To put fair truth upon so foul a face?

Recently I have been reading Farrah Karim Coopers ‘Cosmetics in Shakespearean and Renaissance Drama‘ and I have found it a welcome distraction from the assigned readings. Whilst Shakespearean drama is definitely an area of interest for me I never thought to consider the ye olde beauty industry associated with the productions. Despite likely being an important aspect of the visual field of early modern theatre, make-up does not seem to be spoken about kindly by Shakespeare or his (male!) contemporaries

Ben Johnson, for example, in Cynthia’s Revels, writes ; 

“which ladie had her owne face to lie with her a-nights, & which not; who put off her teeth with their clothes in court, who their haire, who their complexion; and in which boxe they put it.” (4.1 148-150)

The discussion surrounding the activities of women and their cosmetic routines just goes to show how little has changed on the criticism of cosmetics front, the idea being that make-up was a tool used by immoral characters to hide identity and deceive rather than simply enhance a complexion.


Even Shakespeare participates in this criticism, in Hamlet we hear; 

‘Now get you to my lady’s table and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must come – Make her laugh at that.’ (5.1 174-5)

This passage encapsulates the perceived notions of sexual impurity and its links with makeup that puritans really honed in on during the Renaissance period.

Face painting was seen as undermining not only material fidelity but religious too and you see this attitude a lot throughout Shakespeare’s sonnets. Sonnet 127 is a prime example of this.

‘For since each hand hath put on nature’s power,
Fairing the foul with art’s false borrow’d face’ (127, 5-6)

The sonnet can be read as critiquing societies ability to change the face through the skilful application of cosmetics, the idea of putting on beauty rather than being naturally gifted pleasing features. I think its interesting that so many writers complain about the artifice of cosmetics when in reality they were clearly using cosmetics both literally in productions and figuratively in their writing.

Comic by Kasia Babis (c) Twitter : @kiciputek

Stage makeup would have played a part in the audience’s understanding of characters. When you have an entirely male cast, with boys playing girls who are pretending to be boys it becomes important to distinguish who is who. This can be done with the use of costuming and the focus of this post, make-up. Male actors playing girls would don a dress, a wig and paint their skin white with rosy cheeks. This beauty ideal for women stemmed from Queen Elizabeth, who truly set the beauty standard at this time with her snow white skin and (supposedly) ageless beauty.

This need for cosmetics can be seen when Hamlet asks Horatio what the ghosts face looked like he asks if it was ‘Pale or Red ?’ Horatio responds, ‘Nay, very pale.’(1.2, 232-3). The literal representation of this paleness would have probably been achieved through paint, as seen in the 2004 Royal Shakespeare Company production where the Ghost was not dressed in armour but appeared dishevelled and entirely white.

Hamlet_ 2004_ the Ghost of Old Hamlet_2004_Photo by Manuel Harlan _c_ RSC_105605

Photo by Manuel Harlan (c) RSC

Obviously, this would not be an entirely historically accurate representation of the Ghost but the whitening of skin would definitely have featured, not only for ghosts but to different extents of paleness for each of the characters. This would have often been done using Ceruse, a mixture of white lead and vinegar which at the time was considered by many as a holy grail product when in fact it was really making their skin deteriorate. The first record of this skin-whitener was found in 1519 in Horman’s “Vulgaria puerorum” and was continually documented as a popular product in the early modern beauty industry.

Cooper’s book, Cosmetics in Shakespearean and Renaissance Drama is particularly interesting to read as it contains some Elizabethan beauty recipes. Such as recipes to rejuvenate the complexion through a proto- chemical peel using ingredients such as vinegar, turpentine, lemon juice and Quicksilver. Supposedly to be left on the face for eight days, I can see how that would cause chemical peel results but undoubtedly through less than ideal measures. 

This is just a tentative step into research but I definitely enjoyed the process, I’m thinking of trying out some of the non-poisonous recipes(of which there are few).

Works Cited.

-Jonson, Ben, 1573?-1637. Cynthia’s Revels. New York: H. Holt and company, 1912.


– Karim-Cooper, Farah. Cosmetics in Shakespearean and Renaissance Drama. Edinburgh University Press, 2006.

– Shakespeare, William., The Norton Shakespeare. 3rd ed., 2016.




When first faced with the idea of writing a blog about my postgrad experience, I will admit I was apprehensive. The thought of posting public summaries of my academic week or inviting strangers to view my writing may just possibly fill me with dread.  Nonetheless, I persevere as I’m hoping this will lend some structure to my thoughts and ideally lead me to a lightbulb moment regarding research ideas.

Ideally, this blog will be a space to analyse the texts I cover throughout my year as an MA student of Medieval to Renaissance literature as well as further my own interests in the area. Currently, my blog is dauntingly empty, I think the longer I leave it empty then the more intimidating the blank page will seem.

My interests are varied, recently I have been enjoying reading about the use of cosmetics in renaissance drama(blog post coming soonish !). I currently work as a make-up artist when not living in the library so its fun for me to see the connection between both aspects of my life. Normally my interest lies in adaptations of medieval to renaissance texts, I particularly enjoy novel and video game adaptions of old Norse texts

I hope to discuss and develop all of my areas of interest throughout this blog but this is just an opening statement so I shall finish it here and hopefully post again soon.