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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.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

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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 flower, / But be the serpent under it” (I.v.74-75), she is not using the flower-serpent analogy to indicate any necessarily deceptive property of sight, but she is calling to mind a commonplace perhaps derived ultimately from Virgil's Third Eclogue17 and embedded in a well-known emblem in Geoffrey Whitney's A Choice of Emblemes (Leyden, 1586). It is important to note that Whitney's explanation of his picture, a snake curled around a strawberry plant, emphasizes “flattringe speeche” (italics mine). Hence, by understanding the context of Lady Macbeth's statement, we recognize that her analogy is intended to reveal her hypocrisy and its attendant deception as an abuse of language as well as of appearance,18 but the audience is not thus deceived, for it is taken into her confidence in the play, which reveals what is in her heart. She thereafter attempts to appear to be the perfect hostess, but she does so in order to entrap the king by means of her hypocrisy. The audience, however, knows from the beginning that she is using a façade of honesty to achieve illegitimate goals.

Shakespeare is not here being iconoclastic, for he merely is dramatizing what the traditions of the theater and the visual arts had established concerning abuses of character. He is not questioning the honesty of aristocratic women presented on stage, but he is positing the possibility of deceptiveness in the human character—a deceptiveness of which he is aware in terms of his origin in the beginning of history when Eve was deceived by the serpent and was led thereafter herself to embrace deceptiveness in her relationships with her husband and the deity. The same potential for deceptiveness, may have led, in the view of many Englishmen in the Renaissance, to the creation of images to be venerated—images which the extreme Protestants of England regarded as not only deceptive but idolatrous. But the presentation of deception on stage is not the same as iconomachy or iconoclasm, the attempt to destroy images, usually of a religious nature.

On another level, the theater itself offered a place which its opponents saw as characterized by hypocrisy and deceit. Here actors dressed up in costumes appropriate for many different ranks in society; on the stage, as David Bevington observes, men were released from the normal legal restrictions concerning dress which would have each person garbed appropriately for one in his or her vocation.19 In the case of women's roles, the actors were perhaps most far from what their roles seemed to denote, since transvestism involved a kind of temporary transformation that some found particularly offensive.20 But in any case, the anti-theatrical element in Elizabeth's time found the stage dishonest because, in the words of an earlier critic, it presented “signis without dede.”21 As Prynne insisted, God desires “all men at all times, to be such in shew, as they are in truth: to seeme that outwardly which they are inwardly; to act themselves, not others. …”22 That Shakespeare in particular found the function of the actor to provide a convenient analogue to deception is clear from Richard III, where the villain-hero of the play is a prize hypocrite and actor, and from Macbeth, in which the protagonist like a player puts on the costume of a king to disguise what underneath he is. In Hamlet, Claudius compares his hypocritical speech to that of the prostitute's painted face (III.i.49-52), but the face painting of actors was considered by the enemies of the stage to be equally dishonest.23

While the motive of the enemies of the stage have been studied and their connections with the iconoclastic movement against the visual arts demonstrated, there is no evidence that Shakespeare, in spite of his occasional use of analogues derived from the theater as signs of hypocrisy and deceit, rejected the spectacle or the imagery of the theater and drama in the manner we would expect of the iconoclast or of one who thoroughly hates picture, which is for such persons to be totally rejected because it is not what it seems. Ben Jonson, in spite of his differences with Inigo Jones concerning the primacy of text in establishing the meaning of the stage spectacle of the masques, could still insist that the person who “loves not Picture is injurious to Truth: and all the wisdome of Poetry.”24 No doubt Shakespeare and his fellow actors as well would have agreed with an assertion extending Jonson's statement to theatrical spectacle. To have thought otherwise would have been to write and act out of a sense of cynicism, a stance that would be totally inconsistent with the ethics promoted by the plays themselves.

The meaning of the visual aspects of the plays, however, is a subject of some controversy; it is not always possible in our time to fathom precisely what the playwright intended a particular scene to mean, and we cannot always know how audience responded to the imagery imbedded in the text or to the stage spectacle. In the instance of Simon Forman's attendance at a production of Macbeth in 1611, his reaction to three visual tableaux was apparently intense—i.e., the scenes of the bloody hands following the murder, of Banquo's ghost, and of the queen's sleep walking.25 But how important was the iconography of the play in determining the spectator's response to it when weighed against the effect of the language of the drama?

The term “iconography” is a handy one, since it can include both the meaning of the imagery which is used rhetorically in the language of the play and the meaning of the visual tableaux actually seen by the eyes of the spectators who have come to see the play. Iconography, in other words, potentially involves the entire visual display of the drama as well as the “imagery” present in the text of the play. Included may be the use of costumes and stage properties.26 Study of such aspects of the drama or staging should not, however, lead us to expect depths of meaning that may arbitrarily be read back into the play from the standpoint of the study of the visual arts or even upon occasion be grounded in certain descriptions of the type found in Cesare Ripa's Iconologia, though on the whole this work can be extremely useful when treated with appropriate tact. When examining the iconography of a play, it is necessary that its symbolism should be sufficiently explicable, and also we need to recognize that iconographic tableaux in a stage work should not be so far removed from the experience of the audience that it is unable to make sense of it. As Dieter Mehl has pointed out, “Visual symbolism becomes almost meaningless if it is too subtle to be obvious to the majority of the spectators.”27

But it is also important to stress that often the iconography, though it might seem opaque to modern readers and audiences, had a popular basis in the Renaissance and during that period had even informed the visual traditions utilized in the street pageantry.28 The bloody dagger seen by Macbeth in a vision, and then the bloody daggers used by him in the murder, are iconographic signs which designate the injustice of this terrible deed of murder against one whose kingly being represents the unity and health of the state; at the same time, the bloody dagger is shown by Ripa to be a standard symbol of tragedy itself—the genre of which Macbeth partakes.29 Macbeth's bloody hands, in turn, are signs of human guilt, which responds to deeds too terrible for the unhardened conscience to cope with without the assistance of the principle of forgiveness. The sociological implications of these scenes in Macbeth are of extreme interest, since the tensions in the play reflect the pressures that have been located in the social order itself—pressures which set the ideal of the unity and harmony against the striving for social position by persons located at various ranks in the hierarchically arranged society. In no sense should we attempt to understand patterns of iconography in a drama in formalistic terms alone, for the play is, as commonsense should tell us, rooted in the structures of Elizabethan society which were felt to participate in the natural hierarchy of the Chain of Being that Arthur O. Lovejoy identified more than three decades ago.30 Even the symbolism of the costumes of the play, ranging from the flat caps of the citizens to the crowns of the monarchs, points to such social differentiation.31

Like the portraits painted by the English painters of the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods, the plays were not only non-realistic but also filled with details that appeal to more than merely the eye.32 The taste for combining elaborate symbolism with relatively realistic painting had been established by the Flemish painters of the fifteenth century; for English art in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the scene is laden with details which are indicative of social position or of other kinds of meaning that are designed to set the object in a larger perspective. With the turn away from perspective toward a kind of neo-medievalism, the result nevertheless is an art which cannot be approached successfully without recourse to iconological study. So, too, the study of the drama requires a knowledge of iconography and of the larger contents of that iconography—i.e., of the historical locus of the work33 as well as of the phenomenological presuppositions of the time. In the case of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama and theater, the action is oriented within a cosmos which is not the mechanical construct of post-Hobbesian thought,34 and hence the handling of meaning involves more than an appeal to pre-formed concepts. The iconography of the age of Shakespeare needed to be lived rather than merely to be entertained as intellectual possibility, and this fact requires not to be ignored in our iconological study of the drama and theater of the period.

This survey of terminology is intended, of course, only as an introductory notice intended to clarify some matters of critical usage. The larger question of stage iconography and the relationship of drama to traditional visual symbolism and emblem literature properly remains an intense area for research. If such study avoids the pitfalls of source study and of formalist methodology, our knowledge may be considerably broadened with regard to our understanding of the iconographic contexts in which the drama and theater existed. This approach, which owes so much to Aby Warburg, the school of scholarship which he founded, and the Warburg Institute, is particularly appealing because it relates the study of Renaissance drama to the living structures of society and to the psychological forms of the period—a study which is worthy of the humanities, if indeed, as E. H. Gombrich is reported to have insisted, the humanities are to function as our cultural memory.35


  1. Peter M. Daly, “Shakespeare and the Emblem: The Use of Evidence and Analogy in Establishing Iconographic and Emblematic Effects in the Plays,” in Shakespeare and the Emblem: Studies in Renaissance Iconography and Iconology, ed. Tibor Fabiny, Papers in English and American Studies, 3 (Szeged: Department of English, Attila Jozsef University, 1984), p. 117.

  2. Ibid.; see also the commentary by the same author in his Literature in the Light of the Emblem (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1979), passim.

  3. Glynne Wickham, Early English Stages, 1300 to 1660, I, Pt. 1 (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1963), 3-12.

  4. See Roy Strong, The English Icon (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press. 1969), pp. 13-20.

  5. Frances A. Yates, Theater of the World (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1969), p. 130, citing Hester Thrale's account; cf. C. Walter Hodges, The Globe Restored (New York: Norton, 1973), pp. 6-7.

  6. The importance of the façade of the theater for the Globe and similar theaters in London during Shakespeare's time has been established by George Kernodle, From Art to Theater (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1944), pp. 130-54; this view has recently been recommended by David Bevington, Action Is Eloquence (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1984), pp. 11-12.

  7. Obviously there will be those who will disagree with my caution; see, for example, John Doebler's term “iconic imagery” (Shakespeare's Speaking Pictures [Albuquerque: Univ. of New Mexico Press, 1974]). Needless to say, Doebler's book is one that I have otherwise found most valuable.

  8. See Ernst Kitzinger, “The Cult of Images in the Age before Iconoclasm,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 8 (1954), 81-151; Sixten Ringbom, “Devotional Images and Imaginative Devotions,” Gazette des Beaux-Arts, 111 (1969), 159-70. See OED s. v. “iconic” (b). The term is also properly applied to portraiture in painting and sculpture.

  9. See my From Creation to Doom (New York: AMS Press, 1984), Chapt. VII.

  10. John Phillips, The Reformation of Images (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1973), p. 121; Frances A. Yates, Astraea (1975; rpt. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977), pp. 29-87.

  11. James Siemon, Shakespearean Iconoclasm (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1985), p. 2.

  12. Huston Diehl, “Iconography and Characterization in English Tragedy 1585-1642,” Comparative Drama, 12 (1978), 113-22.

  13. See Daly, “Shakespeare and the Emblem,” pp. 51-52.

  14. See Siemon, Shakespearean Iconoclasm, passim.

  15. See the study by Phillips, The Reformation of Images, passim, for a survey of the iconoclastic movement in England.

  16. Minutes and Accounts of the Corporation of Statford-upon-Avon, ed. Richard Savage, Dugdale Soc., 1 (Oxford, 1921), p. 128; J. Harvey Bloom, Shakespeare's Church (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1902), passim.

  17. George Lyman Kittredge, ed., The Tragedy of Macbeth (Boston, 1939), p. 116.

  18. See Ann Barton's “Shakespeare and the Limits of Language,” Shakespeare Survey, 24 (1971), 19-30, and also Inga-Stina Ewbank, “’More Pregnantly Than Words’: Some Uses and Limitations of Visual Symbolism,” Shakespeare Survey, 24 (1971), 13-18.

  19. Bevington, Action Is Eloquence, p. 37.

  20. Though her article focuses on the medieval drama rather than the theater of Shakespeare's time, some important recent remarks on transvestism on the stage are contained in an article by Meg Twycross, “Transvestism in the Mystery Plays,” Medieval English Theatre, 5 (1983), 123-80.

  21. A Middle English Treatise on the Playing of Miracles, ed. Clifford Davidson (Washington, D.C., 1981), p. 40.

  22. Histriomastix, sig. X4; cited by Jonas Barish, The Antitheatrical Prejudice (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1981), p. 92. See also Russell Fraser, The War Against Poetry (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1970), pp. 29-51.

