Critical studies of the iconography—visual images and symbols—in Shakespeare's plays have led to a better understanding of his works. Late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century audiences had a shared knowledge of the traditional connection between visual images and their significance that modern readers and audiences do not possess. Commentators who have researched the implications of the visual symbolism in Shakespearean drama have identified motifs associated with, for example, a specific biblical or mythic figure, a particular kind of vegetation, material objects such as an hourglass or a human skull, and various kinds of birds, fish, and animals. Particularly important in the study of Shakespeare's iconography are Renaissance emblem books, in which symbolic pictures are accompanied by a motto and an explanatory verse. These were widely read, and playwrights of the period frequently drew inspiration from them for the visual effects in their dramas. The rich tradition of medieval and Renaissance paintings, engravings, woodcuts, and sculpture also served as an important source for Shakespeare and his contemporaries. The visual images and dramatic icons they employed were conveyed by stage properties, scenic backdrops, tableaux, hand props, gestures, and costumes, as well as by verbal allusions to conventional symbols.
An appreciation of Shakespeare's visual imagery in the context of Renaissance iconography may clarify for modern audiences the action of a dramatic text, bring thematic material into greater relief, and reveal nuances of characterization. For example, in an examination of Richard II's dual nature as both fallen man and semi-divine monarch, John Doebler (see Further Reading) explores Shakespeare's characterization of the king in terms of his association with religious iconography—in particular, the three biblical trees of Eden, Jesse, and Calvary. Doebler views these icons as a means of underscoring Richard's humanity and his resemblance to Christ. By contrast, Peggy Endel (1986) maintains that Shakespeare's depiction of Richard III seated on the throne of England while he hatches his schemes (Act IV, scene ii) recalls icons associated with lewdness and evil. In two essays on the iconography of the English history plays, Clayton G. MacKenzie is similarly concerned with visual images of good and evil. In “Emblems of an English Eden” (2000), MacKenzie argues that although allusions to the phoenix and other symbols of renewal in the Henry VI trilogy are intended to sustain the theme of a revived English heroism, the dramatic action demonstrates instead a “recycling of evils.” In “Iconic Monsters in Paradise” (2000), MacKenzie calls attention to references in the Henry IV plays to the struggle between Hercules and the many-headed Hydra, a traditional image in emblematic literature of the continuous rebirth of evil. The critic links these to what he views as the central issue of the play: Who is virtuous and who is monstrous in the contest for the English crown? He also discusses Henry V's association with the classical god Mars, who in Renaissance mythology was both the protector of domestic peace and an invincible warrior on foreign soil. In MacKenzie's judgment, Shakespeare's identification of Henry and Mars is deeply ironic.
Several commentators have explored the function of iconography in Shakespeare's major tragedies. Bridget Gellert (1970) focuses on the graveyard scene in Hamlet, with particular emphasis on Yorick's skull as an icon of the transitoriness of life and on allusions to Saturn, the planet most closely linked to melancholy. In a subsequent essay (1977), she considers the tableau—complete with gestures and book—that Polonius and Claudius contrive in Act III, scene i to present Ophelia as an image of female piety, remarking on the men's calculated manipulation of a traditional image to influence Hamlet's perception of Ophelia. In this essay, she also discusses the association of Ophelia with the mythical nymph Flora, who was represented in iconographic tradition as both an innocent maid and a deceptive courtesan. Bettie Anne Doebler (1967) similarly reads conflicting symbolism in the bed that is a central stage property in Act V, scene ii of Othello. She argues that along with other elements in this scene, the bed alludes to popular iconography and devotional literature that dealt with the art of dying well and that, by evoking this tradition, Shakespeare deepened the tragedy of the Moor's death. In an essay on King Lear, Clifford Davidson (1984) contrasts “the iconography of wicked femininity” with which Goneril and Regan are linked with that associated with Cordelia, who is presented, in his judgment, as “the Second Eve, the Blessed Virgin Mary.” Davidson also argues that the visual symbolism of Act V of Lear undermines the notion of redemption which the earlier dramatic action appeared to promise. Iconography in Shakespeare's Roman plays is the subject of essays by A. Robin Bowers (1984-86) and András Kiséry (2000). Bowers is particularly concerned with the verbal symbolism in Titus Andronicus and argues that the play's social and political ramifications are emphasized in extended speeches that serve as verbal emblems. Kiséry calls attention to the emblematic significance of wounds and scars in Coriolanus and Julius Caesar. As representations of the damage inflicted on the body politic, he argues, these marks of warfare and assassination have profound social and civic implications.
