjectives as “cold”, “settled”, “stiff”, and “frost” which hint at her temperature as much as at the whitish, or greyish colour of a motionless Juliet:

Ha, let me see her! Out, alas, she’s cold.
Her blood is settled, and her joints are stiff.
Life and these lips have long been separated.
Death lies on her like an untimely frost
Upon the sweetest flower of all the field.

21Strikingly enough, Juliet appears as a recumbent statue: immobile, cold, and white.

22However, her monochrome stillness takes on another form when the flamboyant Romeo, thinking her dead, arrives at the monument and describes her as a freshly painted statue. Because the girl does not, after all, resemble a livid corpse, Romeo asserts that the beauty of his beloved remains intact:

O my love, my wife,
Death, that hath sucked the honey of thy breath,
Hath had no power yet upon thy beauty.
Thou art not conquered. Beauty’s ensign yet
Is crimson in thy lips and in thy cheeks,
And death’s pale flag is not advanced there.

23With the use of the “crimson” hue, Romeo states Juliet’s rank, her superiority, and as crimson then symbolized the blood of martyrs, she is also probably viewed as having greatly suffered from her family’s old feud with the Montaigus and from her passionate love for ‘her only hate’.

24What Romeo is not aware of, though, is that Juliet is actually about to come back to life…

25In The Winter’s Tale, when he is confronted with Hermione’s picture, Leontes is equally overwhelmed by emotion and by the coloured vision of the statue of his lost queen. As a result, he quickly declares his desire to kiss the statue. Paulina then forbids him to do so as she pretends that the red painting is still wet:

Good my lord, forbear.
The ruddiness upon her lip is wet;
You’ll mar it if you kiss it, stain your own
With oily painting. […]

  • 20  OED, “ruddy”, 1.a: “Designating an emotion which causes the face to go red, as shame, anger, etc. (...)
  • 21  OED, “ruddy”, 1.b: “Of the face, complexion, etc.: red or reddish, as indicative of good health; r (...)
  • 22  Brusatin Manlio, “Couleurs, histoire de l’art” in Encyclopaedia Universalis. Website: http://www.u (...)
  • 23  Born in 1547, he was an English goldsmith and limner best known for his portrait miniatures of mem (...)

26It is worth noting that, according to the OED, the term “ruddy” was already found in writings dating from the 13th century and referred first and foremost to an emotion,20 then to complexion and health.21 Here the word “ruddiness” is highly significant since it not only suggests a painted substance (or perfect makeup), but it also connotes the colour of life itself. Because Leontes is forbidden to kiss Hermione’s red lips, red becomes the colour that marks the end of mourning. It is presented as the shade endowed with the power to keep death at bay like a protecting shield.22 Curiously, it is the statue’s painting, rather than its shape, which is of paramount importance to Shakespeare in this scene. Polixenes goes a step further in his understanding of the artistic value of the colour red when he declares “[t]he very life seems warm upon her lips” (5.3.66), thereby defining the colour by its heat. The physical emergence of red, so to speak, is further stressed when Hermione’s sculpture is unveiled. In effect, the red colour on her lips seems to follow the instructions of Elizabethan miniaturists like Nicholas Hilliard, except that it is executed on a larger scale. Indeed, for a face to be painted succesfully in Elizabethan and Jacobean times, several layers of red needed to be applied. In 1627, according to Edward Norgate’s memory of Hilliard’s advice:23

You are to lay your ground or primer of a flesh as near as you can of the same complexion the party is [….] in limning you must never heighten, but work it down to the just colour […] The first colours you are to begin the face with are red; that is to say, of the cheeks and lips (i.e. relief) somewhat strongly, in the bottom of the chin if the party be beardless, as also over, under, and about the eyes. (Costa de Beauregard, 28)

27In other words, the colour red was so important that it had to be first applied to some specific areas of the face. It was indeed used to reproduce the complexion and the features of the painted subject, with his/her shadows and imperfections. Leontes’s following remark is therefore particularly accurate: “Would you not deem it breathed, and that those veins / Did verily bear blood?” (5.3.64-65).