  23. See Annette Drew-Bear, “Face-Painting in Renaissance Tragedy,” Renaissance Drama, NS 12 (1981), 71-93.

  24. Ben Jonson, ed. C. H. Herford, P. and E. Simpson, VIII (Oxford, 1947), as cited in Stephen Orgel, “The Poetics of Spectacle,” New Literary History, (1971), 370.

  25. Macbeth, ed., Kenneth Muir, 9th ed., New Arden Shakespeare (London: Methuen, 1962), pp. xvi-xvii.

  26. See Bevington, Action Is Eloquence, pp. 35-66.

  27. Dieter Mehl, “Emblematic Theatre,” Anglia, 95 (1977), 132.

  28. See David Bergeron, “The Emblematic Nature of English Civic Pageantry,” Renaissance Drama, NS 1 (1968), 167-98.

  29. See my “Death in His Court: Iconography in Shakespeare's Tragedies,” Studies in Iconography, 1 (1975), 78-79.

  30. Arthur O. Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1936).

  31. See the study by Mervyn James, “Ritual, Drama and Social Body in the Late Medieval Town,” Past and Present, No. 98 (1983), pp. 3-29, and, on costume, G. K. Hunter, “Flatcaps and Bluecoats: Visual Signals on the Elizabethan Stage,” Essays and Studies, 1980 (Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1980), pp. 16-47.

  32. On English paintings of this period, see Roy Strong, The English Icon (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1969), pp. 13-20.

  33. See Erwin Panofsky, Studies in Iconology (1939; rpt. New York: Harper and Row, 1962), p. 11.

  34. See my “Renaissance Dramatic Forms, Cosmic Perspective, and Alienation,” Cahiers Élisabéthains, No. 27 (April 1985), 1-16.

  35. See Frank Kermode, Forms of Attention (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1985), p. 27.

Peggy Endel (essay date summer 1986)

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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 Dead

The English drama critic John Trewin first began to review Shakespeare's plays on the London stage in 1930. In 1978, when he was seventy years old, this dean of theater critics looked back over a lifetime of what he called “going to Shakespeare” and recalled an extraordinary moment at the Old Vic in London in 1944. Remembering Laurence Olivier enthroned as Richard III in Act IV, scene ii, of Shakespeare's play, Trewin writes, “One must always judge [Olivier's] famous portrait from its first presentation with the Old Vic company, and not from the film. … Richard distilled his own darkness; and I cannot return to the play now without picturing Olivier, a cauldron-figure, crowned and sceptred, as he brooded on the throne.”1 What Trewin evokes here is a stage image so potent and so compelling that it has impressed itself on his mind's eye for almost thirty years despite some element of resistance. Thus his negative formulation: “I cannot return to the play now without picturing … a cauldron-figure … brooding on the throne.” Trewin is responding to Richard III primarily as a playgoer, a spectator in the theater; and he represents all of those spectators who have found in Shakespeare's picture of Richard darkly brooding on the throne a dramatic icon that is at once memorable, powerful, and complex.

For many critics and editors of Richard III, however, the climactic throne scene of Shakespeare's first great play has proven to be not merely complex, but positively disquieting. As the stage directions for this scene indicate, Shakespeare raises the expectations of his audience for a scene of state which, by tradition, ought to be societal and public: “Sound a sennet. Enter Richard in pomp, crowned; Buckingham, Catesby, Ratcliffe, Lovel, [a Page, and others].”2 But with Richard's first words, “Stand all apart,” Shakespeare frustrates at once the expectations that he himself has raised. In Richard's first act as king, he plots his nephews' deaths as though he were in private; and, as though he were in private, King Richard broods on Richmond, leaving off his meditation only to refuse Buckingham the gift that he has promised with the lines toward which the entire scene tends: “[I am not in the giving vein to-day]” (l. 116); “Thou troublest me, I am not in the vein” (l. 118).

As early as 1885, we find one distressed scholar proposing that because of the private nature of the business transacted on the throne the director of Richard III ought to stage Act IV, scene ii, not in the throne-room, but in Richard's private chamber. Wilhelm Oechelhäuser complains: “The interviews with Buckingham and Tyrell, with the courtiers grouped at the back seem utterly unnatural.” If the scene is moved to Richard's private chamber, he proposes, “The mounting of the play will … be much simplified and the illusion will not be destroyed.”3

Writing almost a hundred years after Oechelhäuser, Bridget Gellert Lyons voices precisely the same discomfort at the spectacle of King Richard's treating the chair of state as a private place; and, because of her uneasiness, she supports those many editors of Richard III who have accepted Edmond Malone's stage direction that Richard should descend the throne in the course of the scene, a direction that Malone first proposed in 1790. Lyons says in a footnote, “Many Shakespearean editors omit the interpolated stage direction at line 27, ‘Descend from throne.’ Richard's behavior, however, appears just as incongruous—probably more so—if he remains seated on the throne throughout the scene.”4

Most modern editors reject Malone's stage direction that Richard descend the throne in Act IV, scene ii; but we ought nevertheless to ask why able critics and editors should feel compelled to dismantle a stage image that has created a brilliant effect in the theater. My own answer to this question is that, while those who would take Richard off the throne have been mistaken in their conclusions, their instincts are sound. For in their discomfort—in sensing that there is something “unnatural” and “incongruous” here—they are responding more fully to this crucial scene in Richard III than those critics who have ignored its effect.

Alan Dessen has astutely noted that on the uncluttered Elizabethan stage any action centered on the throne is likely to be significant since the throne is a “potentially charged” object highly visible on the open stage; and, he goes on to say, the more arresting or unsettling such a moment, the more crucial it may be to the meaning of a play: “Bizarre, unrealistic effects fit well with the open stage and the viewer's eye. To ignore or to play down such moments so as not to offend realistic expectations is to pass over possibilities that may be central to a play.”5 Such, I believe, is clearly the case here.

Richard's protracted meditation on the throne is one of those “bizarre, unrealistic” effects that may be central to a play; and I would suggest that the source of discomfort in this stage image and the source of dramatic power may be, at root, the same. For if Shakespeare's critics have been struck—and baffled—by the spectacle of King Richard doing private business in a public place, Shakespeare himself was evidently struck by the spectacle of Thomas More's Richard doing public business in a private place: Shakespeare's powerful and unsettling stage image of a king, crowned and sceptered, brooding on the throne, evidently grows out of a bizarre parenthetical detail in Sir Thomas More's History in which King Richard and his page devise the deaths of the two princes in the Tower while Richard sits, not in pomp on England's throne, but on a “draught” or privy.

Shakespeare's imagination is often stimulated by the smallest details in his sources, and the glimpse that More permits of Richard at the draft is just such a detail. Even so, Shakespeare is not alone among his contemporaries in fastening on More's parenthetical remarks: in 1596, Sir John Harington—the inventor of the modern water closet—declares More's peek at Richard on the privy to be the most memorable moment in the most celebrated of histories. In his playful book The Metamorphosis of Ajax—that is, the metamorphosis of a-jakes—Harington writes:

Lastly the best, and best written part of all our Chronicles, in all mens opinions; is that of Richard the third, written as I have heard by Moorton, but as most suppose by that worthy, and uncorrupt Magistrate, Sir Thomas More, sometime Lord Chancelor of England, where it is written; how the King was devising with Terill, how to have his nephews privily murdered, and it is added, he was then sitting on a draught (a fit carpet for such a counsel).6

As Harington and Shakespeare see, a quibble or pun lies at the center of More's version of the young princes' “privy” murder, a secret and foul deed both private and befitting the privy. In his account of the deaths of the Princes in the Tower, More concludes, “Thus (as I have learned of them that much knew, and little cause had to lie) were these two noble princes, these innocent tender children, borne of most royal blod, brought up in great wealth, likely long to live, reign, and rule in the realm, by traitorous tyrannie taken, deprived of their estate, shortly shut up in prison, and privily slain and murdered, their bodies cast God wot where, by the cruel ambition of their unnatural uncle and his despiteous tormentors.”7

Fatal Cleopatra or not, the quibble fascinates Shakespeare, particularly in the early 1590's; and whether or not More intends “privily” as a quibble, Shakespeare, like Harington, probably regards it as such. Thus, in Shakespeare's Richard III, a “privy order” dooms the princes (III.v.106); and Buckingham—whom More describes as “privy to all the protector's counsel”—will function in Shakespeare's throne scene as Richard's Privy Councillor: many members of Shakespeare's audience would have known that soon after the historic Richard III's death in 1485, there developed in the royal Privy Chamber the office of Groom of the Stool (i.e., Groom of the Royal Close-Stool); and that by 1547, at the death of Henry VIII, the king's Groom of the Stool had become his Privy Councillor as well.8

There is certainly a play of wit in Shakespeare's throne scene; but what seems to have engaged Shakespeare's imagination most fully in More's picture of a foul king sitting at the draft is not so much the punning historicity of More's dubious scrap of “information” as its strange psychological vividness and mythic power. For as Shakespeare evidently recognizes, the portrait in More's History of King Richard sitting at the draft belongs within a well-established tradition linking the King of Hell with anality. “No one,” More says—and then in parentheses—“(except the devil)” could have harmed Tyrrel so much as Tyrrel's friend Richard's page; “For upon this page's words King Richard arose”—then parentheses again—“(for this communication had he sitting at the draught, a convenient carpet for such a council.”9 In More's History only these parallel, parenthetical phrases “(except the devil)” and “(for this communication had he sitting at the draught)” suggest the affinity between Richard on the privy and the Devil himself. Confronted with the interstitial character of this passage, Shakespeare chooses to read between the lines.

In his History, More associates King Richard's draft with the Devil's privy through the most subtle indirection; but the association between the demonic and excrement recurs throughout medieval and Renaissance thought, and nowhere more vividly than in More's own attack on the “heretic” and “Anti-christ” Martin Luther. In the Responsio (published in 1523 a few years after the History), More's bluff speaker William Ross rails at Luther as “the sludge of sin” in “the sludge of Satan,” a “cacodemon” whose breast is a “bilge” and whose “filthy mouth” is a “privy” that spews “muck, filth, dung, shit” onto God's apostle and the holy Church. More's speaker uses the idiom of Luther's own “dungy writings” for, he says, “as long as your reverend paternity will be determined to tell these shameless lies, others will be permitted, on behalf of his English majesty, to throw back into your paternity's shitty mouth, truly the shit-pool of all shit, all the muck and shit which your damnable rottenness has vomited up, and to empty out all the sewers and privies onto your crown.”10 Sister Scholastica Mandeville, the translator of this pungent passage, apparently sees that More is not simply indulging in coprophilia here, but rather is responding in kind to a Protestant polemic that uses scatology to empower itself both theologically and politically.

Perhaps the most familiar visual analogue to Shakespeare's Richard seated on the throne is Hieronymus Bosch's Satan seated on a privy in the Hell-panel of the Millennium …,11 a painting that reaches back to the cannibalistic, defecatory, three-headed Satans of the Italian trecento12 for its visual vocabulary. … Monstrous, insatiable, Bosch's bird-beaked, cauldron-crowned King of Hell is enthroned high on a stilted close-stool, where, with one motion, he devours and defecates the damned. Like Bosch's defecatory Satan, Shakespeare's King of Hell is a “cacodemon,” that is, a kaka-demon or devil of dung.13 Thus Queen Margaret's aside early in the play,

Hie thee to Hell for shame, and leave this world,
Thou cacodemon, there thy kingdom is.


Unlike the Satanic prototype, however, the cacodemon Richard is costive—that is, he is “not in the giving vein.”14 Shakespeare's diabolic king sits and broods on his privy-throne for 112 lines. And if some theater-goers have felt this protracted meditation on the throne to be unnatural, that is, I believe, precisely Shakespeare's intent. For Richard is, among other things, contra naturam—a physical and metaphysical outrage that has lodged in the body politic. He is, to quote from the plays, “an indigested and deformed lump” (3 Henry VI, a “lump of foul deformity” (I.i.57),

A base foul stone, made precious by the foil
Of England's chair, where he is falsely set;
One that hath ever been God's enemy.


Toward the end of Thomas More's History, Buckingham complains bitterly that Richard denied him his promised gift both before and after becoming king; in the throne scene of Richard III, Shakespeare conflates More's picture of Richard on the throne with More's picture of Richard on the draft, and then introduces the withholding of a gift into that conflation.

