Review - On the face of it

5th April 2013 at 01:00
In the quest for beauty, painted women have long been derided

In Shakespeare's time, boy actors were painted to signify femininity. Actors who played clowns, ghosts and spirits also adorned their faces. Offstage, but also in the spotlight, Elizabeth I attempted to perpetuate a picture of power and youth, as her body crumbled, by applying ever more lurid layers of make-up.

Cosmetics, and women's use of them to transform their natural visage into a perfect portrait of beauty, have always been fascinating. And they have provided powerful images and metaphors, which have enriched the art of our greatest playwrights.

But author Farah Karim-Cooper, whose interest in cosmetics began while she was working on the make-up counter of Bloomingdale's in California, takes the story much further. She notes that while cosmetics have always offered the promise of perfection, the women who wore them were often branded and derided as trivial or deceptive, even equated with witches who adopted other forms to bewilder and deceive.

In A Treatise Against Witchcraft, Henry Holland makes the link between witchcraft, femininity and the cosmetic - a connection John Webster also unlocks in The Duchess of Malfi. In early texts there are three primary objections to cosmetics: the belief that alteration of the body was a crime against God, the fear of foreign ingredients and the necromantic effect of face paint. But Karim-Cooper argues that these anti-cosmetic diatribes also unearth a deeply rooted fear of gender, theatricality and race - and of women themselves, who were expected to look as beautiful as possible, but not so obviously that the tools of their transformation were evident.

She highlights literary examples where characters have used cosmetics as part of their attack. Hamlet mocks his mother Gertrude for not being a faithful widow by alluding to a blister on her forehead: in Shakespearean times these were either a sign of a prostitute (women were often branded there) or a symptom of syphilis. The scars were hidden with make-up.

In Macbeth the witches use "leopard's bane", "juice of toad" and "oil of adder" to conjure prophetic images of Macbeth's demise, ingredients that bear a striking resemblance to the extraordinary contents of cosmetics recipes.

There is reference to the ephemeral nature of painted beauty Hermione in The Winter's Tale, with the warning that kissing her lips would "stain your own". The original audience would have known that kissing painted ladies could be a messy affair.

Some things, it seems, never change.

Cosmetics in Shakespearean and Renaissance Drama by Farah Karim-Cooper is published by Edinburgh University Press.

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