28These coloured signs of life, found in the inanimate statue of Hermione or in the seemingly dead Juliet, uncover an atmosphere of uneasiness as Leontes, just like Romeo, believes that these painted sculptures are endowed with life. Leontes is so much startled that he declares: “There is an air comes from her” (5.3.78), before going on as follows: “What fine chisel could ever yet cut breath?” (5.3.78-79). His remarks are beyond understanding as no sculptor on earth could manage to “cut breath” or colour life, except if he were “assisted / By wicked powers” (5.3.90-91), as Paulina slyly asserts. In that case, so much focus on ‘fake’ colours would hint at a farce fooling with God’s creation, or still worse, at the devil’s work itself.

3. The colours of evil and the statues of death

29The colours which have been seen as a proof of life so far may very well be considered as the colours of death when studied in a different context. Indeed, in Romeo and Juliet, Friar Laurence’s minute description of the effect of the elixir which is to turn Juliet into a mock corpse leads us to view a motionless girl resembling an alabaster statue. Here is what the friar says:

And this distilling liquor drink thou off,
When presently through all thy veins shall run
A cold and drowsy humour; for no pulse
Shall keep his native progress, but surcease.
No warmth, no breath shall testify thou livest.
The rose in thy lips and cheeks shall fade
To wanny ashes, thy eyes’ windows fall
Like death when he shuts up the day of life.
Each part, deprived of supple government,
Shall, stiff and stark and cold, appear like death;

  • 24  There is a beautiful statue of St John the Evangelist in Blaubeuren Abbey in Ulm (Germany), which (...)

30The various phrases used to describe the potion’s effects on Juliet, i.e. “cold”, “no pulse”, “[n]o warmth, no breath”, no “roses in thy lips”, “stiff and stark and cold”, are all part of a lexical field of death, much closer to a tomb sculpture than to a living being. It is indeed easily conceivable to picture a white lying Juliet like a monochrome, recumbent statue. However, this representation is twofold for the spectators, since they first hear the description from Friar Laurence (4.1), before listening to that of Romeo (5.3). The fundamental difference between the priest’s description and Romeo’s vision of Juliet lying in the tomb is the “crimson” (5.3.95) colour found on her lips and cheeks. As she is slowly coming back to life, Juliet looks like one of those colourful statues so much criticized during the Reformation.24 As much of a temptation as Hermione and her red lips in The Winter’s Tale, the fair Juliet could actually be compared to those devilish strumpets or superstitious images then abhorred by the Puritans as she is both charming and fascinating. Yet, Friar Laurence’s machiavelic Machiavellian plan and Paulina’s deceitful scheme mimic the colours of death only up to a certain point. For if Juliet’s monochromed immobility first resembles a “borrowed likeness of shrunk death” (4.1.104), it is soon suggestive of life. The age of Hermione and the wrinkles on her face cannot be concealed, and neither can Juliet’s natural complexion. Farah Karim-Cooper remarks that Hermione’s statue

is painted to in the likeness of her ‘former’ self. However, she is not dead, and although Nature triumphs in this scene, Leontes attributes to art the vitality upon her face: ‘The fixture of her eye has motion in’t, / As we are mocked with art’ (5.3.67-8). (Karim-Cooper 2006, 81)

  • 25  See above, note 4.

31But, once again, the limited power of colours is quite distinct in both plays. In The Winter’s Tale, the coloured artifice of Hermione’s lips and the movements of her eyes (which was, at the time of the play, still associated, with colours),25 do not manage to match God’s creation. In other words, the artist who shaped and painted the statue did not succeed in outdoing nature. In Romeo and Juliet, when Juliet is really dead, her colours mislead those still alive by making her look asleep.