By creating a devil-king who is not in the giving vein, the dramatist can align the Satanic prototype with a familiar Elizabethan character type—the costive melancholiac who is the wretched child of Saturn. One might illumine Act IV, scene ii, of Richard III much as Erwin Panofsky has illumined Dürer's complex engraving Melencolia I—and with much of the same literary and iconographic evidence. In Melencolia I, Dürer depicts a seated, brooding woman, head on hand, whose closed fist and mental perplexity develop from an earlier pictorial tradition in which pinched, avaricious Melancholy supports his head with one hand, while, with the other, he clinches a closed purse filled with coins. Relating Melencolia I to earlier versions of melancholy, Panofsky traces the evolution of Avarice into perplexed thought by noting the artist's tendency, with time, to intellectualize Melancholy's costiveness or avariciousness.15 Shakespeare's stage image of King Richard—a man seated, perplexed, perhaps head on hand—is related formally to Dürer's Melencolia I; but in spirit and intent Shakespeare's Devil-king is akin to the wintry old men and crabbed misers with their money-bags in visual representations of Melancholy as an unredeemed humoral type.

In the Ptolemaic poetic the human body occupies the center of an elaborate set of analogies; and Shakespeare's hoarding figure on the throne embodies the disorder in the microcosm that corresponds to the disorder in the macrocosm. Richard III is, as Emrys Jones has said, an “end-of-the-year, end-of-the-cycle” play in the course of which England is to negotiate its critical dynastic change.16 This play dramatizes the butt-end of civil war, the dregs of history in its demonic phase, the desperate way the old world ends within the frame of the Tudor myth; and melancholy—the dregs or faex of black bile—is one semiotic term in the language of last things—the most calamitous of the four humors; associated with cold, dry winter, the most severe of the four seasons; with old age, the most discontented of the four ages; with earth, the grossest of the four elements; and with cold, dry Saturn, the planetary god of death and dung, whom iconographers depict as a savage king, enthroned, devouring a living child.

In the opening line of Richard III Shakespeare distills and psychologizes this entire system of analogies. Into Richard's first line, “Now is the winter of our discontent,” the dramatist compresses the opening stanzas of his chief poetic source, Sackville's Induction, which begins,

The wrathful winter prochinge on a pace
With blustring blastes had al ybard the treen
And old Saturnus with his frosty face
With chilling colde had pearst the tender green.(17)

Wrathful Winter; Boreas; cold, dry, barren earth; and, above all, ascendant “olde Saturnus with his frosty face”—this is the setting for Sackville's descent with Sorrow into Hell, where the Duke of Buckingham will tell his horrifying tale of the reign of the tyrant Richard III who devoured his own nephews. In Shakespeare's Richard III, at the death of King Edward, the choric Third Citizen has a premonition that such, too, will be the Hell that is England under Richard:

When clouds are seen, wise men put on their cloaks;
When great leaves fall, then winter is at hand;
When the sun sets, who doth not look for night?
All may be well; but if God sort it so,
'Tis more than we deserve or I expect.


Enthroned in his demonic epiphany, Shakespeare's saturnian and saturnine King of Hell is costive and astricted in every sense—retentive, “bound” in brain and bowel, close, hard, cold, and parsimonious.

Confronted with this profane icon in 1592, Shakespeare's audience can draw on the vast mythological and characterological tradition that surfaces visually in images like that of Bosch's Satan and Dürer's Melencolia. In the 1980's, we, presumably, cannot. The iconography of evil accessible to Shakespeare's audience has presumably been lost to us in the theater; and yet audiences continue to find Richard enthroned a powerful, unsettling, and memorable image. If this is so, it is perhaps because of the cultural codes that have created an area of overlap between Elizabethan and twentieth-century structures or mythologies of the mind. The mythological and characterological traditions available to an audience in 1592 have their correlate in twentieth-century psychoanalytic theory. Freud, in his work on melancholy and sado-anal-eroticism, in a sense reformulates features of a continuous tradition. When, for example, Freud anatomizes melancholy in his essay “Mourning and Melancholia,” he is using the archaic Galenic term “melancholy”—that is, literally, “black choler.” Elizabethan and classic Freudian theory seem to be parallel or analogous modes of organizing and interpreting human behavior. Within a definable cultural matrix, the common ancestor of both modes is Galen.

In trying to account for audience response, I am reminded of the play-goer who was so impressed with the psychological complexities of Measure for Measure that he assumed that it was Jonathan Miller—and not Shakespeare—who had set the play in Vienna. Shakespeare's climactic stage image in Richard III seems iconic, preverbal, gestural. And its power to disturb seems to depend, in some measure, on its ability to touch and to reveal the depths of the hidden man. Shakespeare succeeded where no one has succeeded before or since in writing plays that appear to pass through many stages of consciousness. Perhaps this is one reason why, despite himself, fifty years after the fact, John Trewin finds himself saying “I cannot return to the play now without picturing Olivier, a cauldron-figure, crowned and sceptred, as he brooded on the throne.”


  1. J. C. Trewin, Going to Shakespeare (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1978), p. 32.

  2. This and all other quotations from Shakespeare's plays are from The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans et al. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).

  3. Wilhelm Oechelhäuser, Einführungen in Shakespeare's Bühnen-Dramen (Minden, 1885), p. 158, as quoted in Richard III, ed. Horace Howard Furness, Jr., New Variorum Edition (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1908), p. 286n.

  4. Bridget Gellert Lyons, “‘King's Games’: Stage Imagery and Political Symbolism in Richard III,Criticism, 20 (1978), 17-30.

  5. Alan C. Dessen, Elizabethan Drama and the Viewer's Eye (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1977), p. 80.

  6. Sir John Harington, Sir John Harington's “A New Discourse of a Stale Subject Called the Metamorphosis of Ajax,” ed. Elizabeth Story Donno (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1962), p. 108 (italics mine).

  7. Raphael Holinshed, Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1587), ed. Sir Henry Ellis (1807-08; rpt. New York: AMS Press, 1965), III, 401 (italics mine).

  8. See David Starkey, “Representation Through Intimacy: A study in the symbolism of monarchy and court office in early-modern England,” in Symbols and Sentiments: Cross-cultural Studies in Symbolism, ed. Joan Lewis (London: Academic Press, 1977), pp. 187-224.

  9. Holinshed, p. 401.

  10. St. Thomas More, Responsio ad Lutherum, ed. John M. Headley, trans. Sister Scholastica Mandeville, The Complete Works of St. Thomas More, V, Pt. 1 (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1963), 221.

  11. The entire panel is illustrated in Walter S. Gibson, Hieronymus Bosch (New York: Praeger, 1973), fig. 79.

  12. I have chosen as an illustration to accompany this paper an engraving by Baldini (1460-80) that is after the fresco of the Inferno according to Dante at Pisa (Hind, Early Italian Engraving, A.1.59).

  13. The imitative root ‘caco-,’ is derived from the child's word meaning “feces” or “to defecate” (see Ernest Klein, A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the English Language [Amsterdam: Elsevier, 1966], I, 217). In Richard III, Shakespeare, like More, chooses the word “cacodemon” with a keen sense of its etymology.

  14. ‘Costive’ and ‘constipated’ are used interchangeably in the sixteenth century to designate a physical disorder: “Suffering from hardness and retention of the faeces; ‘bound’ or confined in the bowels” (OED). In addition, ‘costive,’ which derives from L. constipatus, signifies related character traits or personality disorders: (1) “Slow or reluctant in action; esp. in speech or utterance: Close, reticent, uncommunicative (obs.)”; and (2) “Reluctant to give, niggardly, stingy” (OED)—that is, “not in the giving vein.”

  15. Erwin Panofsky, The Life and Art of Albrecht Dürer (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1955).

  16. Emrys Jones, The Origins of Shakespeare (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1977), p. 228.

  17. The Mirror for Magistrates, ed. Lily B. Campbell (1938; rpt. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1960), p. 298.

Clayton G. MacKenzie (essay date 2000)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8983

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 being the phoenix, an exotic self-procreating bird which, as Pliny claimed, lived in Arabian spice trees.1 Paradin's emblem in Les Devises Heroiques (1551) reveals the bird emerging from the ashes of its own fiery death.2 Nicholas Reusner's Emblemata Nicolai Revsneri (1581), offering a similar image some thirty years later, summarizes a standard interpretation:

If men report true, death over again forms the Phoenix,
To this bird both life and death the same funeral pile may prove.
Onward, executioners! Of the saints burn ye the sainted bodies;
For whom ye desire perdition, to them brings the flame new birth.(3)

Reusner's meaning is unambiguously religious, drawing on the purgative qualities of fire which had been well rehearsed in the diktats emerging from the Roman Catholic Church's Council of Trent (1545-1563) and which, anyway, had been a commonplace since early Medieval times. The bird is less common in English church iconography, perhaps disadvantaged by its associations with Catholic notions of purgatory, an idea eschewed by Protestant England after the death of Queen Mary I in 1558. One example does exist in a misericord carving in Henry VII's Chapel at Westminster Abbey but it is conspicuous by its rarity.4 Secular usage is more common. Geffrey Whitney, in A Choice of Emblemes (1586), imitates Paradin's print but avoids the overtly religious significances that both Paradin and Reusner accord to the icon.5 For Whitney, the phoenix is a valuable image of secular resurrection, and his bird stands as a representation of the revivalist hopes of the town of Namptwiche in Cheshire which had been recently destroyed by a devastating fire. In sum, the phoenix suited well both religious and secular metaphors of regeneration, of life in death. Having spent its life, it disappeared in a fury of flames, only to rise again, alive and well, from its own ashes; an immortal bird, and yet also mortal.

A phoenix flutters irregularly through Shakespeare's early and middle canon.6 It is a precocious (and secular) bird, appearing variously as a tavern in The Comedy of Errors (I.ii.75 etc.), a ship in Twelfth Night (V.i.61), an instrument of revenge in 1 Henry VI (IV.vii.93), an expression of rarity in As You Like It (IV.iii.17), a variety of womanhood in All's Well That Ends Well (I.i.168), and the subject of narrative fable in The Phoenix and Turtle. The later work makes less of it, though there is one startling reference in Henry VIII, relating to the idea of monarchy regenerating itself from one reign to the next, and thereby defeating death through a perpetuating cycle of earthly glory. Baptizing the infant princess, Elizabeth, Archbishop Cranmer assures her father, Henry VIII, that

                                                                                                                                  as when
The bird of wonder dies, the maiden phoenix,
Her ashes new create another heir
As great in admiration as herself,
So shall she leave her blessedness to one
When heaven shall call her from this cloud of darkness
Who from the sacred ashes of her honor
Shall star-like rise as great in fame as she was,
And so stand fix'd. Peace, plenty, love, truth, terror,
That were the servants to this chosen infant,
Shall then be his, and like a vine grow to him.
Where ever the bright sun of heaven shall shine,
His honor and the greatness of his name
Shall be, and make new nations.

(Henry VIII V.iv.39-52)

If there was a greater concurrence of views that Shakespeare wrote Henry VIII, or if the play was simply more popular, Cranmer's comments might have ranked alongside Gaunt's English panegyric in Richard II. I say might because several facets of the speech serve to diminish its worth. First, there is the unashamed sycophantism which tends to jar on democratized ears. The infant Elizabeth had already reigned and died by the time Shakespeare (and whoever) came to write this play and her “heir,” at whom all this prophesied glory is aimed, was James I—presently on the throne and patronizing theatre rather generously. Secondly, and more to our purposes here, the reference to the phoenix sits uncomfortably on the facts of the situation. True, it seems to express succinctly and admirably that paradox of regality, still uttered at the moment of succession to the English throne: “The king is dead. Long live the king!” The individual monarch may perish but the monarchy itself is immortal, perpetual, un-killable. But with regard to the actual circumstances to which Cranmer alludes (the succession of James I), the reverberations are somewhat implausible. No one could doubt the splendor of Elizabeth's reign but James had achieved little, save the accidental union of England and Scotland by dint of birth, and his penchant was not for chivalric and spiritual triumph but for reading and the occult.7

What Cranmer would really like to say, but can't, is that James is Elizabeth's son and familial inheritor, that her “Ashes new create[d] another heir,” just as the infant Elizabeth was the inheritor of her biological father, Henry VIII, and just as the phoenix recreated itself from its own physical being. This would be to stretch reality further than even dramatic prerogative allows. The two monarchs were only distantly related: Elizabeth was a Protestant Tudor, James a Catholic Stuart. The point about the phoenix was that it was able to procreate the next physical version of itself, a lineal corollary that was pertinent to Henry VIII and Elizabeth but hardly applied to Elizabeth and James. On the contrary, the most compelling political issue in the years before the maiden queen's death was exactly that she had not produced a son and heir, and that, as a result, the door was being left frighteningly ajar for a Scottish Catholic to assume the throne of England.8 The best the dramatist's hand could do was allow Cranmer deftly to fudge the issue, permitting him to infer likeness (not equation) through the “maiden phoenix” simile and confining him to the simple assertion that James would inherit Elizabeth's “blessedness” (line 43) and “honor” (line 45). But not her genes.

