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The Use and Meaning Behind Red and White Within Shakespeare’s Works
Colors and their perception are very important, not just to artists but anyone who writes
literary works. Many authors/artists rely on colors to portray a certain feeling, or a certain
emotion within their respective works. Colors are also used to help people imagine a scene or as
a way to help symbolize and/or possibly warn of impending doom. Shakespeare is no stranger to
the uses of imagery and has used colors to convey different mixed emotions within his works.
Within Venus and Adonis, Shakespeare heavily uses the colors red and white as a way to
describe not only the titular characters’ emotions, but their destructive nature as well. They are
used in many ways to describe both Venus and Adonis throughout the poem and interestingly
enough, most of them are used to describe either sexuality or love. Shakespeare states that “She
[Venus] red and hot as coals of glowing fire / He [Adonis] for shame but frosty in desire,”
(Shakespeare, 35-36). In this instance, he is using the color “red” to describe both characters in
different ways. Shakespeare’s description of Venus shows that she is very passionate, while
Adonis’ red color is from his embarrassment. It is said that, “The mutuality of red and white
suggests-as the colors do in youthful love or embarrassment-an external symbol of internal
conflict, or, as one might term it by viewing through an allegorical lens, civil war perhaps even
more powerfully than the "conflict between love and romanticism" (Risden, 145). Venus might
have been the first woman that he has been attracted to, and so, due to his inexperience with
women he is also called “Rose-cheeked Adonis” (Shakespeare, 3). He is seen as having a
childlike innocence when it comes to women. Venus also describes Adonis as “More white and
red than doves or roses are”, and by doing this she is making a comparison to nature. (10) She
believes he is more beautiful than nature, and it can also be seen as a way to show how youthful
Adonis is. Venus is saying how beautiful and full of life Adonis is, as well as more innocent than
doves. She even says that he’s “thrice fairer than myself,” (7). This is interesting considering
how vain Venus is supposed to be.
There are some instances when red and white deal with anger, and shame/embarrassment.
In those cases, red would symbolize anger while white symbolizes shame. As the poem
progresses, Shakespeare says that “’Twixt crimson shame and anger ashy pale / Being red, she
loves him best, and being white / Her best is bettered with a more delight.” (76-78). Shakespeare
doesn’t always outright use the word “red”, sometimes he uses words associated with the color,
and in this instance, it was the color crimson. Crimson is a stronger shade of red, while ash is
more of a gray color which would make “ashy pale” a light gray. Adonis is described as having
“crimson shame”, again it’s referencing his embarrassment as well as his shame.
While Shakespeare likes to use the colors white and red interchangeably, there are times
when he uses them separately. There are many times when he uses red separate from white. One
example of this is when Venus says that she is “Leading him [Mars] prisoner in a red-rose chain”
(110). In this line, Venus uses the colors red and rose as a way to show that he’s her love
prisoner. She had him imprisoned through the use of love and/or lust.
While red can be seen as a passionate, warm, vibrant color, people tend to forget that it
can also be used to represent anger, blood and death. On occasion, Venus directs her anger at
Adonis. Her, “Red cheeks and fiery eyes blaze forth her wrong” (219). Shakespeare uses the
imagery of “red cheeks and fiery eyes” to portray how upset she is. But her anger could also be
confused for passion since the color red stands for both. Venus, as she warns Adonis tells him
“Whose blood upon the fresh flowers being shed, / Doth make them droop with grief and hang
the head.” (665-666). She is describing his death in detail, saying this his blood will drip on fresh
flowers. This represents red and white because the blood is red, while the flowers would
represent innocence, or the white aspect of the two. Shakespeare also describes the boar’s mouth
saying, “Whose frothy mouth bepainted all with red, / Like milk and blood being mingled both
together” (901-902). It’s interesting how he uses red and white in these lines. The white is
described as milk, while the red is blood which in itself represents innocence and death. After
Adonis’ death Venus says that “Mine eyes are turned to fire, my heart to lead. Heavy heart’s
lead, melt at mine eyes’ red fire!”. Venus wants to use the anger that she has as a way to quell
At the same time, there many times where the color red symbolized Venus’ lips. In one
line, she says “Touch but my lips with those fair lips of thine; / Though mine be not so fair, yet
are they red.” (115-116). In those lines, Venus uses her red lips to symbolize passion and love.
She tells Adonis that even though her lips might not be as beautiful as his are, they are red and
full of passion. Shakespeare echoes her associating red with passion when she says “Set they seal
manual on my wax-red lips” (516). Red lipstick is for women when they want to feel “sexy”, and
it’s exactly what you’d expect Venus to wear or to have. Red lips are associated with beauty
standards across the world, and usually when you think of a beautiful woman they almost always
have some shade of red lipstick on them.