32Unlike his Juliet, Romeo is ascribed to grey, i.e. to a blend of white and black that follows him through the whole play. In the opening scene, when the young man is about to enter the Capulets’ ball, he complains about having “a soul of lead / So stakes me to the ground I cannot move” (1.4.15-16), as if he were a heavy grey statue fixed to the ground. Montague reiterates the same metaphorical images when, speaking about the sad Romeo whose love for Rosaline proves unrequited, he states that the young lover is “adding to clouds more clouds with his deep sighs” (1.1.121). Grey is in his mind, his body is made of “valour’s steel” (3.1.115), and his extensive sorrow is symbolized by a grey hue which has seeped into his whole being, turning him into a raw statue, unfinished and unpolished, carrying a “heavy burden” (1.4.22), “too rough, too rude” (1.4.25-6). Interestingly, Romeo continues: “I’ll be a candle-holder and look on […] I am done” (1.4.38-39) implying with the pun on “dun” and “done” that he is dead and greyish-brown like a statue.

33A greyish-brown shade may have been seen as a rather plain shade in Catholic Verona, but it was regarded as a respectable tincture in Protestant England. For Shakespeare’s contemporaries, colours, generally speaking, could be classified according to their density. If a shade is being abnormally coloured, i.e. either “o’ershade[d]” (1.2.457) as Polixenes says, or “o’er-dyed blacks” (1.2.134) according to Leontes, then it becomes unnatural, worrying, and infects the people around. For instance, in The Winter’s Tale, the conventional colour of life is metamorphosed into a stone-like colour (5.3.42) and when Leontes loses his colours at his supposed wife’s misbehaviour, he is said to “blench” (1.2.335). [N.B.: See the pun on ‘blench’ and ‘bleach’ in the Winter’s Tale which as to do with the process of ‘whitening’]. Both characters are conventionally described with a “flesh-stone metaphor” (Teague 154). Similarly, when a gentleman tells the story of the statue of Hermione, he asserts that “[w]ho was most marble there changed colour” (5.2.89) probably with a pun on ‘marble/marvelled’. Indeed, Hermione’s pseudo-statue coming back to life so much impressed the audience that colour, that is to say the sparkle of life, was blown into them as much as into her. Much has already been said on the information delivered by the same gentleman about the author of such an admirable sculpture:

The Princess, hearing of her mother’s statue, which is in the keeping of Paulina, a piece many years in doing, and now newly performed by that rare Italian master Giulio Romano, who, had he himself eternity and could put breath into his work, would beguile nature of her custom, so perfectly he is her ape. He so near to Hermione hath done Hermione that they say one would speak to her and stand in hope of answer. (5.2.93-101)

  • 26  On this, see Jensen 194-233 (chap. “Singing Psalms to Hornpipes: Festivity, Iconoclasm and Catholi (...)

34For him, the statue carved by the Italian artist is endowed with magic powers, and Romano’s unusual skills vie with God’s competence and achievement. As Paulina insists on the sculptor’s excellence (5.3.16-17), she introduces the statue as a skilful mockery of life. She warns the king and his subjects accordingly: “Prepare to see the life as lively mocked as ever / Still sleep mocked death” (5.3.18-20). This indeed amounts to a mockery of God’s creation and even though the colours of the statue are not specified, Paulina indicates that “[t]he statue is but newly fixed; the colour’s / Not dry” (5.3.47-48). Yet, the only colour mentioned is that of her coloured red lips, which capture Leontes’s attention and awaken his desire. From a religious point of view, the hint at Roman Catholic statues, here, is undeniable. The statue of Hermione with its red lips is so lifelike that it becomes a dangerous temptation for the idolatrous king who, significantly, wants to kneel and implore its blessing. As a result, religious superstition and ‘popery’ may be seen as an underlying current running through the whole scene.26

  • 27  Besides, the friar plays God by forging a dead Juliet and by reanimating her. He recreates the mir (...)