I want to move away from Henry VIII's vexatious phoenix and into the more pertinent domain inferred, but not articulated, in Cranmer's panegyric—namely, the sense of heroic genetic succession, the notion of direct familial inheritance, of the child inheriting from the parent. If Shakespeare and others wanted a better illustration of heroic familial inheritance, there were several examples available more persuasive than the Jacobite line. Richard I, Coeur de lion, and his bastard son, Faulconbridge, for one; and Edward III and his son, the Black Prince, for another. Shakespeare makes something of the Richard / Faulconbridge relationship in King John, offering in the form of Faulconbridge a super-hero who breaks the norms of devious bastardy and emerges as a potential kingly inheritor, albeit he never actually becomes king. And though Coeur-de-Lion was admired by Tudor historians, most of his exploits were against the distant Arab infidel. By Elizabethan times the world of Arabia had become an alluringly exotic, rather than odious, landscape—a place of sweet perfumes (Macbeth V.i.50-1) and phoenixes (The Tempest III.iii.23-4). There was little mileage in raking up an old and near-forgotten enemy when one had available, instead, the marvelous French-conquering chronicles of Edward III and the Black Prince. As military exemplars, the pair were unsurpassed in the Elizabethan imagination. Tudor historians lauded Edward III's exploits abroad with unfailing enthusiasm, ranging from John Rastell's populist The Pastyme of the People9 to Caxton's weightier Chronycles of Englande.10 A plethora of Elizabethan works on military prowess and skills made standard reference to Edward III as the primal illustration of the heroic militaristic traits they advocated—as in William Wyrley's The Trve Vse of Armorie11 and Matthew Sutcliffe's The Practice, Proceedings, And Lawes of armes.12

The Black Prince was revered equally, with pen and brush stroke alike, in works as diverse as the Mirror for Magistrates (1555),13 Raleigh's Historie of the World (1613),14 and a late fifteenth century painting entitled “Adoration of the Magi” which portrays him as one of the three Magi.15 The other two members of the triptych are Edward III and Richard II. So, in effect, we have a generational sequence visually represented, running from father to son to grandson. The religious import of the painting is edifying. By attaching to this family portrait the iconography of Biblical excellence, the artist at once reiterated the long-held idea of England as a blessed and sacred place, the “Fortunate Isles,”16 but also suggested that the nature of the particular lineal inheritance was characterized by spiritual excellence. The Tudor chroniclers ignored the senility of Edward III, discreetly marginalized the unsavory reign of Richard, and clarioned the Black Prince as a peerless prince of chivalry—though, for those citizens of Limoges who suffered the barbarity of his Haute-Vienne reign of terror, peerless prince of chivalry may not have been the first phrase that jumped to mind. By the time the Edward / Black Prince chronicle reached the Elizabethan age, the formalin of time had solidified it into crystalline perfection, a pious artifact entirely impervious to sense or fact or reason.

Not surprisingly, in what was almost certainly the first history play he wrote, Shakespeare turns for early inspiration to the Edward III connection.

Froissard, a countryman of ours, records
England all Olivers and Rowlands bred
During the time Edward the Third did reign.
More truly now may this be verified,
For none but Samsons and Goliases
It sendeth forth to skirmish. One to ten!
Lean raw-bon'd rascals! who would e'er suppose
They had such courage and audacity?

(Alençon, 1 Henry VI I.ii.29-36)

Alençon's allusion is confused by the contradictory moral and social implications of a combination of French aristocratic heroes, English military legend, Biblical strongman, and gargantuan Philistine—none of which sits entirely comfortably with the image of scrawny, “raw-bon'd” Englishmen whose courage and audacity have inexplicably carried them to victory. No matter. The real issue for us here is that Alençon views English warriorship in genetic terms. The Englishmen who have that day defeated the French are the physical descendants of those magnificent combatants “bred” in the time of Edward III. Victory was in their DNA; it was something they inherited. In the same play, the image of the phoenix is deployed as a synonym for reviving English greatness. Lucy at first wishes “O, that I could but call these dead to life” (1 Henry VI IV.vii.81) and then threatens, of the English dead,

                                                  from their ashes shall be rear'd
A phoenix that shall make all France afeard.


These new English terrors will be, we suppose, the next generation of “Olivers and Rolands” who were left in swaddling clothes when their fathers went off to fight and die in France.

James Calderwood has explored the interrelation of ideas of sexuality and death, arguing that to early modern European sensibilities “the human sexual act is never quite untinged with the shame of its animalistic associations.”17 This, he suggests, helps us to understand why it is that Shakespeare links immortality (derived from the cycle of procreation) with sexuality and death. Since sexual intercourse equates mankind with brute beasts, the erotic impulse derives not from God but from the apes.18 Its source is therefore located in earthly physical transience rather than ethereal spiritual permanence. The challenge to Shakespeare's theatre, then, may be to build out of the baseness of the sexual act a cosmic scheme that brings a grandeur and dignity to the cycle of procreation and bestows upon it some form of “spiritualized” legitimacy. As we have seen already, the obligation of magnificent familial inheritance was an idea of some interest to Shakespeare in his treatment of the Henry VI era. He dwells on it elsewhere in the trilogy.

O young John Talbot, I did send for thee
To tutor thee in stratagems of war,
That Talbot's name might be in thee reviv'd,
When sapless age and weak unable limbs
Should bring thy father to his drooping chair.

(Talbot to his son, 1 Henry VI IV.v.1-5.)

O brave young Prince! thy famous grandfather
Doth live again in thee. Long mayst thou live
To bear his image and renew his glories!

(Oxford to Edward, Prince of Wales, 3 Henry VI V.iv.52-4)

Talbot's name; in thee reviv'd; famous grandfather; live again in thee; bear his image; renew his glories. It was by no means unusual in Elizabethan theatre for those embarking on a military enterprise to invoke the names of their ancestors. Beaumont and Fletcher, in The Knight of the Burning Pestle, weave considerable burlesque out of Rafe's insistence on swearing “by the soule of Amadis de Gaul, / My famous Ancestor” (II.ii.55-6)19 before setting out on his program of chivalric revenge. But the supplication to ancestry in Shakespeare's history plays takes the custom beyond the norm of casual allusion that characterizes it in Beaumont and Fletcher, and in the work of other Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists, with the possible exception of Tourneur.

The great reputation of Talbot's “name” is documented by Edward Hall's The Vnion of the two noble and illustre famelies of Lancastre & Yorke (1548) which records that Talbot “obteined so many glorious victories of his enemies, that his only name was, and yet is dredful to the French.”20 Shakespeare's emphasis far exceeds the warrant of Hall's chronicle: at I.i.128 we are told that the English soldiers shouted “A Talbot! a Talbot!”; at I.iv.48-50 Talbot himself claims that the French so feared his name that they guarded him excessively; at II.i.79 an anonymous English soldier informs us that the cry of Talbot's name serves him as a sword; and John Talbot insists that he has a renowned name that must not be dishonored (IV.v.41). The importance that the dramatist places on Talbot's name as the by-word of a military mythology is paralleled by an insistence that Talbot's son, John, is not only the physical progeny of his father but his military heir as well. The hope that “Talbot's name might be in thee [John] reviv'd” underscores Shakespeare's mythologization of a process of physical and military regeneration of excellences. As far as it goes, the idea works effectively enough and we have a sense of an honorable entity passed down familialy from generation to generation. It is, though, a construct of only limited dimensions for its potential is stifled by historical fact. Talbot and his son are both dead by the end of 1 Henry VI and, as far as they are concerned, the experiment with regenerating military excellences comes to an abrupt halt.

Oxford's expectations that Prince Edward will emulate the feats of his famous grandfather, Henry V, are similarly misplaced. The hope of heroic renewal is preempted by his protégé's early death, a possibility hinted at by the doomed youth himself: “And if I live until I be a man, / I'll win our ancient right in France again, / Or die a soldier as I liv'd a king” (Richard III III.i.91-3). His murder in the Tower of London, an act away, highlights Shakespeare's problem in attempting to reconstruct a line of familialy repeating greatness. There simply is no sustained scheme of splendidly regenerating mortality in the First Tetralogy—there is very little splendid mortality, per se. In an era scoured by civil war, the repetition of brutalities seems more indicative of the age than the revival of military excellences. Oxford's faith in the rebirth of famous conquering achievements in France, in the revival of glorious ancestral qualities, stands in the constant shadow of familial perversions. The instance, in II.v of 3 Henry VI, where Father kills Son and laments, with an appropriate reproductive nuance, the cruelties “This deadly quarrel daily doth beget!” (II.v.88-91, emphasis added) is perhaps the most memorable of these.

The sense of moral distortion, of unwholesome regeneration, becomes associated, as well, with the figure of the phoenix. Having begun the tetralogy as Lucy's heroic image of English dead reviving to conquer the French (1 Henry VI IV.vii.92-3), the bird transposes itself into a specter of regenerating evil:

My ashes, as the phoenix, may bring forth
A bird that will revenge upon you all;
And in that hope I throw mine eyes to heaven,
Scorning what e'er you can afflict me with.

(York to his English foes, 3 Henry VI I.iv.35-8)

Q. Elizabeth.
Yet thou didst kill my children.
K. Richard.
But in your daughter's womb I bury them;
Where in that nest of spicery, they will breed
Selves of themselves, to your recomforture.

(Richard III IV.iv.422-5)

The first of these is excerpted from the tormenting of York in I.iv of 3 Henry VI, and presents Englishman pitted against Englishmen. In the previous scene young Rutland, Henry's son, had been slain by Clifford, despite his protestations that he had never done his murderer any harm. “Thy father slew my father; therefore die,” says Clifford as he stabs the boy at I.iii.47. The recycling of evils becomes inextricably intertwined with the notion of physical regeneration from parent to offspring. The idea of evil procreated from generation to generation was one developed in the later Jacobean theatre, notably in The Changeling and The White Devil.21 There, though, it served to express the pervasive malignity of a shadowy Mediterranean world that, like no other, at once fascinated and repelled Jacobean sensibilities. For Henry VI's first audiences the crudities of English civil war were frighteningly proximate. The Battle of Bosworth Field (1485), the last great battle of the Wars of the Roses, bringing to an end a calamitous century of civil strife, would have been within living memory for a scattering of the early Elizabethans. It was that close. In such a savage period of English history, Rutland's murder was not exceptional in its brutality. Nor even, perhaps, was that of his father, York, killed in the very next scene of 3 Henry VI. After being taunted with a handkerchief dipped in the blood of his beloved Rutland, and having been compelled to wear a paper crown, York is ritually slain. The phoenix that he wishes upon his foes turns out to be his son Richard, later King Richard III—he, in fact, who invokes the next phoenix image of the tetralogy. His is a bizarre and obscene restatement of the regenerative life-in-death theme. Having murdered one set of children, his metaphor promises to breed new children from the dead, to conjure them to life in Margaret's nest of spicery. It is ostensibly a gesture of atonement but actually yet another endeavor to find gratification in physical or manipulative cruelty. Even so, its infernal logic somehow persuades Elizabeth and she rushes off immediately to sway her daughter to the enterprise.

