The Red and the White: Shakespeare’s use of colour in his early works


Early in his career, Shakespeare wrote two long narrative poems – probably while the London theatres were closed, because of the return of the plague. Here, Shakespeare deploys a variety of rhetorical devices to evoke eroticism, passion and pathos.

Venus and Adonis was first published in 1593.  It was very popular: it was republished fifteen times, up to 1675.  The Rape of Lucrece was first published in 1594: it was republished eight times up to 1655.

The anonymous play, the Reign of King Edward III, was first published in 1596, and republished in 1599.  Interest in it has grown in recent years.  Some scholars have proposed, plausibly, that Shakespeare wrote parts of it, in particular Act 1 Scene, Act 2, and, perhaps, Act 4 Scene 4.  These scenes appear Shakespearean as regards both style and matter.  (See, for example: Melchior, G (ed) (1998), The New Cambridge Shakespeare: King Edward III, Cambridge: CUP.)


Venus and Adonis

The story concerns Venus’s love (or lust) for the beautiful young Adonis and his rejection of her advances.  It enlarges considerably on Ovid’s account in Book X of the Metamorphoses.

Venus may have been influenced by Christopher Marlowe’s Hero and Leander:

Venus in her naked glory strove

To please the careless and disdainful eyes

Of proud Adonis that before her lies.  [I.12-14]


Shakespeare provides his own pithy summaries, already at the outset (lines 1-6) and later, in line 610:

Even as the sun with purple-coloured face

Had tane [taken] his last leave of the weeping morn,

Rose-cheeked  Adonis hied him to the chase;

Hunting he loved, but love he laughed to scorn.

Sick-thoughted Venus makes amain to him,

And like a bold-faced suitor gins to woo him.

She’s love, she loves, and yet she is not loved.


Both long poems are replete with the use of colours, especially red and white, to reflect feelings revealed in the human face: red for embarrassment, white for fear or anger.


Adonis’s resistance to Venus is portrayed in lines 74-77:


Still is he sullen, still he lowers and frets,

‘Twixt crimson shame and anger ashy pale.

Being red, she loves him best, and being white,

Her best is bettered with a more delight.


There is plenty of variety in the poem – passages that are beautiful in themselves (like stand-alones).  The most vivid describe animals:

  • The stallion and the mare (259-324)
  • The boar (613-636 and 661-666), which Adonis wishes to hunt, despite the danger
  • The hare, which Venus encourages Adonis to hunt instead (673-674 and 679-708).

See also the description of the second dawn (lines 853-858):

Lo, here the gentle lark, weary of rest,

From his moist cabinet mounts up on high,

And wakes the morning, from whose silver breast

The sun ariseth in his majesty;

Who doth the world so gloriously behold,

That cedar tops and hills seem burnished gold.


A note on the Passionate Pilgrim


This collection of poems, first published in 1599, is included in complete editions of Shakespeare’s works.   Only five of the poems are considered to be by Shakespeare (namely, 1, 2, 3, 5 and 16).  Four other poems (4, 6, 9 and 11) take up the Venus and Adonis theme, perhaps under Shakespeare’s influence.


The Rape of Lucrece


This work is longer than Venus. It is more demanding on the reader, as the subject matter is, in essence, repellent.  As the editor John Roe puts it: “To treat of rape was always going to be difficult.”  (Roe, J (ed) (2006), The New Cambridge Shakespeare: The Poems, updated edition, Cambridge: CUP, page 33.)


The sources are classical – Livy and Ovid.  The influence of Seneca can be detected in lines 764-777; and that of Virgil’s Aeneid (Books I and II) in lines 1366-1568 (see below).  Note too that Geoffrey Chaucer wrote his version of the story in his Legend of Good Women (V).


The earlier poem moves towards the death of Adonis (and Venus’s reaction); the later poem has two climaxes (or, perhaps, anti-climaxes) – the rape and the consequential suicide.


At the beginning, Tarquin is incited to rape by the enthusiastic description of Lucrece by her husband, Collatine, when he praises her “clear unmatched red and white/Which triumphed in that sky of his delight” (11-12).