35In Romeo and Juliet, the belief in evil colours, based on the fear of the unknown and the faith in (black) magic, is introduced quite differently. Whereas Juliet is thought by all to have passed away, Balthasar queerly mentions that “[h]er body sleeps in Capel’s monument” (5.1.18), which suggests that she is to wake up soon. Despite her lively colours, Juliet looks dead while she is alive, and she takes on all the disquieting features of the ‘living dead’. In the play, the mix of graphic and pre-gothic images suggesting a recumbent statue looking alive both highlights and superimposes the various themes of colour, death, life, beauty and illusion, which probably reminded a possibly nostalgic audience of the beautiful polychrome statues of the past (Lindley 97-122). The vision of the statufied Juliet is all the more confusing in the tragedy as the recumbent statue scenes are presented twice; first when Juliet drinks the elixir and falls asleep, and a second time when she actually kills herself. This repeated performance of death generates the image of a somewhat fiendish statue able to rise from the dead, thereby transgressing the laws of God.27

36In the graveyard, Shakespeare’s apparent inconsistency in his use of colours is even more conspicuous. When Friar Laurence worries about Juliet being locked in the monument, he exclaims: “Poor living corpse, closed in a dead man’s tomb!” (5.2.29). He highlights the senselessness of a living being locked in a monument like a corpse. Furthermore, so as to add to the general bewilderment when entering the tomb, Romeo carries on his eulogy on his beloved’s beautiful colours, stressing the elements making the lying Juliet look alive. Even more than a shrine, she appears as a polychromed statue to him. He further wonders about Juliet’s healthy hues as if the crimson on her face and her fair complexion finally struck him as “unnatural” for a corpse, since she does not look like a sculpture anymore, but just like a sleeping Juliet. When she finally wakes up, it is to discover her Romeo dead. The roles have been reversed: he is now the coloured recumbent statue. Howbeit, while kissing Romeo’s lips she notices that his “lips are warm” (5.3.167). Is Romeo really dead, or turned into a gisant of sorts, or only sleeping?

37Along the same lines, the watchmen are also baffled by Juliet’s death. They can only declare: “And Juliet, bleeding, warm, and newly dead” (5.3.174). Theirs is a muddled explanation: “Sovereign, here lies the County Paris slain, / And Romeo dead; and Juliet, dead before, / Warm and new killed” (5.3.194-6). The jumble of “newly”, “dead”, “new”, “kill” illustrates rather well the characters’ total bewilderment, as they find themselves in a situation where the conventions regarding hues and shades are constantly turned upside down.

Conclusion: aesthetic hues of death-in-life and life-in-death

  • 28  Romeo and Juliet is based on the Italian tale entitled The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet b (...)
  • 29  See the monument of Christopher Roper, 2nd Baron Teynham (1561-1622), carved by Epiphanius Evesham (...)

38The colours of life and death initially encoded in Romeo and Juliet and The Winter’s Tale are, at the end, interwoven to such a degree that they can no longer be distinguished from one another. The hues in the statues of the young lovers and of the aged Hermione bring out an unusual coloured vision of death and life. They point out to surprisingly stark visual analogies between religious statues and what would today be considered as more artistic sculptures. Interestingly, Shakespeare uses lightly coloured pseudo-sculptures in order to examine and subvert the aesthetic and dramatic conventions of his time, revealing tremendous changes in the attitudes of society toward sculpture and colours. In fact, it might be in response to a burgeoning craze for coloured statues that Shakespeare added the final golden statues of Romeo and Juliet, which are absent from the original plots he borrowed from.28 With the erection of the golden sculpture, hinting at a highly successful alchemical transmutation (McAdam 159), Capulet and Montaigu join hands so as to seal their reconciliation in the same manner as Leontes, taking Hermione’s hands, resuming his repentance. Despite the time gap between the two plays, the two coloured sculptures could be deciphered as rather similar attempts to reintroduce stand-up sculptures in the English theatrical landscape. Here, Shakespeare certainly acts as a precursor, but it must be said that, by the end of the 16th century, the aesthetic dimension of sculptures and statues in England, began to be detached from their sacred function. The very fact that Shakespeare first selected a slightly coloured image of Juliet, and that, a few years later, he tested the onstage appearence of a wrinkled and coloured pseudo-sculpture, suggests an impending revolution in art, as well as slight but important changes in the religious vision of art. Polychrome sculptures were gradually reassessed and, during the first decades of the 17th century, were even beginning to be appreciated in their own right.29