It is hard for me to imagine how Elizabeth could be taken in so by this charlatan. That may be because, as people claim, he was magnetically charismatic; or it could be because the phoenix doesn't loom large in my life, but for Elizabeth it signaled a compelling association. Its regenerating peculiarities were linked in sixteenth century mythography with the sacking and burning of Troy and, by implication, with the rise, from its ashes, of the great states of Europe. As most English people born before 1700 knew, England, too, was founded by a Trojan—the worthy Brutus, from whose name the term “Britain” derived. We live in “another Troy” says Gloucester in 3 Henry VI III.ii.190 and, as if in evidence, the First Tetralogy positively groans with Classical allusion. Every significant figure of the Trojan siege, mortal or immortal, Greek or Trojan, is there: Helen, Menelaus, Agamemnon, Paris, Hector, Anchises, Aeneas, Hercules, Nestor, Ulysses, Venus, Mars, Priam, Achilles, Ajax, Diomedes. The pageant seems unending and Shakespeare fails to harness and manage it effectively. There is certainly a semblance of Virgilian or Homeric myth in the Henry VI plays, of an attempt to harmonize with the ancient epic resonances, but the inconsistencies of detail and development allow us to speak with assurance of only the feel of the Troy saga. The sense of momentous catastrophe seems unconvincing in Shakespeare's chronicle. With the fall of the civilization of Troy came to an end a golden age of arts and science, of soldiership and chivalry, of beauty and love. The very core of what we might call humanism. A legend was destroyed; but it was resurrected, phoenix-like, by the exceptional individuals who emerged from its flames and lived to shape the mortal world again. To compare Henry's England to Priam's Troy is to compare the sinking of a river barge to that of the Titanic—equally tragic for the victims, without doubt, but lacking the romantic pathos that history is apt to bestow upon exceptional loss.

What seems absent from the First Tetralogy is the presence of anyone, or any process, that can regenerate some kind of English heroic myth. Without this, the phoenix metaphors and the Dardanian parallels echo dissonantly and even grotesquely. Here, for example, young Clifford, is bearing the body of his father in 2 Henry VI and talking like a Trojan:

In cruelty will I seek out my fame.
                                                  [He takes him up on his back.]
Come, thou new ruin of old Clifford's house:
As did Aeneas old Anchises bear,
So bear I thee upon my manly shoulders. …


A popular woodcut of Shakespeare's age shows Aeneas carrying his living father on his shoulders, while Troy burns in the background.22 The episode was held as a consummate illustration of filial duty by European emblematists. Alciati's woodcut archetype of the incident was copied by Lefèvre, Marquale, Daza, and Hunger,23 and reproduced by Geffrey Whitney in A Choice of Emblemes.24 At a superficial level, the theatrical emblem Young Clifford presents is reminiscent of the classical archetype, and no one can doubt his filial loyalty. But the referential harmonies are all awry. Alciati's verse adage, and Whitney's gloss of it, both emphasize that Aeneas' greatest glory was in saving his father. In 2 Henry VI, there is no rescue, merely a retrieval. In fact, Clifford does not carry his father “As did Aeneas old Anchises bear,” for the father he carries on his shoulders is dead; and his vow to seek out fame “In cruelty” is most un-Trojan in demeanor.

Young Clifford's action summarizes the paradox that “Sex is life but also death,”25 to use Calderwood's words. The human ability to procreate derives explicitly from the transgression in the garden of Eden, a transgression that brought about the certainty of death. Humans, like other “ordinary” creatures, must endure the same cycle of life and death. The distinguishing factor, in Shakespeare's vision of splendid England, is the chivalric spirit of earthly magnificence which lends to the animalistic procreative process a sense of worth and grandeur. Young Clifford's willingness to deplete the myth, by promising cruelty instead of chivalric excellence, attests to a reversion to animalism—and to a state where human beings are indistinguishable from brute beasts. His invocation of the familiar Trojan icon, of son carrying father, mirrors the visual import of Alciati's print but carries a very different meaning.

The suggestion of a reviving Trojan paradise in the Yorkist cycle is both weak and distorted. All was not lost, though. The brief flurry of English history from the deposition of Richard II (1399) to Henry V's miraculous triumph at Agincourt (1415) provided Shakespeare with material more amenable to his heroic English designs than the grim, grinding reign of Henry VI had done. Here, the enfeebled and seedy kingship of Richard would be brought to an end by the dashing Bullingbrook (a name refashioned as “Bolingbroke”26 in the eighteenth century). And, in turn, his son, King Henry V, would carry English aspirations to unimaginable heights in France. Enlightened and perhaps chastened by the experiences of the First Tetralogy, Shakespeare set about the construction of a new English paradisial myth, one founded upon a principle of life-in-death, of heroic genetic inheritance. I have used the word “paradisial” deliberately here. Gaunt's reference to “This other Eden, demi-paradise” (II.i.42) in Richard II is well known, but Shakespeare was far from original in framing England in such terms.27 More, Sylvester, Lightfoot, and Greene had all recounted the idea of an English Eden before Shakespeare wrote Richard II.28 The term “paradise,” generally, was one the Elizabethans and Jacobeans bandied about liberally, and not only with reference to England. Thomas Stocker (1583) refers to the Low Countries as “the Paragone, or rather, yearthly Paradise, of all the Countries in Europe.”29 To Captain Bingham (1583), Newfoundland is “The paradise, of all the world.”30 And Silvester Jourdan (1613) calls Bermuda “one of the sweetest Paradises that be vpon the earth.”31 There was, though, a special affection for the idea of England as the ancient location of paradise and Elizabethan cartographers bent their compasses backwards trying to prove the matter scientifically.

If Gaunt's England is a paradise, an “other Eden,” in what sense is it or was it or could it be paradisial? In the original Garden of Eden there was physical immortality. Adam and Eve would never die, just as long as they didn't succumb to the temptations of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Succumb they did. God's punishment was expulsion from Eden and the revocation of their immortality (Genesis 3:17-18). Henceforth, they would grow old and physically die. In the Biblical paradigm, life-in-death meant spiritual life following physical death, a meaning commonly understood in both secular and religious literature. Baldock, in Marlowe's Edward II, for example, urges the younger Spenser to “Make for a new life, man; throw up thy eyes / And heart and hand to heaven's immortal throne” ( On this literal level of immortality, Gaunt's Eden in Richard II is quite different to the Biblical Eden and to Baldock's vision of unearthly paradise—but then, Gaunt is very careful to make the distinction. England is not Eden but a “second” Eden, a “demi” (= second) paradise. It is paradisial in a uniquely English way. Consider the expanded context of Gaunt's claim:

This royal throne of kings, this scepter'd isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,
Fear'd by their breed, and famous by their birth,
Renowned for their deeds as far from home,
For Christian service and true chivalry,
As is the sepulchre in stubborn Jewry
Of the world's ransom, blessed Mary's Son

(Richard II II.i.40-56)

There is a reasonably cogent explanation here of what an English paradise is. Those, like Willy Maley, who have argued so passionately for a declamation of this speech as serving “imperialist rhetoric”33 are really stating no more than the obvious. The Elizabethans saw absolutely nothing wrong with being imperialists, as the writings of any number of super-opinionated propagandists of the age affirm. Gaunt's definition of the anglicized Eden, deriving from widely and strongly held views on the notion of “paradise,” is partially “static” and partially “active.” The stasis of paradise consists of that which is given, fixed and immovable. The fact that England is the “seat of Mars” is irrevocable. A tradition of Mars as the patron-god of England had been extant since the Middle Ages. It is also a holy land, a “blessed” plot favored by God and renowned for its Christian service. These, too, in the Elizabethan psyche, were immutable truisms, historical facts that could not be obliterated or lost.

Though Gaunt's second Eden offers that which is fixed and immovable, it remains merely a latent paradise unless those who live in the present can enliven it, refurbish it, build upon it. This, too, is clear from Gaunt's prescription. England may be a fortress built against “infection and the hand of war” and its surrounding sea may act as a “moat defensive” but fortresses can be assailed and moats breached. The active duty of those who inhabit paradise is to preserve its paradisial characteristics from inward strife and outward invasion. Equally, the English Eden may have nurtured many a great king, who performed many a mighty act, but unless that kind of regenerating splendor can be actively maintained, the demi-paradise stands simply as a memory, a thing of recollection rather than contemporary experience. The myth of an English paradise, then, consists of that which is immovable and of that which must be given “new life.” For Gaunt, England under the rule of Richard is now no more than a shadow of its former greatness. It has become a landscape of death and despair and stagnation.

Things change quickly. Within a few hundred lines of Gaunt's English panegyric and his ensuing lament, a cadre of disaffected noblemen is lamenting the fate of an England ruled by Richard and deprived of Bullingbrook. One suggests that their future suffering is now unavoidable. Another disagrees:

Not so, even through the hollow eyes of death
I spy life peering, but I dare not say
How near the tidings of our comfort is.


Northumberland is understandably shifty here. The “life peering,” to which he alludes, is none other than Harry Hereford who has decided to un-banish himself and make his way back to England with eight ships and three thousand fully armed militiamen. Northumberland's cryptic clue heralds his return. It was also Northumberland who brought news of Gaunt's death, just over a hundred lines earlier (II.i.147-51). So here is a man well positioned to compass the life and death of Lancastrian inheritance. There is no phoenix allusion here, but the idea of “life-in-death” appeared in many forms. For example, the seventeenth print in Hans Holbein's Icones Historiarvm Veteris Testamenti shows Adam and Eve after their expulsion from Eden. … 34 Adam is clearing a root from a bare stretch of earth. He is assisted, almost shadowed, by a skeletal Death figure. In the background, Eve nurses her first-born son. Once expelled from paradise, Adam and Eve become subject to the familiar mortal cycle of life and death. That is what the skeleton signifies. Yet, this is no disdainful, scorning skeleton. Here is a skeleton with a solid work ethic, for in levering the root with Adam he does his best to assist in the cultivation of this bleak landscape. So, the world of fallen Adam is not entirely without consolation. Even as he labors in the certainty of eventual death, his child lies in the arms of mother Eve. There is the actuality of physical generation, of new hope, of a life not without purpose, symbolically portrayed by Holbein through the suggestion and promise of sown seed and the smile on Eve's lips. Yes, Adam and Eve will die; but they will live too. Death is an important mechanism in the cycle of regenerating life. Just as Adam and his skeletal friend extricate old roots from stony ground, so, eventually, new roots will flourish until they, too, are swept away in the inexorable march of time. In this unending round of life, perpetuation relies on the principle of inheritance, on a generation fulfilling its rôle to that which will succeed it, rejoicing in what is to come and exulting in what has been.

Holbein's Icones was one of the most successful of all sixteenth century emblem books, an English version appearing within two years of its first publication. The artist himself was particularly popular in England, and a favorite at the court of Henry VIII. Even if Shakespeare had not known the detail of this print, there are any number of other life-in-death sources in the emblem books which would have made the point, and less obliquely too. In the Antwerp issue of Emblemata (1564), Joannes Sambucus offers, as his final device, a plant flourishing out of the top of a skull.35 Claude Paradin, in Les Devises Heroiques (1551), translated into English as The Heroicall Devises in 1591, depicts sprigs of wheat growing from bones and adds the motto “Spes altera vitae” which may be rendered as either “Another hope of life” or “The hope of another life”. …36 Joachim Camerarius, in 1595, repeats Paradin's emblem and uses the same ambiguous Latin adage.37 Some forty years later, George Wither published A Collection of Emblemes (largely an assemblage of prints from earlier periods) and chose as his twenty-first emblem a skull with sprigs of wheat growing out of the eyes and mouth. … :

When we are Borne, to Death-ward straight we runne;
And by our Death, our Life is new-begunne.(38)

This couplet provides a fitting conclusion to Wither's commentary on what is, in essence, an image of wholesome life peering through the hollow eyes of death.

