Inventions of the Skin: The Painted Body in Early English Drama, 1400-1642

Inventions of the Skin: The Painted Body in Early English Drama, 1400-1642

Inventions of the Skin: The Painted Body in Early English Drama, 1400-1642

Inventions of the Skin: The Painted Body in Early English Drama, 1400-1642

Excerpt

Chromophobia manifests itself in the many and varied attempts to purge
colour from culture, to devalue colour, to diminish its significance, to deny its
complexity. More specifically: this purging of colour is usually accomplished
in one of two ways. In the first, colour is made out to be the property of some
‘foreign’ body – usually the feminine, the oriental, the primitive, the infan
tile, the queer or the pathological. In the second, colour is relegated to the
realm of the superficial, the supplementary, the inessential or the cosmetic.
In one, colour is regarded as alien and therefore dangerous; in the other, it is
perceived merely as a secondary quality of experience, and thus unworthy of
serious consideration. Colour is dangerous, or it is trivial, or it is both.

When a troupe of travelling actors arrives at Elsinore, Hamlet asks to hear a speech about the slaughter of princes. It begins, so Hamlet reminds them, with Pyrrhus:

The rugged Pyrrhus – he whose sable arms,
Black as his purpose, did the night resemble
When he lay couched in the ominous horse,
Hath now his black and grim complexion smeared
With heraldry more dismal, head to foot.
Now is he total guise, horridly tricked
With blood of fathers, mothers, daughters, sons,
Baked and imparched in coagulate gore,
Rifted in earth and fire.

(7.340–50)

The power of this speech resides in the picture it creates of a transfigured body. After a false start with a less visually precise simile (‘Pyrrhus, like th’Hyrcanian beast’), Hamlet delivers what sounds like a stage direction: red, black, and grim as night, Pyrrhus stalks the streets of Troy covered head to foot in the blood of his enemies. The implication is clear. To become a successful revenger is not merely to act – a vexed question . . .

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