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job_0375In her biography of Christopher Marlowe, Una Ellis-Fermor says there are no other colours in all of Tamburlaine the Great, except white, red, black, and yellow.

And of course, one thinks immediately of the siege of Damascus, and the tents going from white, to red, to black to show the decreasing leniency of Tamburlaine’s peace terms… And then, banners of white, red and black, and yellow sands, and lakes of black pitch, and blood in Elizabethan abundance, and gold, and snowy hills, and sunlight, and jet, and white horses… Apart from one single mention of sapphires*, in Tamburlaine “there is nothing to show that Marlowe wasn’t colour-blind to everything but red and yellow.” But of course, it was not a case of selective colour-blindness, it was a very conscious choice.

Now, to write a whole tragedy within such a narrow colour palette takes guts. It’s not just a matter of not naming unwanted colours: one must be very careful in the choice of imagery. Too much emphasis on the grass or the sky, and up pop unintended greens and blues, and the colour scheme is wrecked… But Kit Marlowe was a genius, ignored the meaning of the word “modesty”, and at twenty-three had mastered his technique. Not yet his dramatic technique, perhaps, but as for poetry… White, black, yellow, red – and nothing else. T2

Ellis-Fermor’s colour-scheme seems to have fascinated directors, as the hastiest research on Google Images shows, and I can easily see why. Even discounting as sheer chance the copper-coloured lace on the doublet of Ned Alleyn‘s first Tamburlaine in 1587, the notion of staging a play with a colour palette that is reflected in the text is mouth-watering…

Ah well, I doubt I’ll ever have a chance to direct Tamburlaine, but one thing I might try. In writing. I might choose three of four colours, and keep to them for description, imagery, figures of speech… And yes – I had better try it on a short story or a short play…

A really short one.


* Ellis-Fermor says he may actually have meant diamonds – but after all, even Kit Marlowe could slip once in a tragedy, couldn’t he? Or his publishers could…

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