One central idea emerges from the life-in-death iconography of Wither, Holbein and the other emblematists I have mentioned. The intentions of each icon are specifically religious, promoting the meaning that physical death leads to spiritual life in heaven—an idea that John Donne expanded in his celebrated “Death's Duel” sermon, subtitled “the dying Life and living Death of the Body.”39 Even as the emblematists propagated this message of spiritual resurrection, they were doing so through highly physicalized motifs. Wither's notion of “Life … new-begunne” is conveyed through the tangible representation of a living, growing plant; Sambucus, and Paradin do likewise. And, of course, Holbein's picture of smiling Eve with “Life … new-begunne” in her arms is almost heretical in its humanism. It is a short step from these ideas to the sense of new life as physical procreation, a notion aptly articulated by Audley in Edward III, a play, as Tobin40 has noted, in which Shakespeare's hand is quite possibly present:

For from the instant we begin to live
We do pursue and hunt the time to die:
First bud we, then we blow, and after seed;
Then presently we fall, and as a shade
Follows the body, so we follow death.

(Edward III IV.iv.136-40)41

Audley's sense is rather more reflective than triumphalist, but two of the central motifs of the emblem books are present: the image of vegetation and the cyclical notion of seeding and death. What is absent here, but attendant elsewhere in the play, is the sense of inherited chivalric spirit, of son replicating father in an unending cycle of English greatness.

Northumberland's speculation in Richard II that “even through the hollow eyes of death / I spy life peering” has, then, both a physical and a spiritual sense. Harry Hereford is the flesh and blood son of his father. More than that, Northumberland understands him to be, as well, the spiritual descendant of his father. The iconographical incompatibility of physical life and spiritual life is here abandoned. In the dramatist's view of regenerating English excellence on earth, the two become mutually dependent. Notice how earlier in the play Hereford had addressed his father as he prepared for battle with Mowbray:

O thou, the earthly author of my blood,
Whose youthful spirit, in me regenerate,
Doth with a twofold vigor lift me up
To reach at victory above my head,
Add proof unto mine armor with thy prayers,
And with thy blessings steel my lance's point,
That it may enter Mowbray's waxen coat
And furbish new the name of John a' Gaunt,
Even in the lusty havior of his son.

(I.iii.69-77, emphasis added)

This is exactly what Canterbury and Ely tell Bullingbrook's son in Henry V when he is about to set out in chase of the French crown. Well, not quite exactly, because there no one mentions his father, Bullingbrook, or his grandfather Gaunt. The focus is on the unequivocal legitimacy of his great-great-grandfather, Edward III, and of his great-uncle, the Black Prince. Here, Hereford thinks along immediate familial lines, proposing a simple paradigm of a son inheriting, and living up to, the name of his father. It is quintessentially a humanist ambition. Gaunt is the “earthly author” of his blood but the “youthful spirit” of which he talks in line 70, and the “prayers” and “blessings” in the three lines that follow, endow this earthly enterprise with its own kind of “secular” sanctity. This explains why there is no mention of God, and still an unmistakable sense of heroic “spirituality” in his words. Gaunt offers something similar when he talks of England as “This land of such dear souls, this dear, dear land, / Dear for her reputation through the world” (Richard II II.i.57-8). The “souls” are dear not for their piety but for their earthly “reputation.” While the Biblical ideal of life-in-death offers a clear disjunction between the flesh and the soul, the conception of Gaunt and Hereford harmonizes them, attaching to the ideas of soul or spirit that sense of intangible earthly honor.42

Shakespeare's designs in his early historical works reveal a willingness to manipulate life-in-death imagery experimentally. Images of heroic renewal are subverted into representations of cyclical depravity; the process of inheritance, as a defeat of mortal death, is reconstructed as a bequest of death. This is understandable in situations of moral ambiguity, and these were plentiful in those reigns that preceded and followed the golden age of Henry V. The construction of an English Eden, foreshadowed by the Trojan innuendoes of the First Tetralogy and Gaunt's paradisial vision, and founded on the notion of regenerating humanity and warlike spirit, would seem to find its natural domain in the French exploits of Henry V. In fact, if this was Shakespeare's intention, it falls short of the mark as many have observed. Patricia Carlin, for example, suggests that the defiance of death, having failed in the preceding histories, is again engaged within the particular circumstances of Henry V.43 But she notices, also, that “The king who presides over this play is a figure new to drama, a ruler who is associated with life and death at the same time” (p. 89). Marlovians may contest the claim to uniqueness but it is certainly true that Shakespeare's Henry is, at once, the ultimate hero of English myth and yet persistently linked with what Carlin calls “the infliction of death” (p. 89).

Disturbing as this overview may be, the opening of Henry V reveals few signs of ambivalence. This is not surprising for a play that sets out to portray the most illustrious epoch of French-bashing since Poitiers. And perhaps small wonder, too, that it is to Edward III and his son, the Black Prince, that Shakespeare quickly returns. Near the outset of Henry V, and after Canterbury has completed his lengthy genealogical exposition in support of Henry's proposed expedition to capture the French crown, the king asks obtusely: “May I with right and conscience make this claim?” (I.ii.96)—and this after the Archbishop has just spent sixty-three lines endeavoring to answer the same. Immediately, Canterbury and Ely all but abandon the Salic argument and, enjoined by Exeter, appeal instead to a second source of moral justification:

                                                                                                                        Gracious lord,
Stand for your own, unwind your bloody flag,
Look back into your mighty ancestors;
Go, my dread lord, to your great-grandsire's [Edward III's] tomb,
From whom you claim; invoke his warlike spirit,
And your great-uncle's, Edward the Black Prince,
Who on the French ground play'd a tragedy,
Making defeat on the full power of France,
Whiles his most mighty father on a hill
Stood smiling to behold his lion's whelp
Forage in blood of French nobility.
O noble English, that could entertain
With half their forces the full pride of France,
And let another half stand laughing by,
All out of work and cold for action!
Awake remembrance of these valiant dead,
And with your puissant arm renew their feats.
You are their heir, you sit upon their throne;
The blood and courage that renowned them
Runs in your veins; and my thrice-puissant liege
Is in the very May-morn of his youth,
Ripe for exploits and mighty enterprises.
Your brother kings and monarchs of the earth
Do all expect that you should rouse yourself,
As did the former lions of your blood.

(I.ii.100-24, emphasis added)

Canterbury takes us back to Henry's “great-grandsire's tomb”; Ely speaks of “these valiant dead”; and Exeter remembers Edward III and the Black Prince as “former lions of your blood.” Balanced against this emphasis on physical mortality is the powerful notion of regeneration. The word “spirit,” with its Hebraic overtones, is here anglicized into a mythology of heroic earthly renewal. It becomes a metaphor for a fine quality of military conduct and competence that can and ought to be passed on from one generation to the next. The “warlike spirit” of Edward III and the Black Prince stands outside the domain of physical mortality, never irretrievably lost in the death of the individual but, paradoxically, relying for perpetuation on the spawning of heirs. King Henry is not simply the physical descendant of his great ancestors, but their “spiritual” inheritor as well. The Archbishop insists that he must stand for his own and “Look back into your mighty ancestors” for, in aspiring to their “warlike spirit,” he may awake remembrance of them and, with his puissant arm, “renew their feats.”

The “renewal” of heroic royalty, of the warlike kingly spirit, parallels the physical “renewal” of the progenitor in the lives of his offspring. The relation of Edward III to his great son the Black Prince is the best possible exemplification of this—and Henry V is of their lineage. “You are their heir; you sit upon their throne,” the Bishop of Ely tells the king, and adds: “The blood and courage that renowned them / Runs in your veins.” It is this peculiar mix of “blood and courage,” as Ely puts it, of the physical and the abstract, that defines the nature of regal English inheritance. Henry does not stand in isolation. His debt to the past and, particularly, to the English ideal, is profound and unavoidable. Those, his ancestors, who have afforded him earthly life, he must reciprocate with heroic spiritual renewal. In fact, the Duke of Exeter, adding his testimony to the strength of the argument, observes that Henry's brother kings and monarchs “expect that you should rouse yourself, / As did the former lions of your blood” (emphasis added). This statement of open “expectation,” following hard upon the string of imperatives that Canterbury and Ely have leveled at the king, proposes the emulation of past heroic deeds as a kind of moral obligation. The genuine resurrection of an ancient kingly spirit becomes a moral necessity. In effect, it represents the demand, already discussed in relation to Richard II, to turn the latency of an English paradise into a kinetic, living actuality.

As I have suggested implicitly already, Shakespeare didn't suddenly arrive at this notion of regenerating English greatness in Henry V in a moment of arcane inspiration. He had been experimenting with the idea for perhaps ten years, his subject matter being the four plays of the First Tetralogy, and the first three of the Second. In these earlier plays, regeneration is presented in various forms—clumsily at first, but with a growing sense of assurance and artistry. By Richard II and the Henry IV his power is altogether more focused. Gone are the promiscuities of allusion and the inconsistent paralleling. In their place is a concerted and coherent attempt to articulate schemata of inheritance. I say schemata because there is more than one scheme. There is the benign sense of glorious regeneration, of a sort we have encountered already in Henry V and which finds expression, too, in Richard II. It is shadowed, though, by the deposition and murder of Richard II, a crime, as Michael Neill has suggested, that complicates and intensifies Bullingbrook's desire for retribution with “a profound nostalgia for a vanished prelapsarian order.”44 The English paradise may be as readily lost as its biblical equivalent, and the landscape of beauties transformed into a blasted and death-blighted plain. To this theme is linked a different and grotesque life-in-death regeneration—a process of cyclical monstrosity which runs parallel to the idea of heroic inheritance and which is discernible in the early works but most cogently developed in Henry IV.


  1. Pliny (Plinius Secundus), The Secrets and wonders of the worlde. A booke ryght rare and straunge, contayning many excellent properties, giuen to Man, Beastes, Foules, fishes, and Serpents, Trees and Plants (London: T. Hacket, 1587), Eiii, p. 4. The book is an abstract translation (possibly by Hacket).

  2. It also appears in the Elizabethan translation of the work. Paradin, The Heroicall Devises (London: William Kearney, 1591), trans. P. S., p. 110.

  3. Nicholas Reusner, Emblemata Nicolai Revsneri (Frankfurt: 1581), p. 98.

  4. M. D. Anderson, in History and Imagery in British Churches (London: John Murray, 1995), p. 249, suggests that this is the only known example of a phoenix in an English holy place—though it is possible that the many instances of birds with strangely branching tails may have been intended to represent phoenixes.

  5. Geffrey Whitney, A Choice of Emblemes (Leyden: Christopher Plantin, 1586), p. 177. Whitney's final emblem (p. 230) conjoins the idea of the “Phoenix rare” which “in time her selfe doth burne” with a final salutation to his queen and country.

  6. For a discussion of the phoenix and its particular relation to Imogen in Cymbeline, see Peggy Muñoz Simonds, Myth, Emblem, and Music in Shakespeare's Cymbeline: An Iconographic Reconstruction (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1992), pp. 228-37.

  7. It seems to have been a wishful fashion of the age, though, to imagine King James as some kind of conquering colossus. Joshua Sylvester calls him implausibly “un Charle-magne encore” in his translation Du Bartas. His Diuine Weekes and Workes with A Compleate Collectio of all the other most delight-full Workes (London: 1605), sig. A2v; and Daniel Price (1613) is only marginally more judicious in styling James' son as “The Hope of Svcession, Englands Charlemaine” in Lamentations for the death of the late Illustrious Prince Henry: and the dissolution of his religious Familie (London: Tho. Snodham for R. Jackson, 1613), dedication leaf.

  8. The religious inferences of the play have been much discussed. For example, Lee Bliss in “The Wheel of Fortune and the Maiden Phoenix of Shakespeare's King Henry the Eighth,” ELH, 42 (1975), notes what he describes as “the dubious view that Henry VIII focuses on the defeat of Catholicism and the rise of Protestantism” (10).

  9. John Rastell, The Pastyme of the People The Chronycles of dyuers realmys and most specyally of the realme of England (London: 1529), sigs. C5r-D3r.

  10. William Caxton, Chronycles of Englande (St. Albans: 1483).

  11. William Wyrley, The Trve Vse of Armorie, Shewed by Historie, and plainly proued by example (London: J. Jackson for Gabriell Cawood, 1592), p. 81: “Princely Edward mirror of Cheualrie.”

  12. Matthew Sutcliffe, The Practice, Proceedings, And Lawes of armes, described out of the doings of most valiant and expert Captaines, and confirmed both by ancient, and moderne examples, and praecedents (London: Christopher Barker, 1593), sig. B3r.

