Who’s Up For Nose Painting?

Spotted this question about nose painting on Reddit, but it’s not getting much conversation over there and I think it’s interesting.

Falstaff, King of Nose-Painting
This is Falstaff. He isn’t in the play but he’s what comes to mind when I think of noses painted from drinking.

The question is this: When the Porter in Macbeth says that drink provokes “nose-painting, sleep and urine,” what exactly is nose-painting?  The student in question assumed, as do many online resources that it refers to the idea that your nose turns red when you drink too much. His teacher apparently told him that it was more vulgar than that.

Well, off to Filthy Shakespeare and Shakespeare’s Bawdy I went.  Both list it as a euphemism for sex without going into any detail that I can find.

But here’s the thing.  Look at the context:


What three things does drink especially provoke? 


Marry, sir, nose-painting, sleep, and
urine. Lechery, sir, it provokes, and unprovokes;
it provokes the desire, but it takes
away the performance: therefore, much drink
may be said to be an equivocator with lechery:
it makes him, and it mars him; it sets
him on, and it takes him off; it persuades him,
and disheartens him; makes him stand to, and
not stand to; in conclusion, equivocates him
in a sleep, and, giving him the lie, leaves him.

So his first joke was that drink makes you want to sleep, urinate, and … well, you know.  But then he starts calling it “lechery” and does the rest of the speech about how drink “takes away the performance”, and the more I read that, the more I realize that almost every word is a euphemism for something sexual.  “Stand to and not stand to” is particularly illustrative on dear Mr. Shakespeare’s part.

That doesn’t seem to flow.  “Drink provokes sex, sleep and urine.  Sex, it provokes and unprovokes…”  What?

“Drink makes your nose red, makes you sleepy, and makes you need to pee.  Sex?  Sex is funny when you’re drinking.  You want it, you just cant do it.”  Makes more sense to me.

I believe that Macbeth is the only place Shakespeare used nose-painting, so we can’t compare context elsewhere.  All of the online references I find suggest that it is the “your nose turns red” thing, not the sex thing.

What do you think?  Anybody got some more academic references, like an OED, where we can get something definitive?

6 thoughts on “Who’s Up For Nose Painting?

  1. I think you're right, Duane. Drink provokes three things. And drink both provokes and unprovokes a fourth thing.

    OED isn't of any specific help here. It has the phrase under "nose," and it cites Macbeth (together with a quotation from 2003 about someone who literally makes paintings with his nose), but it doesn't provide an alternate definition.

    Of the other editions I have around here (Arden, Riverside, et cetera), the only one that isn't silent on that specific line is The Norton Shakespeare, which provides this footnote for "nose-painting": "Reddening of the nose through drink."


    1. Clearly it is not reddening the nose by drink. It is a euphemism for cunnilingus. A bawdy joke that a man’s nose is painted by a woman’s ‘brush’ as he performs with his tongue.

  2. See I take it to mean…well, if it stands to and not stands to, then sex is difficult, and probably not very satisfying. Can you think of any way a guy could satisfy his partner if his member can't stand to?? And where his nose might get painted or wet??

  3. Can you think of any way a guy could satisfy his partner if his member can't stand to??

    A couple, actually, but they likely weren't as well-publicised in Shakespeare's time 😉

  4. I believe that it is a direct reference to oral sex considering the male anatomy may not function under the influence of alcohol… just a guess but that's how I interpreted it 😀

  5. Yes, I interpreted oral sex as well. (That's what SHOULD happen if a man can't perform!! If only it were true.)
    Shakespeare man, he always got it.

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