Visual effects are particularly prominent in Shakespeare's late romances. A number of commentators have discussed the iconography of these plays, including Clifford Davidson (1981), Peggy Muñoz Simonds (1985 and 1995-96), Sara Hanna (1991), Rhonda Lemke Sanford (1998), and Frederick Kiefer (1999). Davidson surveys the implications of the series of emblematic episodes in The Winter's Tale, especially the sheep-shearing scene (Act IV, scene iv), in which Perdita illustrates the motif of the “rebirth of the green world.” Kiefer focuses on the choric figure of Time in this play, remarking that while most depictions of Time in Renaissance art emphasize its destructive effects, Shakespeare's personification also possesses the capacity to heal and restore. Hanna argues that in Pericles, the visual effects combine to form a unified subtext that helps structure the play's movement from death and tyranny in the opening scene to divine revelation at the close. In an essay devoted to The Tempest, Simonds (1995-96) relates the theme of governance to music in Renaissance emblems and pageantry. She is particularly concerned here with allusions in the play to the emblem tradition associated with Orpheus and to images of gardens. In a 1985 essay, Simonds explores Shakespeare's use of the emblematic tradition of the Wild Men in Cymbeline. She points out that while these figures were generally represented as uncivilized savages, Shakespeare drew Guiderius and Arviragus—the Wild Men of Cymbeline—as nature's noblemen, living a virtuous life in the mountains of Wales that is in stark contrast to the corruption of the court. Sanford focuses on the wager plot in Cymbeline, linking the iconography of Queen Elizabeth I to Shakespeare's portrayal of Imogen. Noting the conventional Renaissance association of territorial land with women's bodies, she contends that Iachimo's invasion of Imogen's bedchamber, together with his exploration of the room and her body, constitute a metaphorical rape and conquest.
SOURCE: Davidson, Clifford. “Iconography and Some Problems of Terminology in the Study of the Drama and Theater of the Renaissance.” Research Opportunities in Renaissance Drama 29 (1986-87): 7-14.
[In the following essay, Davidson proposes that in the context of the Elizabethan and Jacobean theater, the term iconography may pertain to every visual aspect of a stage production. He also maintains that whereas Protestant iconoclasts of the period deplored the potential deceptiveness of visual images, Shakespeare and his contemporaries exploited the visual images of the Renaissance to enrich their plays.]
Peter M. Daly, in an important essay entitled “Shakespeare and the Emblem: The Use of Evidence and Analogy in Establishing Iconographic and Emblematic Effects in the Plays,” which deserves to be much better known, has provided some intelligent cautions concerning the use of terms such as “iconographic,” “iconological,” “iconic,” and “emblematic” in the discussion of dramatic literature.1 While it is not entirely true that these terms have until recently been the province of the art historian alone, it is nevertheless useful, as Daly suggests, to keep in mind their precise meaning when applied to play texts and to theatrical production involving these texts: “Improper usage of terms leads to their debasement; our intellectual currency is devalued through inflationary spending.”2
Nevertheless, because the term “emblematic” as utilized to denote the theatrical practice of Shakespeare's time has become more or less accepted, it requires to be adopted as the preferred word to describe the stage of the later sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. The term was proposed by Glynne Wickham in the second volume of his Early English Stages in 1963.3 Wickham quite rightly saw something inherently medieval about the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage—something that set it off from the illusionistic stage which was associated with the Italian theater and which was first introduced into English practice by Inigo Jones in the Masque of Blackness in 1605. Just as the English visual arts of the Elizabethan period tended to revert to a new-medievalism that produced a retreat from realism in the paintings and sculptures by English artists,4 who mainly created works commissioned by aristocratic and other patrons of financial means, so too the theater (and the texts which formed the basis of theatrical productions) backed away from realistic stage portrayal. Instead of realistic portrayal (e.g., in a printed scene which might serve as a background to the action), the theater used its architecture, especially its façade, to establish the background of the stage action. It was therefore a theater which depended largely on the carefully costumed actors' ability to form tableaux and to act out visually meaningful scenes by the use of gestures.