  13. The Mirror for Magistrates, ed. Lily B. Campbell (New York: Barnes & Noble Inc., 1960), p. 93. The Mirror is believed to have been first published in 1555.

  14. Sir Walter Raleigh, Selections from his Writings, ed. G. E. Hadow (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1917), pp. 93-4. Raleigh cites the Black Prince as an example of the supremacy of the English soldier in foreign battle.

  15. The print is housed in the Warburg Institute, London, and is titled “Adoration of the Magi.” It presents Edward III (father), Edward the Black Prince (son), and Richard II (grandson) as the three Magi.

  16. Josephine Waters Bennett has explored the notion of England as “Elizium” citing, as one of her examples, Procopius of Caesarea who recounts a third-century legend that the souls of the dead were ferried across the English Channel to Britain. See “Britain Among The Fortunate Isles,” Studies in Philology, 53 (1956), p. 123.

  17. James L. Calderwood, Shakespeare and the Denial of Death (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1987), p. 49.

  18. Calderwood, p. 50.

  19. Francis Beaumont, The Knight of the Burning Pestle, ed. Andrew Gurr (Berkeley and Los Angeles: The University of California Press, 1966).

  20. Edward Hall, in the opening paragraph of The Vnion of the two noble and illustre famelies of Lancastre & Yorke (London: Richard Grafton, 1584), fol. 1.

  21. In Thomas Middleton and William Rowley's The Changeling, ed. N. W. Bawcutt (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994), Beatrice grieves that “Vengeance begins; / Murder, I see, is followed by more sins. / Was my creation in the womb so curs'd, / It must engender with a viper first?” (III.iv.163-6). And Vittoria in John Webster's The White Devil, ed. John Russell Brown (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1992), surmises her own tragedy in similar terms: “O my greatest sin lay in my blood. / Now my blood pays for't” (

  22. Andrea Alciati, Emblemata (Padua: Tozzi, 1621), emblem 195. This is an assemblage of Latin prints originally published in the period 1534-1551.

  23. Jehan Lefèvre, Emblèmes (Paris: Wechel, 1536), emblem 69; Giovanni Marquale, Imprese (Lyon: Bonhomme, 1551), emblem 168; Bernardino Daza, Emblemas (Lyon: Bonhomme, 1549), emblem 69; Wolfgang Hunger, Emblemata (Paris: Wechel, 1542), emblem 69.

  24. Whitney, p. 163.

  25. Calderwood, p. 55.

  26. As noted in a footnote to the Introduction, this book uses The Riverside Shakespeare, 2nd Ed., eds. G. Blakemore Evans et al. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997) as the standard text of Shakespeare's works. Following the Riverside edition, I have preserved the name “Bullingbrook” (as opposed to the modernized “Bolingbroke”) since this is the form used in the earliest texts of Richard II and also in Holinshed, though sometimes without the “g.” The form “Bolingbroke” is an early eighteenth century invention, attributed to Alexander Pope. I should add that on other occasions I have had cause to dispute the Riverside's textual editing, but in this instance, at least, the case it makes for “Bullingbrook” (p. 847) seems reasonable.

  27. See, for example, Clayton G. MacKenzie, “Paradise and Paradise Lost in Richard II,Shakespeare Quarterly, 37 (1986), pp. 318-39.

  28. Edward Surtz, ed., Utopia (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1964), p. 59n, quotes Erasmus as saying that More's Utopia “represented chiefly Britain” (Ep. 4.21). See also Joshua Sylvester, p. 462: “All Haile (deere Albion) Europes Pearle of price, / The worlds rich Garden, Earths rare Paradice.”

  29. Thomas Stocker in the “Epistle Dedicatorie” to his translation of Marnix van Sant Aldegonde's A Tragicall Historie of the troubles and Ciuile Warres of the lowe Countries, otherwise called Flanders (London: 1583), sig. A2r.

  30. The line is found in Bingham's prefatory poem to G. Peckham's A Trve Report, Of the late discoueries, and possession, taken in the right of the Crowne of Englande, of the New-found Landes (London: 1583), p. 10.

  31. The quotation is from “The Epistle Dedicatorie” to Silvester Jourdan's A Plaine Description of the Barmvdas, now called Sommer Ilands (London: 1613), sig. A3r.

  32. Christopher Marlowe, The Complete Plays, ed. J. B. Steane (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1973).

  33. Willy Maley, “‘This sceptred isle’: Shakespeare and the British problem” in Shakespeare and National Culture, ed. John J. Joughin (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1997), p. 94. Maley's chapter (pp. 83-108) provides a witty and erudite declamation of the English assumptions of Shakespeare's theatre.

  34. Hans Holbein, Icones Historiarvm Veteris Testamenti (Lvgdvni: apud Ioannem Frellonium, 1547), sig. B1v. Icones Historiarvm Veteris Testamenti (1547) was translated into English within two years and appeared in various languages across Europe in the decades that followed. See Arthur B. Chamberlain, Hans Holbein The Younger (London: George Allen, 1913), II, p. 186.

  35. Joannes Sambucus, Emblemata, cum aliquot nummis antiqui operis, Ioannis Sambuci Tirnaviensis Pannonii (Antwerp: 1564), p. 240.

  36. Claude Paradin, Les Devises Heroiques (1551 first publ.; Anvers: 1561), p. 151r.

  37. The emblem is reproduced in Henry Green, Shakespeare and the Emblem Writers (London: Trubner, 1870), p. 530.

  38. George Wither, A Collection of Emblemes, Ancient and Moderne (1635), ed. Rosemary Freeman (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1975), p. 21.

  39. This was Donne's last sermon and referred to by the King's household as “The Doctor's own funeral sermon.” It was titled “Death's Duell, or, A Consolation to the Soule against the dying Life and living Death of the Body,” and was delivered at Whitehall, in the presence of the king, at the beginning of Lent, 1630.

  40. See J. J. M. Tobin's introductory article to Edward III in G. Blakemore Evans et al., eds., The Riverside Shakespeare, 2nd Ed., pp. 1732-4.

  41. The version used is that in G. Blakemore Evans et al., eds., The Riverside Shakespeare, 2nd Ed.

  42. Harry Morris, in Last Things in Shakespeare (Tallahassee: Florida State University Press, 1985), suggests that Richard II may be regarded as one of “Shakespeare's sovereigns who are also high priests of their kingdom” (p. 256). He demonstrates how this idea is promulgated through Christ symbolism and through the explicit identification of the king as Christ's surrogate (pp. 256-7). My own argument has focused on the largely secular idealization of kingship (mainly broadcast through Gaunt's English encomium where Christian service and the spirit of chivalric reputation co-exist). It is interesting, and perhaps revealing of his lack of chivalric reputation, that Richard, facing rebellion and unable to marshal his military forces effectively, lays repeated emphasis on the religious validation of his office—and intriguing, too, that Bullingbrook views Richard's murder in terms of the primordial homicide, an act against the benignity of God rather than an act against the code of chivalric conduct.

  43. Patricia L. Carlin, Shakespeare's Mortal Men: Overcoming Death in History, Comedy and Tragedy (New York: Peter Lang, 1993), p. 88.

  44. Michael Neill, Issues of Death: Mortality and Identity in English Renaissance Tragedy (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), p. 249.

Clayton G. MacKenzie (essay date 2000)

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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 references to Mars in Henry V as an interrogation of the idea of the continual regeneration of English heroism.]

Henry IV's reign was notable more for its shadowy internal wranglings than for its golden foreign achievements. Even his burial was shrouded in intrigue, with rumors that his body had been mysteriously “lost” when the barge carrying it capsized on its way to Canterbury Cathedral. Some four hundred years later, the Age of Reason did what they thought to be the sensible thing and opened the tomb. And there lay King Henry, with crown, gown and scepter. Bullingbrook may have struck a rather dashing and alluringly romantic figure to Shakespeare's age but, as King Henry IV, he was decidedly less admired. At the heart of Elizabethan misgivings lay an obsessive fear of civil war. A succession of commentators bewailed its deformities, advocating the sanity of peace at home.1

Central to the notion of civil war's monstrosity in the Elizabethan psyche was the concept of regenerating evil, of evil that died only to revive again even more virulently. It was a regeneration typically conceptualized in terms of the classical monster, the Hydra of Lerna. Here, for example, is King Edgar in A Knack to Know a Knave (1594):

Then as I am Gods Vicegerent [sic] here on earth,
By Gods appointment heere to raigne and rule,
So must I seeke to cut abuses downe,
That lyke Hydras heads, daylie growes up one in anothers place,
Which if with good regard we looke not to,
We shall, lyke Sodom, feele that fierie doome,
That God in Justice did inflict on them.(2)

The destruction of the Hydra, the monstrous offspring of Typhon and Echidna, was the second task imposed upon Hercules by Eurystheus. No ordinary beast, Thomas Cooper describes it as “A mõster, with whom Hercules fought, and as soone as he had stricken of one head of the monster, an other sprang vp immediately.”3 It is understandable, then, that the Hydra's fatal breath and multiplying heads necessitated the outside help of Iolas, Hercules' trusty servant—the only task, in fact, that did require assistance. As Hercules lopped off a head, so Iolas seared the stump with a burning brand. Opinions differ as to the number of heads involved. Spenser talks of “his thousand heads,”4 Cooper of “an hundred neckes with serpentine heads,”5 Combe of a “seuen-headed beast.”6 The precise figure is not overly important. What is significant, though, is the notion of a specific evil reviving and multiplying from one wicked generation to the next. To the print of Hercules battling the Hydra, Thomas Combe appends these lines:

When Hercules had ordaind to take his rest,
And from his former labours him withdrew,
Hydra that monstrous seuen-headed beast
Against him came, his troubles to renew.(7)

As an image of regenerating evil, reiterated in a gamut of emblematic literature (and notably in the work of Bocchi, Sambucus and Tertio8), the sixteenth century had available to it few monstrous images more frightening and disturbing than the Hydra.

“Sexuality,” as Kant observed in Lectures on Ethics, “exposes man to the danger of equality with the beasts.”9 Although the Hydra did not procreate in the normal conjunctive manner of most animal species, regenerative allusions to animals are generally deprecatory in early modern writings. Robert Watson has suggested that this was part of the culture of Shakespeare's age in which “human beings are encouraged to project their unacceptable mortality onto other animals.”10 This composed, as Watson suggests, part of the rhetoric of denial in which the baser instincts of human nature, like sexual reproduction itself, are consigned to a convenient scapegoat in the hope that “annihilation can be isolated in an Other” (p. 29). The idea links also to that postulated in the last chapter, namely that in Elizabethan and Jacobean writings the erotic impulse is traceable back to the physical predilections of the apes rather than to the divine inspiration of God. As a consequence, the linkage between human and animal sexualities is at least distasteful and usually repellent in Shakespeare's theatre. Calderwood cites the example of Iago's “beast with two backs” (Othello I.i.116-17), suggesting that “Only a professional degrader like Iago or a morbidly disillusioned prince like Hamlet will want to keep such images before him. For ordinary men animalistic sex and its mortal corollary must be vigorously repressed.”11 The reproductive characteristic of the Hydra, unwholesome because of the bestial undertones alone, assumes utmost moral repugnance through its association with the proliferating extremities of human wickedness.

Shakespeare's use of the Hydra is intriguing. In the classical myth there is no question about the moral resonances of the encounter between the hideous beast and Hercules. The Hydra represents unmitigated evil; the fact that in some versions of the story one of its heads was immortal served only to underscore the idea that evil may be subdued but never entirely conquered. Hercules, by contrast, stands for unambiguous virtue, the quintessence of mortal valor and wholesomeness in the face of regenerating evil. This is a key theme of a celebrated wall tapestry at Hampton Court Palace, west London, which reveals the various triumphs of Hercules, and situates his conquest of the Hydra as preeminent amongst them. … Yet, the first time Shakespeare deploys a coherent working of the Hydra myth (in the Henry IV plays), he deliberately undermines the moral polarities of the original story. This is the dissident Archbishop of York in 2 Henry IV:

But as I told my Lord of Westmerland,
The time misord'red doth, in common sense,
Crowd us and crush us to this monstrous form
To hold our safety up. I sent your Grace
The parcels and particulars of our grief,
The which hath been with scorn shov'd from the court,
Whereon this Hydra son of war is born. …


There is a clear insinuation that Henry has himself given birth to the monster (line 38) and that he is, in some perverse manner, the heir to his own misdemeanors. The corruption of the notion of generational replenishment is also interesting. York, of course, is a rebel engaged in the process of civil war. His excuse is that “The time misord'red” has forced him and his colleagues into “this monstrous form.”