Later, the sleeping Lucrece is portrayed in a variety of colours, as she is gazed upon by the rapacious Tarquin (386-420).  The final reference is to:


Her azure veins, her alabaster skin,

Her coral lips, her snow white dimpled chin.  [419-420]


A few lines sum up the effects of the subsequent rape, both on the victim and the offender, respectively:


Pure Chastity is rifled of her store,

And Lust the thief far poorer than before.  [692f]


She bears the load of lust he left behind,

And he the burden of a guilty mind.  [734f]


Lucrece includes several passages where the heroine rails against both Tarquin as a person and the circumstances that allowed him to commit the rape, personified in these terms:

  • Night (764-812)
  • Opportunity (873-924)
  • Time (925-1001).


Lucrece concludes, however, that she is wasting her breath:


In vain I rail at Opportunity,

At Time, at Tarquin, and uncheerful Night;

In vain I cavil with mine infamy,

In vain I spurn at my confirmed despite;

This helpless smoke of words doth me no right.  [1023-1027]


Convinced that she is irreversibly contaminated, Lucrece comes to a grim determination (which in due course she carries out):


The remedy indeed to do me good

Is to let forth my foul defilèd blood.  [1028f]


The ‘excursus’ or ‘ecphrasis’


This term refers to a remarkable long passage (1366-1568) – an effective, moving piece of writing – where Lucrece contemplates a painting of the Trojan War.  She applies the treachery and cruelty of the Greeks, and the suffering of the Trojans, to her own situation.


Shakespeare again uses colour to great effect.  Here, for example, is a picture of Sinon – the man who persuaded the Trojans to accept the notorious Horse inside their walls:


In him the painter laboured with his skill

To hide deceit, and give the harmless show

An humble gait, calm looks, eyes wailing still,

A brow unbent that seemed to welcome woe,

Cheeks neither red nor pale, but mingled so

That blushing red no guilty instance gave,

Nor ashy pale the fear that false hearts have.  [1506-1512]


King Edward III


This play is largely a history play: it stages the participation of Edward III and the Black Prince, his son, (a) in battles in France, in support of Edward’s claim to the French crown, and (b) in the repulse of an invasion by the Scots (in 14th century).  But I wish to pay attention here to the early scenes that are devoted to Edward’s pursuit of the Countess of Salisbury and her rejection of him.  It is not clear whether the story’s basis lies in history, legend or myth.  What has come down to us is a moral tale.


The sources are François Froissart’s historical chronicles (1513) and William Painter’s Palace of Pleasure (1575).


In Act 2, then, King Edward attempts to force the Countess of Salisbury (whose husband is away at war), to have sex with him (an abuse of his power).   In another echo of Hero and Leander, he threatens her that:


I will through a Hellespont of blood

To arrive at Sestos, where my Hero lies.  [Act 2, Scene 2, 154f]


In the event, the countess vigorously and successfully defends her virtue.  The king admits his shame (2.2.189).  He compares the countess with Lucrece (2.2.192-195), ignoring the latter’s unhappy end.  He repents of his “folly’s siege against a faithful lover” (2.2.207).


Earlier, in Act 2, Scene 1, the king’s secretary, Lodowick, has expounded his reading of the facial expressions of the countess and the king, respectively, noting the ebb and flow of red and white:


Lo, when she blushed, even then did he look pale,

As if her cheeks by some enchanted power

Attracted had the cherry blood from his;

Anon, with reverent fear when she grew pale,

His cheeks put on their scarlet ornaments,

But no more like her oriental red

Than brick to coral, or live things to dead.

Why did he then thus counterfeit her looks?

If she did blush, ‘twas tender modest shame,

Being in the sacred presence of a king.

If he did blush, ‘twas red immodest shame,

To vail his eyes amiss, being a king.

If she looked pale, ‘twas silly [weak] woman’s fear,

To bear herself in presence of a king.

If he looked pale, it was with guilty fear,

To dote amiss, being a mighty king.  [6-21]


Words shared with Sonnets


It has long been noted by editors that Edward III shares a line, 2.2.452, with Sonnet 94, line 14, namely: “Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.”


Moreover, “scarlet ornaments”, for red lips, appears in Sonnet 142 (line 6), where the poet accuses the woman (subject of Sonnets 127-154) of profaning them, through her adultery.




These works are less well known than the sonnets and the popular plays, but they are well worth getting to know.



David Harries


April 2016