"Shakespeare's arms were yellow." WTF?

This story about new Shakespeare finds (a sketch of his family’s coat of arms) mentions an incident where his colleague, Ben Jonson, wrote a play ribbing the Bard for his apparent social climbing. In the play, the family motto was “Not without mustard.” IRL, the motto on the crest was “Not without right.” The story includes the parenthetical claim that “Shakespeare’s arms were yellow.”

Is this some well-known fact about Shakespeare? Was it due to some appalling medical condition? What’s the Straight Dope?

“Arms” as in the Coat of Arms that Ben Jonson was making fun of. Not his physical human arms. This is the Coat of Arms:

See, yellow on black, with a falcon shaking a spear.

The “arms” being referred to were presumably Shakespeare’s coat of arms, not the part of his body between his shoulders and hands. The picture of the coat of arms included in the article is faded and torn, but it looks like the field or background of the shield is yellow.

Okay, just some unfortunate phrasing, like last year’s “Giant Panda Flies Back to China.” (A plane was involved, and that’s just what pandas are called.)

Well, not really. “Arms” as a shortened form of “coat of arms” is pretty standard terminology.

In fact, given how many times the article in your own link uses that terminology, I’m a bit puzzled how you managed to misunderstand the specific sentence you quoted:

Emphasis added. So, you managed to understand correctly what “arms” meant in all those other sentences, but it was calling them “yellow” that threw you? :confused:

“Coat of arms” is a singular noun and in most of the examples you cite, “arms” was not referred to as plural. (“It makes it abundantly clear that while Shakespeare was obtaining the arms on behalf of his father, it was really for his own status,” for example. Emphasis mine.) In the one that confused me, it rather explicitly was plural. Or was Shakespeare such a status whore that he acquired multiple coats-of-arms?

Also, making oblique fun of people’s physical appearance was somewhat in vogue in the 17th Century (Isaac Newton’s “standing on the shoulders of giants,” for example). This looked like it could have been an example of such.

Actually, his arms were Or (gold) and sable (black). Yellow is just a common way of representing Or. The fancy way is with gold leaf.

Argent (silver) is often rendered white.

The “it” there refers to the (singular) act of obtaining the arms, not the arms themselves.

“Coat of arms” is singular. “Arms” is not.

Which is why I wish the author had said “crest.”

The crest is the thing above the escutcheon (shield) in more elaborate coats of arms. It’s only one part of the whole, and a minor part at that. Saying “crest” instead of “arms” is a common error.

Originally, a crest was just that: a decoration (e.g., dragon or lion) applied to the helmet of a knight for purposes of identification and/or intimidation. A helmet is sometimes included in the arms, below the crest.

In this image, it’s the eagle with the lance (spear). You can also see the wreath that also went over the helmet to hold the mantle (a cloth covering) in place.

This is a good example of what are called “canting arms,” which are a play on the bearer’s name. The dots are the conventional way of indicating Or in black and white. Argent is represented by blank white space.

Coming at it from a different angle: so, BJ snarked on WS’s coat of arms, attributing the yellowness of it to a punned version of the actual motto, referencing mustard.

The OP above says it was a jab at WS’s social climbing. Cool. Do we know how referencing mustard would knock WS down a notch? Did only lower-class folk eat mustard back then, so it was like saying he liked trashy food?

I suspect he was merely contrasting the lowly condiment (mustard) with the precious metal (gold), both of which happen to be yellow.

Come to think of it, the coat of arms actually does look a little like a sandwich spread with mustard, what with the lance and all. The latter could easily be mistaken for the knife used to spread the mustard.

Could Jonson have been casting aspersions on Shakespeare’s bravery? As most coats of arms contain elements symbolizing heroism or valor, Shakespeare’s was “yellow.” Did the color symbolize cowardice back then?

Oooo: maybe “mustard” was a synecdoche for cowardice? Like saying “this iron” for sword. Would work if the symbolism you ask about was there.

The design on the shield is properly called the “arms,” not the “crest.” The crest appears above the arms and it’s optional.


That’s doubtful imo. I have yet to read anyone who has put forth this cowardice argument, and Jonson’s phrase has been mulled over by Shakespeare scholars for centuries(or at least since the phrase was linked to Shakespeare). I believe the colour yellow was not linked to cowardice until much later but stand to be corrected on the matter.

We put mustard on ham sandwiches. Were actors called hams in Shakespeare’s time?

I believe they were. IIRC, pig fat was used to remove theatrical makeup, hence the term “ham actors.”

Au contraire. In the examples in his first paragraph, it’s clear that “yellow = cowardice” preceded Shakespeare’s time.