39As Shakespeare appropriated more and more visual tropes and stage pictures in his plays, he enhanced the visual impact of theatrical performances, and his complex treatment of colours undoubtedly bore witness to England’s religious and political aspirations. Eventually rising to prominence as part and parcel of a new English sculptural style, theatrical effigies represented England’s artistic syncretism. One remembers, for instance, John Webster’s stunningly macabre wax figures (probably performed by real actors who could thus enhance the frightening proximity of life and death) in The Duchess of Malfi (1612-13). Shakespeare’s art, a more subtle blend of chromatism, human beings and sculptures, thus paved the way for a truly original conception of polychromy that was going to refashion England’s identity during the Jacobean era.

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1  In 1611, Randle Cotgrave defines the term in his manual, A dictionarie of the French and English tongues, as “f. An image, figure, counterfeit, resemblance, representation of; also a jewell, or Broach to wear in the hat.”

2  See, too, Pastoureau 1994, t. 4, 27-46.

3  Thanks to new techniques coming mainly from the Continent, for instance the use of egg tempera or oil painting as well as better quality paintings, colours could be applied more slowly, more thoroughly and therefore more accurately, often resulting in brighter and more resistant colours. See Brinkmann, Primavesi and Hollein 137-53.

4  Men of science were also conducting experiments on colours so as to understand and classify them, which, in the 17th century, eventually led scientists to conclude that colours were caused by light but were not due to movement. Isaac Newton’s experiments showed the existence of the colour spectrum. From an aesthetic point of view, the use of perspective which had been studied on the Continent since the beginning of the 14th century and was now triggering some interest within English scholarly circles and starting to influence more and more artists. This concept originated from Aristotle for whom, “Every colour has in it the power to set in movement what is actually transparent; that power constitutes its very nature” (Aristotle, De Anima, II, 7).

5  As colours were associated with social status and / or beliefs, they were forbidden to some social groups as they were too conspicious, or considered as improper, or just too expensive. See the Elizabethan Sumptuary laws in Hayward 17-40 and Lipscomb passim for the rules on garments.

6  Thomas Thomas’s dictionary can be viewed online. See the following website: (Date accessed: 6 February 2015).

7  During the 17th century, painted ladies were stigmatized as proud, false, deceitful and whorish.

8  In his manual, Paolo Lomazzo highlights the fact that in the 16th century, the symbolism of blue is still very much present in Europe: “Azure Blew, besides other significations that it hath, noteth loftinesse of the minde, faith and zeale, as the Franciscans say. It was used by the Virgin Mary in her attire until the passion of her sonne. Besides, many of the Apostles used it: and Christ himself is painted with a garment of this colour” (Lomazzo 122).

9  Book 3 of A Tracte Containing the Artes of Curious Paintinge is dedicated to colours.

10  In Paris, in the Musée de Cluny, there is a collection of truly beautiful polychromed sculptures from the end of the 15th century onward which would exemplify my point. For instance, see the sculpture of St Ursula with traces of polychromy on the following site:

11  Margaret Beaufort’s tomb can be viewed on the following website: (Date accessed: 6 February 2015).

12  It is worth noticing that only the wealthy could wear white, as it was difficult and expensive to produce as well as keep clean.