Shakespeare also uses white in interesting ways within Venus and Adonis. For the most
part, white has been associated with purity and innocence. Shakespeare takes it a step forward to
add onto that, with the idea of immaturity. When Shakespeare says that “Being red, she loves
him best; and being white.”, the idea is to show her love for Adonis. She in this case is
considered “red” or passionate, but she loves him because of his “whiteness”, or his innocence.
She loves how youthful and innocent Adonis is. At the same time, “whiteness” is a mark of
beauty in many societies. Adonis even says, “Didst thou not mark my face? Was it not white?”
(642). The paler your skin is, the more beautiful you are. This is especially true in Asian cultures,
and to a degree, some western ones. Pale women were considered beautiful in the earlier days of
European history. When Venus takes Adonis’ hand it’s described as “A lily prisoned in a jail of
snow, / Or ivory in an alabaster band,” (362-363). These lines are describing how Venus views
Adonis. He is a flower that is trapped within nature. It’s interesting how lilies are symbolic of
innocence and love. Shakespeare makes several references to this and even when Adonis dies he
(Shakespeare) writes that “In his soft flank, whose wonted lily white / With purple tears, that his
wound wept had drenched” (1053-1054). Later in the poem it states that “A purple flower sprung
up, checkered with white, / Resembling well his pale cheeks and the blood / Which in round
drops upon their whiteness stood.” (1168-1170). In these lines, Shakespeare once again uses
white to symbolize innocence. The checkered white part of the purple flower represented
Adonis’ innocence and his purity. Paleness is common in death, and so the pale cheeks
represented how he looked as he died.
Near the end of Venus and Adonis, Shakespeare notes one very important line that sets
the tone for the other poem and play that I will be discussing. Shakespeare says ““How white and
red each other did destroy! ,” (346). In Venus and Adonis this is true because the colors
themselves represent Venus and Adonis. On the other hand, in Shakespeare’s Henry VI play the
colors take on a different meaning. The colors represent the two houses of Lancaster (red) and
York (white). The Yorks have a more legitimate claim to the throne than the Lancasters do. The
Yorks are more noble and more well-liked by the people. It’s interesting how Shakespeare still
associates red with blood in this play. In Henry VI , the Lancasters are the ones who cause the
most bloodshed by refusing to come together to help the Kingdom out. This results in Lord
Talbot and his son dying when their deaths could have been avoided. Just as both Venus and
Adonis could both represent each (red and white) color, both houses of the Lancasters and Yorks
represent both colors as well. At their core, both the Lancasters and Yorks are Englishmen, and
share the same heritage. They fight each other and others get caught in the crosshairs, effectively
destroying each other, as the passage in Venus and Adonis says.
Even in Richard III, the idea of red and white is discreetly represented as a way of
unification. In the historical plays of Henry VI and Richard III, in a way the colors red and white
were represented by people. Those people were the Yorks and Lancasters, and by the time
Richard III starts, the Yorks have won. In this play they have portrayed Richard III as a tyrant,
and evil person in order to give more credibility to the royal family that comes after them. When
Richard III is murdered, “the source of conflict disappears; allegorically, the civil war ends when
the last of the combating members (namely Richard III) of the two houses perishes and a new
family (the Tudors) assumes the throne, restoring peace and at least brief agreement upon civil
authority.” (Risden, 148). The Tudors represent both red and white. In this case, the colors
represent unification because although Henry VII is a Tudor, he is a relative of the Lancaster
family. By marrying the York Princess, Elizabeth, Henry VII unites both families together.
Shakespeare uses colors as a way of discreetly conveying many different emotions and
scenery within his literary works. The colors red and white happen to show up the most within
his works due to the many versatile meanings and implications behind the colors. Shakespeare
uses tons of imagery and distinct color combinations so that the reader does not get bored of
seeing the same two colors being represented everywhere. He uses colors such as alabaster, ash
and crimson as a way to introduce new emotions and thoughts surrounding his works. It’s
interesting because of how two colors could mean so many different things.
Folger Shakespeare Library. Shakespeare's Plays from Folger Digital Texts. Ed. Barbara
Mowat, Paul Werstine, Michael Poston, and Rebecca Niles. Folger Shakespeare Library,
25 September, 2016. www.folgerdigitaltexts.org
Risden, E. L. "The Use of Colors in Shakespeare's Venous and Adonis Poem from Pragmatic
Perspective." Enarratio: Publications of the Medieval Association of the Midwest 10
(2003): 145-48. Knowledge Bank. Ohio State University, 2003. Web. 13 Dec. 2016.