Neither the tableaux nor the gestures were necessarily anything like a photographic image of life in Elizabethan and Jacobean England, but it is necessary that the visual dimension of the drama should be both vivid and explicable to the audience in attendance in a building with potential acoustical problems and imperfect sight lines. Every aspect of this stage, or of the drama designed for presentation on it, may not be comparable to the technique of the Renaissance genre known as the “emblem”: indeed, only the street pageantry of the time and the Jacobean masque were purely emblematic in this sense. Nevertheless, if we agree that “emblematic” can also be applied to a theater that manipulates visual scene in a non-realistic and often symbolic way, then the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage is indeed properly designed by this term. In Shakespeare's case, his theater after 1599 was called the Globe; and, though the eighteenth-century evidence cited by Frances Yates to establish the roundness of the foundations of the theater has been called into question, its interior shape nevertheless may have been round.5 The Globe itself was definitely regarded as emblematic, and we further may be permitted, I believe, to use this term to denote the type of drama presented before its façade.6
Upon reflection, I think at the same time we need to be very careful about “iconic” as a general term to describe these dramas or this theater,7 since the word quite simply seems too closely related to a doctrine of picture which links the representation with the prototype.8 This doctrine in antiquity was associated with the Roman emperors, and it was widely believed that veneration directed to the pictorial representation was identical with that immediately directed to the person of the emperor in his actual presence. Transferred to Christianity, the doctrine became the focus of the well-known iconoclastic controversy in the Byzantine Church in which the iconodules insisted upon the usefulness of icons, illustrating the deity for worship and meditation. In the Western Church, the use of images of the deity and of saints became widespread, and in the high Middle Ages image theology distinctly influenced the modes of presentation of the music-drama (e.g., the Visitatio Sepulchri) in monastic churches and cathedrals. Particularity was avoided: generalized forms, joined with standard symbols (a key for St. Peter, for example), avoided the question of deception in the appearance of the individual figure in the visual arts. However, in the later Middle Ages the play of imagination, under the influence of new modes of thought, came to be the norm—a change which allowed a new emphasis on the particular instead of the earlier insistence on more idealized forms.9 Such representations, the objects of veneration, were precisely what were rejected by the more radical Protestants whose work of iconoclasm in England is well known. Oddly enough, in Protestant England, the religious icons of the Catholic past were replaced during the age of Elizabeth with new icons, especially in the arms of the queen, which appeared with great frequency in churches of the time. Though these are not realistic depictions of the monarch, they nevertheless are “iconic” in the sense that they are presented as objects of veneration as part of the cult of the virgin queen—objects which imply a transfer of earlier modes of veneration to the queen herself.10
It hence also will not serve to define an “icon” merely as “an image in which conceptual content predominates over the attempt to render perceptual knowledge”11 and thus to apply this term either to the imagery present in the dramatic text or to the visual configuration on the stage in production in the early theater. The term is, of course, appropriate for those illustrations, including such non-representational ones, which feature the queen's arms—or which show forth the Renaissance impresa—but probably should not be regarded roughly as a synomym for “picture” or “picturable,” both terms which in themselves promote quite clear understanding. Further, the assumption that such images or stage configurations in the plays of a Renaissance dramatist must favor concept over precept will strike many as odd, for the argument here is based in modern preconceptions rather than in Renaissance ways of understanding ideas and perception. Seeing was recognized as more immediate than merely hearing words on the stage;12 the spectacle was the source of experience beyond that contained in a lecture or sermon since it conveyed a visual display in which, at least in the context of the play, the spectator might participate.