13  In the Bible, the beauty of the soul is given much more emphasis than bodily beauty, which is more often than not seen as vain and deceitful. See the King James Bible, 1 Peter 3:4, “Likewise, ye wives, be in subjection to your own husbands; that, if any obey not the word, they also may without the word be won by the conversation of the wives; 2 While they behold your chaste conversation coupled with fear. 3 Whose adorning let it not be that outward adorning of plaiting the hair, and of wearing of gold, or of putting on of apparel; 4 But let it be the hidden man of the heart, in that which is not corruptible, even the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, which is in the sight of God of great price.”

14  All quotations are from The Complete Works, eds. Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor.

15 The phrase “white devil” comes from the well-known ploy of the devil who disguises himself as fair. White also refers to pain, sorrow or sadness as Romeo remarks: “sick and pale with grief” (2.1.47).

16  When Capulet gets angry at his daughter’s refusal to marry Paris, his wife has to intervene as his anger grows to unexpected proportions. She tells him: “You are too hot” (3.5.175). The heat provoked by anger, is often conveyed by a red hue on one’s face, yet, this hotness could also be horniness or shyness.

17  See Thomas Wilson, The Art of Rhetorique (1553): “When we heare one saie, such a man swelled, seeing a thing against his minde, we gather that he was then more then halfe angry. Againe, when we heare one saie, such a woman spites fire, we gather straight that she is a devil” (quoted in Kennedy 4).

18  On early modern ereutophobia, see Delord passim. Website: (Date accessed: 6 February 2015).

19  “The Emperor of Russia was my father” (3.2.118).

20  OED, “ruddy”, 1.a: “Designating an emotion which causes the face to go red, as shame, anger, etc. Also in extended use”.

21  OED, “ruddy”, 1.b: “Of the face, complexion, etc.: red or reddish, as indicative of good health; rosy”.

22  Brusatin Manlio, “Couleurs, histoire de l’art” in Encyclopaedia Universalis. Website: (Date accessed : 6 February 2015).

23  Born in 1547, he was an English goldsmith and limner best known for his portrait miniatures of members of the courts of Elizabeth I and James I of England. He mainly painted small oval miniatures, but also some larger cabinet miniatures, up to about ten inches tall, and at least two famous half-length panel portraits of Elizabeth. He died in 1619.

24  There is a beautiful statue of St John the Evangelist in Blaubeuren Abbey in Ulm (Germany), which displays red lips, rosy cheeks and even veiny hands, dated c. 1493/94. Pictures can be found in Brinkmann, Primavesi and Hollein, 351.

25  See above, note 4.

26  On this, see Jensen 194-233 (chap. “Singing Psalms to Hornpipes: Festivity, Iconoclasm and Catholicism in The Winter’s Tale”).

27  Besides, the friar plays God by forging a dead Juliet and by reanimating her. He recreates the miracle of the resurrection which makes him look like a man of contradictions.

28  Romeo and Juliet is based on the Italian tale entitled The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet by Arthur Brooke (1562) and on the retold story by William Painter, Palace of Pleasure (1567).

29  See the monument of Christopher Roper, 2nd Baron Teynham (1561-1622), carved by Epiphanius Evesham in 1622-1625 in St. Peter and St. Paul Church in Lynsted, Kent, England. Website: (Date accessed: 6 February 2015).

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Olivia COULOMB, « Polychrome sculptures in Romeo and Juliet and The Winter’s Tale », E-rea [En ligne], 12.2 | 2015, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2015, consulté le 24 mars 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/erea.4499

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Blaise Pascal University, Clermont-Ferrand, CERHAC
A PhD student at Blaise-Pascal University (Clermont-Ferrand, France), Olivia Coulomb teaches English literature at the Institute of Technology of Marseilles University. She specializes in early modern drama and is currently doing research on the topic of “statues and stasis in Shakespeare’s plays” under the supervision of Professor Sophie Chiari.

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