Word of the Day: Purple

August 11, 2011 in Word of the Day

What colour comes into your head when you read the word “purple”? Imagine it, and then consider this passage from Henry VI part III, which suggests a rather different shade classed under the same name:

> KING HENRY Woe above woe! grief more than common grief!
> O that my death would stay these ruthful deeds!–
> O pity, pity! gentle heaven, pity!–
> The red rose and the white are on his face,
> The fatal colours of our striving houses;
> The one his purple blood right well resembles,
> The other his pale cheeks, methinks, presenteth.
> Wither one rose, and let the other flourish!
> If you contend, a thousand lives must wither

For King Henry, mourning the death of a unnamed father’s son on the battlefield near Towton, “purple” is the colour of blood, and blood is the colour of one of the English roses, the ‘Red Rose of York’. In this respect, when we read the word “purple” in Shakespeare’s plays, one should think of a redder hue than what we now call purple. A rose, as they say, by any other name would smell as sweet, but, to the mind’s eye, it may well look pretty different.

In some places the meaning of the word ‘purple’ is clearer than elsewhere: blood, for example, is frequently described as ‘purple’ where we would now say ‘red’, in Venus and Adonis, The Rape of Lucrece, Henry VI part II (“purple tears”), King John, Richard III, Richard II (“the purple testament of bleeding war”), Romeo and Juliet, and the Sonnets. Elsewhere, the exact colour meant by Shakespeare’s word “purple” is open to investigation. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a particularly good test case: Bottom the Weaver and wannabe actor has a “purple-in-grain beard” and is fed “purple grapes” at Titania’s behest; Oberon places a purple dye into the love potion that infatuates the lovers and Titania, and describes its source in a flower struck by “Cupid’s fiery shaft”; as for the audience member, the exact colour of any of this is obscure.

One bastion of security remains, however, in Shakespeare’s reference to the original ‘imperial purple’ (Greek porphyra), carefully manufactured from a mucus secreted by the spiny dye-murex snail, and thus a rare and status-granting tint. The sails of Cleopatra’s barge are an example of this colour’s role in ostentatious displays of power:

> ENOBARBUS […] The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne,
> Burn’d on the water: the poop was beaten gold;
> Purple the sails, and so perfumed that
> The winds were love-sick with them […]

The colour of this purple can be precisely established, since the process by which it was created is still known to us. Yet for all these other mentions of the colour, some degree of ambiguity must always be present. Is this not true of other colours though? When we hear of “ivory globes circled with blue” do we all imagine the same shades on Lucrece’s chest? And how is this blue different from the “two blue windows” that the dawn opens in the sky at the start of the same play? Of course, the question of a word’s precise meaning is not limited to colour either, other descriptive terms (such as those for expression or posture) suffer from the same problem when we read the plays. It is only when we see the plays that some of this ambiguity is removed, and we learn the exact colour of Malvolio’s stockings, for example; even then, this leaves some mysteries unresolved and thus each spectator as each reader, imagining their own personal Shakespearean reds and purples in their head.

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