What Did Shakespeare Mean by “Purple Testament”?

What Did Shakespeare Mean by Purple Testament?
The royal family still likes purple — a lot — they are just more subtle.

If you’ve read me at all, you know of my love-hate relationship with “That Bard” — the broccoli of theater (something you don’t like but think is good for you) — William Shakespeare, or as I like to refer to him, “My Willy.” So I was very interested in a Twilight Zone episode I was watching, which I’ve always liked, called “The Purple Testament.” It’s from Richard II one of That Bard’s better plays, “‘He is come to open the purple testament of bleeding war.” But for the first time I thought, what does that phrase mean?

So I went looking to see if it was a common phrase at the time. Indeed it was not. I guess Willy just thought it sounded good and fit into his blank verse. As with all of Shakespeare, there is so much talking. A lot of people think people spoke that way at the time. No. I’m sure an actual king would have simply said, “He’s come to start a bloody war!”

But the phrase still requires some explanation. He wrote “purple testament” and not something else. The whole line is “the purple testament of bleeding war.” I will give myself at most five minutes to come up with a more understandable line (although truly, I’d rework the line before, which is 12-syllables not 10):

“The bleeding war of his selfish hubris.”

And don’t tell me that isn’t a great line, because his line wasn’t great either. And mine has the advantage of saying what Richard actually means!

What Do The Shake-Scholars Think?

Still, there have been 400 years of Shakespearean scholars (if you include people like Jonson). So some of them must have come up with some good ideas, right? Not so much, no.

In his mid-19th century edition of The Works of William Shakespeare, Howard Staunton wrote:

Stevens believed that testament is here used in its legal sense, but Mr Whiter, in his ingenious Specimen of a Commentary on Shakespeare, quotes a parallel passage from the first part of the old play Jeronimo,

“There I unclasp the purple leaves of war”

and remarks, “Whatever be the direct meaning of the words in question, I am persuaded that the idea of a book with a purple covering suggested this combination to the mind of our poet.”

What Does “Purple Testament” Mean

Well, sure, Shakespeare stole from everyone — all writers did at that time. But it only provides some indication of Shakespeare’s process. It could be reaching but Jeronimo was performed in 1592 at The Rose, when Shakespeare was there.

But all this tells us is a little about the writing process. Why did the Jeronimo writer use “purple leaves”? I don’t know the play. I assume by “purple,” he is referring to autumn. Thus it indicates the lead into war — and thus death. That’s not bad.

A purple testament has no such association. Based on the context, testament doesn’t just refer to a book, it refers to the Bible. Richard is ranting on about how no one likes him but God.

So is Shakespeare implying that Richard will soon lose the favor of God? I think that’s a reasonable reading of the text.

Why Do We Always Have to Help Out Poor Willy Shakespeare?

But here’s the problem: for hundreds of years, people like me — but generally with a far higher opinion of That Bard — have been doing this: assuming that he wasn’t just pulling lines out of his ass that fit. It’s very likely that “purple testament” meant nothing to him or the actors or the theater-goers.

He probably just liked the sound of it. Also, of course, purple is a “royal” color. Queen Elizabeth I (you know, the woman who was queen when Richard II was written) forbade anyone outside the royal family from wearing it. So that was doubtless on Willy’s mind, given what a suck-up he was to royalty.

It’s a good phrase though. It sounds important. But mostly, I think it was meaningless — just five syllables when Shakespeare needed them.

12 thoughts on “What Did Shakespeare Mean by “Purple Testament”?

  1. Here’s a suggestion that “purple testament” means “bloody legacy”: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=nvgX8uCHeigC&pg=PA347&lpg=PA347

    He does use it for the colour of blood elsewhere:
    Henry VI pt 3: “O, may such purple tears be alway shed. From those that wish the downfall of our house!”
    Romeo and Juliet: “With purple fountains issuing from your veins”
    Richard III: “The purple sap from her sweet brother’s body”

    I don’t think the biblical meaning of ‘testament’ is right; the ‘he’ who has come is Bolingbroke, about to fight the king, so it’s a human testament – the effects of his ‘treason’.

  2. I have the expression “I hate X with a purple passion” in my vocabulary. I never use this phrase and I don’t remember where I picked it up. Which means it probably came from some grade school teacher who was a Midwestern transplant to Phoenix. From context I take purple to mean intense, or vibrant, or inflamed. The pairing of purple with passion gives you alliteration, which can be pithy.

  3. Ironically, Rod Sterling’s use of the term is clearer than Shakespeare’s. In the context of the tv episode, the phrase means “the book of the damned” or a list of those who are about to die, and opening it means to reveal the person’s who are doomed. Seeing the shining faces of those who are about to be killed is equivalent to opening the book.

  4. I just watched the TZ episode tonight (syfy) and subconsciously thought about the message.
    “He is come” is the higher power when we pass, he’s arriving…
    “to open the purple testament” purple is our internal body. It reflects our blood is really purple before oxygen is presented turning it red. Which is why our veins are purple when you look at them. Testament being by other definition lookup, our will / personal property or basically, our soul.
    “of bloody war” could mean just that, conflict. Or what i think, is referenced to the pain of life. War is our struggle in existence throughout life with pain being born, pain during life and finally pain exiting life. Only post life we’re at peace.
    It seem good ol Willy knew more about our genetic evolution than people realized ??.
    Now I haven’t seen Richard II to see how the line was presented / its surrounding passages. I’m just going by what message popped in my head thinking about it.

    • This is amazing because yesterday (when you commented) I also happened upon this article and read it because I couldn’t remember what I said. And there are over 8,000 articles on this site, so that’s quite a coincident.

      I like your analysis. You really should see it the play. I’m sure you can find it online. (The entire 1978 production with Derek Jacobi used to be online but I can’t find it.) I think you will see that Richard is referencing a potential civil war since that’s more or less what the play is about: Richard trying to hang on to his crown. But it doesn’t matter because things like this usually work on many levels and it just depends upon how you want to approach it. I like this personal take on it.


  5. I have been looking FOREVER for what the hell “the purple testament” really means and this has given the clearest answer along with all the additional comments here. Thank you for this post also I really enjoyed hearing how much you hate Shakespeare cause he gets way too much credit.

  6. Frank:

    Shakespeare does use the phrase “bloody book” elsewhere to refer to civil war. In Henry IV, Part 2, when Westmoreland is speaking to the Archbishop who is one of the rebels against King Henry, he says:

    When ever yet was your appeal denied?
    Wherein have you been galled by the king?
    What peer hath been suborn’d to grate on you,
    That you should seal this lawless bloody book
    Of forged rebellion with a seal divine
    And consecrate commotion’s bitter edge?
    That is, why should you, a church official, legitimize this rebellion by putting a divine seal of approval on it?

    As far as the line in “Jeronimo,” “There I unclasp the purple leaves of war,” I think the phrase “purple leaves” can have two meanings. The word “leaf” can mean the page of a book, so the line can mean: “I open the bloody pages of [the book of] war.” But as you note, “purple leaves” also makes us think of the leaves of a tree in fall.

    As far as the “Twilight Zone” episode “The Purple Testament,” people have noted that Serling never sugar coated war in “The Twilight Zone.” The episode “A Quality of Mercy,” also set in the Pacific, is about a young lieutenant who values personal glory above human life. Serling himself had been a paratrooper in the Pacific war, and there is good reason to think it left him with PTSD. He also publicly opposed the Vietnam War.

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