Hence, too, the speeches of the play might be more affecting if they adopt references to visual objects, actions, etc., to make them more immediate to the experience of the audience. There is also, in the art of the greater dramatists of the English Renaissance, the possibility of drawing on the tension between picture and meaning,13 thus enriching the experience of seeing the play in the theater in the case of the spectacle and additionally stimulating the response also of readers who read the play as literature. The result can hence be complex indeed and involve a theatrical and literary art that possesses emotional and intellectual depth of a type that should be distinguished from the category which we have here distinguished as iconic.
A recent tendency to add the term “iconoclastic” to the vocabulary of criticism in relation to the handling of spectacle and imagery14 is unfortunate. The age of Queen Elizabeth was indeed an iconoclastic period of history, but the iconoclasm was aimed in large degree against those icons which had been the objects of veneration in Roman Catholic times. The deceptiveness of the images was stressed, and they were classified as “idols” through the Protestant denial of their efficacy in mediating between worshippers and the deity or saints.15 In the case of Shakespeare, his childhood must have brought him into contact with the destruction associated with the iconoclasm of the early part of Elizabeth's reign, when the town of Stratford-upon-Avon felt impelled to denude its Guild Chapel of most of its wall paintings—a task of iconoclasm that Shakespeare's father supervised shortly before his son's birth—and its parish church suffered from severe destruction of its images, a few of which remain in mutilated state to this day.16 Shakespeare probably shared the suspicion of the religious image that was current in Protestant England in his day, but the recognition of the potential for deception in an image generally is quite a different thing from the iconomachy directed specifically against the religious images that had been venerated.
When Lady Macbeth insists to her husband that they should “look like th'innocent...
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SOURCE: Endel, Peggy. “Profane Icon: The Throne Scene of Shakespeare's Richard III.” Comparative Drama 20, no. 2 (summer 1986): 115-23.
[In the following excerpt, Endel explicates the scatological, satanic, and melancholic associations evoked by the iconic stage image of the newly crowned Richard III meditating on his private schemes from the seat of majesty.]
Retentive—he's a very retentive king, a royal retainer. …
What are you playing at?
Words, words. They're all we have to go on.
—Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are...
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SOURCE: MacKenzie, Clayton G. “Emblems of an English Eden.” In Emblems of Mortality: Iconographic Experiments in Shakespeare's Theatre, pp. 15-38. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 2000.
[In the following excerpt, MacKenzie discusses different icons of life-in-death in Shakespeare's English history plays that support the themes of renewal and heroic succession. He calls particular attention to the phoenix allusions and the idea of England as a new Troy in the Henry VI trilogy and to symbols of the nation as a new Eden in the second tetralogy.]
The sixteenth century made much of the idea of “life in death,” one of its most popular visual metaphors...
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SOURCE: MacKenzie, Clayton G. “Iconic Monsters in Paradise.” In Emblems of Mortality: Iconographic Experiments in Shakespeare's Theatre, pp. 39-64. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 2000.
[In the following excerpt, MacKenzie highlights the unconventional use of the mythic figures of Mars and the Hydra in 1 and 2 Henry IV and Henry V. He suggests that although the struggle between Hercules and the Hydra was traditionally represented as a moral contest between good and evil, allusions to the many-headed monster in the Henry IV plays confound the issue of who is virtuous and who is vicious in the competition for the throne. Similarly, MacKenzie views the...
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