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bear by san

March 2017



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bear by san

Looking for resources in all the wrong places....

Hey, folks--

does anybody know anything definitive or have any solid speculation about the use of theatrical makeup in Elizabethan England?

This is the one place my research is hitting a dead end.

I've done just enough theatre to know what makeup is for, in theatre (assisting the actor in projecting emotions), and to know how stage acting differs from screen acting. There doesn't seem to be any reliable information that *I* can find on the use of makeup on stage in the late 1500's, however. (Earlier or a very little bit later would also be helpful.)

So I'm defaulting to "yes, they used it" on the following logic chain: various forms and preparations of makeup were available, were used by both genders to varying effect, and the young men playing women on stage must have worn makeup. And must have noticed how it increased the audience's ability to 'read' their expressions from fifteen, twenty feet away and further. So why wouldn't they also have used at least kohl and cereuse in all circumstances?

Discuss. Definitive resources welcome.



I don't have sources, other than probably the same theatre books you've already looked at. However: women in society wore makeup (note some of the later portraits of Elizabeth I) if only to project a healthy appearance in a time where bathing was not common. I doubt actors would have used arsenic powder, but kohl and cereuse and cinchona (am I spelling that right?) would certainly be possible. The alternative would have been masks -- but that's a different form of theatre, and not relevant to Shakespeare except as a possible interpretation of how certain scenes were played.

Have you checked with anyone in the Society for Creative Anachronism? This is exactly the kind of thing that some of the members would do research and write papers about.


Richard Corson

It's been decades, but I seem to remember that Richard Corson's book... um _Theatrical State Makeup_ ... had some discussion of the history of makeup.

But... I could be distressingly wrong.

Mark Alger

My thoughts

  • At least the boys playing girls would be wearing some.
  • Hamlet does mock Ophelia for wearing makeup.
  • I did just find a reference to Jacobean masques, and black makeup for those playing moors (Orgel, The Authentic Shakespeare -- Amazon's search within book feature does have its uses)
  • I also found a reference to face gilding in 15th Century Italian mystery plays (Senelick, The Changing Room), although I do see another reference in the same book (searching within on "makeup") that the plays may have tried to avoid too

    I could probably find more (and I'd probably enjoy finding more) but this could quickly turn into cat-vacuuming and I really need to spend this weekend on my NaNoWriMo.
    Given the elaborateness of costuming, and the fact that upper-class men and women wore makeup, it seems somewhat farfetched to imagine the actors didn't. Also, in most of the fiction I've read set in Elizabethan acting troupes, makeup (at least among the boy actors) seems to be generally assumed, so doing so won't stick out to other readers of the period.

    Hope this helps.
  • a random attempt to be helpful

    There was a series of books done that catalogued the stage history of various Shakespearean plays. I remember them being very useful in other regards--But looking briefly at the catalogue this seemed more to the point:

    Painted faces on the Renaissance stage : the moral significance of face-painting conventions / Annette Drew-Bear.

    Best luck.

    Re: a random attempt to be helpful

    Sorry--I should be more precise. I was in the U of Toronto Catalogues (amazing library system) And this is more complete information for that book. Perhaps interlibrary loan?

    Author Drew-Bear, Annette.
    Title Painted faces on the Renaissance stage : the moral significance of face-painting conventions.
    Publication info Lewisburg : Bucknell University Press ; London : Associated University Presses, c1994.
    139 p. : ill. ; 24 cm.
    Bibliography note Includes bibliographical references (p. 124-133) and index.
    ISBN 0838752306 (alk. paper)
    Subject English drama--Early modern and Elizabethan, 1500-1600--History and criticism.
    Subject English drama--17th century--History and criticism.
    Subject Face painting in literature.
    Subject Theatrical makeup--England.


    Another resource

    Another place to ask: stumpers-l@listserv.dom.edu. The Stumpers list is primarily for librarians faced with questions they can't answer from their own resources. (No credentials are required to belong; I'm not a librarian.) Non-members can post (with a delay while the moderator checks the message); it's advisable for non-members to say they're not members and ask that answers be sent to them as well as to the list.

    Questions successfully answered range from ones about Latin translations of various phrases to mail order sources of clothes for concrete geese.
    Boys playing women often wore white foundation a foot thick. Men playing moors and other exotic characters, likewise, wore tons of foundation (though dark in this case). Yes, they wore makeup. Some of them wore a LOT. I'll try to find sources.
    you might try this
    No actual references to help out, I'm afraid. But I think it's reasonable to suppose that--given the amount of uncorrected myopia among their audience--Elizabethan/Jacobean actors would have used any means available to them to make sure that people could pick up what was going on on stage. The expression-enhancing effects of makeup would have been very useful for that.
    Drop a note to the reference librarian at the Folger Shakespeare Library. reference@folger.edu
    This is probably the foremost Shakespearean/Elizabethan research center in the U.S. I'm sure that they will be able to point you to the correct information. Lovely people. I used to volunteer in the Folger theatre ages and ages ago.