Shakespeare and BLACK, WHITE & RED all over


Here’s a question: how did Elizabethan theatres sell their forthcoming performances to a largely illiterate public?

Why, though colour, of course!

In Shakespeare’s day it was quite common for theatres to put on a new play daily.       It was therefore vital that the theatre had a method of advertising that was both swift and effective.  The obvious solution was Flags.

The Globe would fly a flag to let London know what form of play was on offer that afternoon.

The Globe Theatre
The Globe Theatre

Each play-house advanceth his flagge in the aire, whither quickly at the waving thereof are summoned whole troops of men, women, and children.’ from ‘The Curtaine-Drawer of the World’ by W Parkes, 1612.

And since colour transmits a message far more rapidly and clearly than any words, it made sense to create a colour code.  It is believed that flags of certain colours were flown to indicate the type of play about to be performed.  Flags of Black, White and Red were used:


Black for a Tragedy 

White for a Light/Comedic play

Red for a History play     all that  B…B…Blood

Yes, Yes, Yes – it would be those colours!  Black, White and Red are the colours with which human beings most identify, not just in Shakespearean England but down through the centuries and throughout the world.

black white and red

In 1969 two anthropologists, Brent Berlin and Paul Kay, researched the colour terms used in 98 languages around the world.  Their aim was to discover how many dedicated colour terms each language contained and specifically those which meant the colour and nothing else.  (In our society, for instance, Orange would not count as it is also a word for something other than the colour.)

What Berlin and Kay discovered I think is fabulous.  Irrespective of language, colour names always follow an identical pattern.  If the language contains only dedicated colour terms, then those names are always for the colours Black and White.   If there are dedicated colour terms, then the 3rd colour is always Red.  In the entire world, the first three colours which have names for the colour alone are always Black, White and Red.  Brilliant, isn’t it.

Why?  In my view it is because these are the only colours all human beings share.  Black and White represent darkness and light, upon which our very survival depends. (Many early religions are dedicated to the sun or moon owing to a primeval fear that the sun might not rise each day.)  And what is the only other colour we all share, and on which our survival equally depends?   Red – the colour of blood.  Each other part of us may be a different shade, but blood is always red.

Black, White and Red – the first three colours in any society.

And so the flags flew – and everyone knew what they meant.

All Hail the Black, White and Red!


  1. The earliest cave paintings use these three colours too – charcoal, chalk and powdered-up iron-rich stone. No wonder they are so powerful in our consciousness.


  2. Absolutely, Fay. As far as painting goes these 3 colours have always been easily accessible as pigments, for instance charcoal from the fire, as you so astutely point out. A colour such as blue, however, is much more difficult to access and hence you never see blue in cave paintings.


  3. Love this and the colour-coding for Tudor plays. I never think of black or white as colours though. I think there’s something more complicated going on. White (light) contains the rainbow, as we know but has to be refracted – then we see the things I call colours. Black, to me is the absence of light, but contradictorily, a dense melange of colour. Red is an immensely symbolic colour, and as you say, I think this mostly stems from blood and its association – violence, danger, lust (blood rising). I can see how the spiritual connotations of black and white come about too. The demonic dark, where all is confusion and unknown, against the purity of life-giving enlightening white. Again, contradictorily, the light can blind or obscure objects in its glare. Got me off on one there, didn’t you? lol Luckily, I’m off for another glass of wine now. xx


  4. I certainly did, Caroline! And wonderfully so … I know what you mean about black and white, though as an artist do you not see them as colours? I think black and the dark get a bad rap. If we were surrounded by white and light 24/7 we would go mad. We need the dark of black to rest. After all, things can only grow – seeds, humans – while sheltered from light. I’m a big fan of black … Now I’m off on one (!). Hope you enjoyed your wine! xx


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