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Welcome to Episode #174 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.

The wig was first introduced to England around 1572, when Shakespeare was only 8 years old. The fashion would catch on very quickly in England, promoted by the Queen herself, who was known for wearing wigs in her older years, and defined by her naturally curly red hair in her youth. There are over 100 references to “hair” across Shakespeare’s works, many of them calling attention to the color of the hair, and assigning value not only to particular colors, but also reflecting the importance of keeping one’s hair neatly tended. In Henry V, the Duke of Burgundy says that prisoners are notable for being “overgrown with hair” and in Henry VI Part II, the Earl of Warwick defines a “ghastly” man as being recognizable by how his “well proportioned beard [is] made rough and rugged.” Later in that same play, Winchester, calls attention to the cultural importance of a well kept grooming regime when he associates a demonstrative problem with wild hair. He says, “Comb down his hair; look, look! it stands upright.” These are just a few references in Shakespeare’s plays that reveal to us the kinds of hair, combs, dye, and periwigs–the now archaic term used in Shakespeare’s lifetime to describe a wig–that were present during the life of the bard. Here to today to help us explore the vanity table of the 16th century and examine exactly what were the kind of Elizabethan wigs, hair dye, hair brushes, and toilette products used for women (and men) of turn of the 17th century London, is our guest and contributor to the Tudors to Windsors: British Royal Portraits exhibition at the Royal Museum Greenwich, Sue Prichard.

This exhibition is a collaboration with the National Portrait Gallery, London, and features 500 years of royal portraiture that offers us today a view into the story of haircare from Shakespeare’s lifetime. This exhibition is now on display at the Royal Museum Greenwich. Find more information on how to attend the exhibition in person here.

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Sue Prichard is Senior Curator: Art at Royal Museum Greenwich.  She is responsible for the strategic planning of the Queen’s House, which includes exhibitions and displays.  Sue’s research interests include fashioning the body in portraiture, women and the domestic environment and gender relations.

In this episode, I’ll be asking Sue Prichard about :

  • Shakespeare uses the term “periwig” in Comedy of Errors, Hamlet, and Two Gentlemen of Verona, and all of them seem to be associated with men, which surprised me, as I had considered wigs to be something that women would have worn. Are there examples of periwigs in the portraits of the Tudors to Windsors exhibition, and are wigs primarily for men during Shakespeare’s lifetime?
  •  Shakespeare’s reference to periwigs in Comedy of Errors says “to pay a fine for a periwig and recover the lost hair of another man.” Sue, were periwigs made of real human hair?
  • Elizabeth I was known for her red hair, and for wearing wigs to accomplish that appearance, but would Elizabethans have ever used dye to change the color of their natural hair?
  • … and more!

Watch the video version of our interview with Sue Pritchard on Patreon! Sign up here

to pay a fine for a periwig and recover the lost hair of another man.

Dromio of Syracuse

Comedy of Errors (II.2)

The Five Orders of Perriwigs as they were Worn at the Late Coronation Measured Architectonically, William Hogarth, 1761.Bequest of Phyllis Massar, 2011, Metropolitan Museum of Art. This file was donated to Wikimedia Commons as part of a project by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. See the Image and Data Resources Open Access Policy | Original Source


Wigs were made from human hair

Shakespeare’s reference to periwigs in Comedy of Errors says “to pay a fine for a periwig and recover the lost hair of another man.” In Shakespeare’s lifetime, (as with today), often fine quatlity wigs would have been made from human hair.

Hair is a commodity. Women would sell or barter their hair tobuy handkerchiefs or petticoats. Pepys sells his hair to a wigmaker. It was a luxury, introduction of wig makers into London. Highly expensive and used human hair but could also use goat or horse hair that was cheaper. 

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Comb down his hair; look, look! it stands upright


Henry VI Part II (III.3)

16th Century Hair Comb featuring David and Bathsheba and the Judgement of Paris. 1530-1550 (made). Author unknown, Made in France. Comb, ivory, on one side David and Bathsheba, on the other the Judgement of Paris, France, ca. 1530-1550. Made of elephant ivory. In the collection of Prince Petr Soltykoff, Paris, until 1861; Soltykoff sale, Paris (Soltykoff 1861, lot 371, bought Jacob); purchased purchased from Edward Rutter, Paris, in 1869 for £40. Part of the Sculpture Collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Collections Record | Source

Hair and Wigs Kept Clean with Combs

I found only [four] references to the word “comb*” in Shakespeare’s works, both of which are found in Taming of the Shrew. Katherina uses the phrase “to comb your noddle with a three legged stool and paint your face” (Noddle referring to someone’s head) and then Grumio later in the play says “let their heads be sleekly comb’d” For Elizabethan England, keeping one’s hair (or wig) clean involved using a comb. The comb has not evolved much since the 16th century, as the ones they used then look very similar to what we have today.

You find alot of fabulous combs made from ivory in museum collections wonderful one at V&A, highly decorated, David and Bathsheba. Combs were very practical, head lice nad fleas were common so you used a comb to get out the fleas and headlice. Elizabeth Vernon, married to Henry Wolsley, portrait of her … in her closet, bed chamber and her gown is open, you can see her pink whalebone stays and her hair is loose using a comb to comb her hair. Portraits give us an indication of how elite women would use these in the privacy of their home.

