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 III 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.

3 replies on “What Did Shakespeare Mean by “Purple Testament”?”

  1. Barney says:

    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. Lawrence says:

    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.

    • James Fillmore says:

      I have heard that phrase here in the Midwest. Maybe it has to do with being really red in the face?

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