Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

Beauty's Poisonous Properties

Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

Beauty's Poisonous Properties

Article excerpt

IN THE FOURTH ACT of The Devil's Charter (1606), Barnabe Barnes portrays Lucretia Borgia entering "richly attired with a Phyal in her hand." In the midst of painting her face, she suddenly cries out in dismay at a burning sensation. The cosmetics contained in her vial have proven treacherous: "rancke poyson / Is ministred to bring me to my death, / I feele the venime boyling in my veines."(1) Reduced through death to an object, a receptacle for paints, Lucretia's body becomes twinned with the cosmetic vial that caused her demise. These poisoned props--paint, vial, and corpse--disrupt material and immaterial boundaries alike, giving physical form to the threat of moral and epistemological contamination associated with both cosmetics and the theater.(2) Spilling out of its rightful space to seep into consumers and spectators, infiltrating and tainting both body and soul, poisonous face-paint offers a disturbingly literal image of the vulnerability of the body to the invasive force of the theater.

A recurring threat in early modern plays, the idea that face-paints could poison offered a particularly vivid focal point for broader cultural fears of cosmetics.(3) Amid intensifying curiosity and concern about chemical technology, testimony from doctors as to the corrosive nature of cosmetic ingredients offered scientifically authorized support, as well as a distinctively material vocabulary, for moral diatribes against artificial beauty.(4) In A Tracte Containing the Artes of Curious Paintinge Caruinge & buildinge, Paolo Lomazzo warns women against face-painting by noting that sublimate, the primary cosmetic foundation, is "very offensiue to mans flesh" and "is called dead tier; because of his malignant, and biting nature"; in A Treatise Against Painting and Tincturing of Men and Women, Thomas Tuke chides that "a vertuouis woman needs no borrowed, no bought complexion, none of these poysons."(5) In a magical conflation of immaterial and material threats, moral, medical, and theatrical writings alike represented the semiotic disorder and sexual impurity associated with cosmetics as "poysonous to the body, and pernicious to the soul."(6)

As the multiple stagings of this threat suggest, anxieties about the dangers of cosmetics reflect as well on early modern concerns about theatricality.(7) In the light of pervasive and insistent identifications between face-paints and the theater, playwrights who depict cosmetics as fatal poisons can be seen as indicting their own medium, suggesting that fears about the contaminating force of art were not limited to the theater's opponents.(8) Also routinely described as poisonous by its detractors, the theater, like face-paints, is understood as both duplicitous and corrosive, unsettling the relationship between interior and exterior. The link between artistic dissimulation and harmful effects on the body and soul points to magical ideas about the dangerous efficacy of signs. In the case of poison, epistemological havoc--the unreliability of appearances as indicators of reality--can translate directly into bodily vulnerability, and even death. Embodying and fusing together various levels of contamination, anxieties about cosmetics and painted bodies call attention to early modern assumptions about the inseparability of external from internal, of material from immaterial, with implications for the powers and perils of the theater.(9)

Beauty's Poisons

Rarely attended to by readers or critics, The Devil's Charter offers an intriguing setting for a vivid depiction of murder by poisonous cosmetics.(10) Although arguably lacking in many literary merits, the play offers an exemplary representative of popular Jacobean revenge tragedy; in its relentless accumulation of vendettas and corpses, it displays its generic conventions so ostentatiously as to verge on parody; forming a virtual catalog of some of the more spectacularly ingenious and morbid forms of murder on the Jacobean stage. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.