* in the audio of today’s episode, I say “two” references to the word “comb” and was able to find two additional references while putting together these show notes. As far as the actual word “comb” I have found four references in Shakespeare’s works. If you know of more, or certainly of more references to wigs/haircare, please share those in the comments as those thoughts will add greatly to the conversation.  

To comb your noddle with a three-legg’d stool,
And paint your face, and use you like a fool.


Taming of the Shrew (I.1)

Hair Dye and Makeup

Elizabeth I was known for her red hair, and for wearing wigs to accomplish that appearance. When it comes to setting trends in fashion for Elizabethan England, Sue points out that

Elizabeth was an absolute trendsetter. Her red hair linked her to Henry VIII and validated her legitimacy to the crown. Her red hair was incredibly important, wears her hair loose on her coronation day, sign of her virginity, immediately she takes to the throne she looses her hair so she uses curls to cover the bald patches and eventually she has to wear wigs. The court would dye their hair red to compliment the queen and they used very toxic things to do that. Sulfur powder, expensive, and incredibly toxic. Made your hair fal out. You were dying your hair to emulate the queen but it was a viscous circle, all the products you were using would make your hair fall out.

The reference we mentioned earlier from Katherina telling Hortensio to “paint your face” is not talking about artwork (though perhaps making a play on that definition) but instead talking about make up. Sue shares that Elizabethans did use cosmetics, but comparatively to other countries in Europe, they were known for having relatively unpainted faces.

1558 venetian ambassador describes english court as fresh complexions and general lack of paint, paint means “cosmetics” or “makeup” and that paint means makeup. Around 1662, you see the introduction of paint to England, and this is really a result of Elizabeth I having small pox and her skin is damaged, and somewhat scarred but not as bad as her lady in waiting mary sidney, (caught it from Elizbaeth and incredibly disfigured, offended the queen and banished her from court). Elizabeth had naturally pale skin, so she used paint to enhance and cover the scars of small pox.The ingredients they were using are highly toxic, white lead mixed with vinegar, overlay that with a glae of eggwhite, to produce a glow, but of course as the egg white hardened, if you smiled, the glaze would crack, and the longer you wore it, it became grey so you reapplied the white paint to increase the idea of the white complexion. They were using spanish pigment, mercury on their cheeks to give them a blush, and using seruse vermillion (mercury) on their lips, all of these ladies of the court all of the make up was toxic.

In Hamlet, the character Hamlet says “I have heard of your paintings too, well enough. God hath given you one face, and you make yourselves another.” Now, in this scene Hamlet is speaking metaphorically, but makeup had negative connocations for society in Shakespeare’s lifetime as well, often implying that someone wearing makeup had something more sinister to hide than a bad complexion. 

Make up was always associated with prostitution, so people who were applying the venetian’s rouge was the very best white make up you could axuire, there was a kind of association with moirality and negatively so, and it damaged their health and there were a whole range of side effects, insomina, headaches, etc. Opposite effect they intended because it didn’t make them more attractive, already perceived as damaging.

…performance is a kind
of will or testament…


Timon of Athens (V.1)

While the actual sitter is unknown for certain, this is reputedly a self portait of Richard Burbage done c. 1600. Originally printed in: Ackroyd, Peter (2005). Shakespeare: The Biography. Colour plate, opp. p.338. | Public Domain | Source 


Hair and Wigs Styled with Early Modern Tools

Keeping one’s hair clean and well managed was a different process than what we think of as part of personal hygeine today. For example, when I asked Sue if the Elizabethans had shampoo, she replied,

Not at all, the whole ritual of bathing in the 16th century, is completely different. Elizabeth I was famously said to take a bath once a month whether she needs it or no. They had bathrooms they just didn’t bath daily, they used warm water, olive oil soap, and hadn clothes. Herladies of the bedchamber would have used lye (woodash adn water) to drape a cloth around her shoulders, and rubbed her hair with a warm cloth.

Innovation in theater wasn’t the only forward progress taking place in Shakespeare’s lifetime. Innovations around haircare would also arrive in England, with the first metal hairpin was invented in England in 1545. (Source) These inventions would change the kinds of hairstyles that were popular in Tudor England, but it was Elizabeth’s own practical style for her hair that influenced society most.

Elizabeth used curling tools and singed hair (look this up). Elaborate hair styles, and early part of the 17th century when James I takes the crown, you get this fashion led by Anne of Denmark, for women cutting their hair, and this is seen as realy controversial. It was seen as women trying to emulate men. James commands his clergy to go out and to teach “against the insolvency of our women, wearing….hair cut short or shorn, carry stilettos (small slim daggers)” Women start to cut their hair instead of creating thestyles. Seen as a sin against nature. 

Book & Resources Sue Prichard recommends:


Want to see Shakespeare's Trip to London?

This historically illutrated map shows one possible path between London and Stratford Upon Avon that William Shakespeare could have travelled by foot to get from his home to his workplace in London. Using primary documents and quotes from Shakespeare's plays that reference specific inns and taverns along this path, the map pinpoints where the inns were located (including the one owned by the Davenant family, where it is believed Shakespeare frequently stopped when passing by.)

Newsletter subscribers get maps like this one regularly, sent to them completely free just to say thank you for being a subscriber. Want to get free artwork yourself? Use this form to sign up for weekly updates and get this guide to welcome you!

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