The theme of self-protection through monstrosity is one prepared in 1 Henry IV by Worcester who argues that Henry's oppression “Grew … to so great a bulk” that, for safety's sake, the rebels were forced to

                                                                      raise this present head,
Whereby we stand opposed by such means
As you yourself have forg'd against yourself


Again, the insinuation of Worcester's pun on “head” is that Henry's own actions have given life to a distorted head-raising inheritance. The king has, Worcester claims, “forg'd” hydraic insurrection himself. Henry's moral claim to the throne, shadowed by the murder of Richard, lies at the heart of this debate. Both Worcester and York acknowledge that they are rebels, monstrous rebels even, but neither accepts that he is wrong. Hydraic rebellion, as they see it, is the fault of the royal party and not their own. If insurrection is hydraic, then it is a just, if horrible, monstrosity forced upon them by the dangers and scorn of the court. From the rebel perspective, at least, the “Hydra” does not accept the certainty of its wickedness or the moral propriety of its Herculean foeman.

These confusions become powerfully visualized in the final theatrical emblems of the play as Douglas, the would-be Hercules, encounters hydraically reviving kings. His function in this last act is carefully prepared through a meticulous construction of “super-mortality,” initiated from the very first scene of the play. “That ever-valiant and approved Scot” (I.i.54); “that fiend Douglas” (II.iv.368); “renowned Douglas” (III.ii.107). He himself reprimands someone for talking about death: “Talk not of dying, I am out of fear / Of death or death's hand for this one half year” (IV.i.135-6). He is, by (almost) every account, the invincible warrior, the superlative mortal. When, at last, Douglas avows that he is the Herculean Hydra-subjugator, we could be forgiven for taking him at his word. Having killed Stafford and Blunt, who have been disguised as kings, he rounds on another king—this time the real one.

Another king? They grow like Hydra's heads.
I am the Douglas, fatal to all those
That wear those colors on them. What art thou
That counterfeit'st the person of a king?


In invoking the persona of Hercules, Douglas makes not simply a soldierly claim but also a moral claim. The king has become the monster, the evil beast, and he the Herculean emissary of moral integrity charged with killing him.

Douglas' motivations here seem strange. Hitherto, the accent had been on bravery, valor, fiendish warriorship, military honor, renown. There was the sense that he had come for the fight, not for any inherently ethical reason. He is, after all, a Scot; a foreigner; a mercenary even. What has the question of English royal lineage to do with him? Yet, once he confronts the disguised kings, who seem to “grow like Hydra's heads,” his words veritably bristle with homiletic righteousness. Rather like the hero of the Stoical version of Herculean myth, he puts brute strength and ignorance to the back-burner and pulls forward an exalted sense of virtue.12 Of the slain Sir Walter Blunt he observes, with heavy irony: “A borrowed title has thou bought too dear” (V.iii.23); and of the king himself he demands “What art thou / That counterfeit'st the person of a king?” (V.iii.27-8). Patricia Carlin has offered an insightful discussion of the issues of counterfeiting in the play and has noted also that “Monetary imagery perfectly expresses the moral/material problem of finding an acceptable source of value.”13 Certainly the emphasis on pecuniary terminology (“borrowed,” “bought,” “dear,” “counterfeit'st”) places Douglas' words on an imagistic path that leads back not only to Falstaff's fiscal exploits on the highway near Gadshill but to the King's own “theft” of the crown—a righteous appropriation in Falstaff's symbolic portraiture, but, for the Douglas of Act V, an unmitigated larceny.

I have mentioned Falstaff here, and I would like to stay with him for a moment. His rôle in relation to the Hercules / Hydra myth is significant. He is the only person to qualify the tag of invincible warrior so readily attached to Douglas by others. As early as II.iv.342-4, it is he who lampoons the myth created around Douglas, talking of him as “that sprightly Scot of Scots, Douglas, that runs a' horseback up a hill perpendicular.” The old rogue offers an interesting, and accurate, insight; but it becomes even more intriguing when we remember that Falstaff himself assumed Herculean pretensions earlier in the very same scene.14 In II.iv of 1 Henry IV, Falstaff presents his account of the Gadshill fiasco where his plan to mug rich travelers fails dismally. His narrative of the escapade is structured upon the Hercules / Hydra saga. How many has he slain? What begins as “two rogues in buckrom suits” (lines 192-3) grows to four (line 196), then to seven (line 201), then to nine (line 212) and ends as a veritable army of eleven men in buckram (line 218) all assailing the beleaguered hero. As if to lend weight to the hydraic nuance, Sir John pointedly brags in the same scene “Why, thou knowest I am as valiant as Hercules” (lines 270-1), and the monster motif is rekindled in the exchanges that follow. The Prince twice inveighs “O monstrous!” (lines 219 and 540), both in connection with Falstaff. Bardolph confesses at lines 312-13 (of Falstaff) “I blush'd to hear his monstrous devices”; and then, at lines 482-3, cries out that “the sheriff with a most monstrous watch is at the door” (significantly, this new monster also seeks confrontation with the “Herculean” Falstaff, but for reasons that cast a suitable irony on the paradigm's mythic pretensions!).

On stage, Falstaff's account of multiplying foes is essentially humorous, a parody of heroic action. No one, least of all Falstaff, believes this story of superlative heroism. In the Gadshill caricature, the innocent travelers, whom Falstaff would rob, are tongue-in-cheek styled as the Lernaean monsters and Falstaff, the robber, casts himself in the mold of Herculean hero. As obvious as the moral proprieties of this incident may be, and as transparent as the falsity of Falstaff's mythic pretensions may seem, the episode echoes yet again the more serious issues of the play. In the struggle for England's crown, the conundrum remains: on whose side falls the mantle of monstrosity, and on whose that of Herculean virtue?

With wry humor, Shakespeare brings together the two mythic pretenders, Douglas and Falstaff, in the last scene of the play and even pits them, head to head, in a farcical battle for glory on Shrewsbury field. It is a confrontation that, according to the stage directions, occurs almost simultaneously with the clash between Prince Hal and Hotspur. The outcome of both contests seems to be decisive. Hal defeats Hotspur; Douglas defeats Falstaff. To Hal goes the military victory; and, if the Herculean sonorities are authentic, to Douglas the moral victory. There are, of course, abundant reasons to suppose that the moral sonorities are not correct. For a start, Falstaff feigns death (a most un-Herculean strategy) and Douglas the superhuman is apparently fooled by the ploy. In fact, Shakespeare goes to some lengths to demythologize the Herculean pretensions of the two men and the moral inferences of their presence in this last act. Within a few minutes Falstaff has hydraically revived, declaring vehemently that “I am no counterfeit” (V.iv.115), and immediately transforming himself into a Herculean Hydra-slayer once more. Having already claimed he had killed Percy (V.iii.46-7), Falstaff now stabs Hotspur's corpse and again reports that he has slain him (V.iv.140-3). This latest Herculean exploit, undertaken against Hotspur's miraculously reviving monstrosity, is calculated by Falstaff to secure him a material reward—most unlike the classical paradigm who, as a succession of Renaissance emblematists infer, asked for none. Douglas, too, escapes death but not demythologization. Within twenty lines of his Herculean boast, Shakespeare presents us with the stage picture of the would-be myth-hero running for his life and, in the next scene, we are given the ignominious details of his capture: “And falling from a hill, he was so bruis'd / That the pursuers took him” (V.v.21-2). While the physical contests of the play may be concluded definitively, issues of right and wrong are considerably more difficult to disentangle—as Shakespeare intended, no doubt.

The contest between Hal and Hotspur in the final act of 1 Henry IV, and indeed between the king and his adversaries generally, has rightly been accorded extensive critical focus. Michael Neill argues that what he calls the “macabre art” is very much in evidence in Shakespeare's designs here.15 Hal's reclamation of his honorable status, Neill maintains, is balanced by the specter of the dead Sir Walter Blunt (disguised as the king and killed by Douglas) whose demeanor in death, as Falstaff puts it, is one of “grinning honor” (V.iii.59)—a reference, no doubt, to the grinning skeleton of the danse macabre (p. 82). Neill suggests that “this transformation of the royal double into the sign of Death's authority anticipates an ending in which he Prince's own alter ego, Hotspur, having yielded to ‘the earthy and cold hand of death’, is transformed to ‘dust / And food for … worms’” (p. 82). None, be he counterfeit or king or pauper or prince, may escape death. The thesis is an intriguing one, particularly in light of the sense of paradise and paradise lost for which I argued in the last chapter and will do again in this. It is though only half the story and where Neill's approach and my own differ is in the estimation of Hal's act of slaying Hotspur. Like Hotspur, Hal will die—the inevitable victim of Death's authority. But unlike Hotspur, Hal will find his immortality through chivalric reputation, through the very act of defeating Hotspur in a battle that reverberates with mythic resonances. Those resonances, it seems to me, are deliberately intensified and validated by the mock-heroics of both Douglas and Falstaff, the second of whom goes to considerable lengths to disavow at V.i.133-40 the kind of honor upon which the whole notion of an English heroic paradise is constructed:

What is honor? A word. What is in that word honor? What is that honor? Air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it? He that died a' Wednesday. Doth he feel it? No. Doth he hear it? No. 'Tis insensible then? Yea, to the dead. But will['t] not live with the living? No. Why? Detraction will not suffer it. Therefore I'll none of it, honor is a mere scutcheon.

Alastair Fowler examines usefully the opposition of this idea not only to Hal's view of honor but to Shakespeare's broader understanding of the term, which is used more than a thousand times in his canon.16 Our own age tends to view militarism with a suspicious eye, but we should be cautious in supposing that the philosophies of anyone as heterodox as Falstaff are necessarily intended for our approval.

From its outset, the first and final meeting between Hal and Hotspur on Shrewsbury field evidences a keen awareness of issues pertaining to lineage and inheritance:

If I mistake not, thou art Harry Monmouth.
Thou speak'st as if I would deny my name.
My name is Harry Percy.
                                                                                                                                  Why then I see
A very valiant rebel of the name.
I am Prince of Wales, and think not, Percy,
To share with me in glory any more.
Two stars keep not their motion in one sphere,
Nor can one England brook a double reign
Of Harry Percy and the Prince of Wales.

(1 Henry IV V.iv.59-67)

This is reminiscent of the emphasis on Talbot's “name” in 1 Henry VI. A name is a statement of identity, and lineage is an important part of identity. Both men assert their names but Harry identifies himself tellingly. He is the “Prince of Wales,” a title that can be held only by the first in line to the throne. As such, Hal claims moral propriety as heir to the throne, as inheritor of his father's crown. Since Hotspur challenges his legitimacy, there can be only a single consequence for it has become an impossibility for both men to live in the same world. If Hal will be king, then Hotspur must die. Hal's “title” as monarchical inheritor has been implicitly challenged earlier in the play when Hotspur refers to him as “Harry Monmouth” (V.ii.49). Bache and Loggins have pointed out that this “designates his rôle as the king's son” but not necessarily as the heir to the throne.17 Here, again, in their physical encounter, Hotspur refers to Harry as “Harry Monmouth” (V.iv.59), reiterating the idea that questions of inheritance are foremost in both men's minds.

We have seen already that Shakespeare's notion of heroic renewal is not only physical but spiritual as well. Not spiritual in the Biblical meaning of the word but spiritual in the sense of chivalric excellence. When Hotspur lies beaten and dying on the earth of Shrewsbury field, and Hal stands triumphant before him, his words point precisely to this issue:

O Harry, thou has robbed me of my youth!
I better brook the loss of brittle life
Than those proud titles thou hast won of me.
They wound my thoughts worse than thy sword my flesh.

(1 Henry IV V.iv.77-80)

His youth is his reputation. It is the time when a man, in the great cycle of heroic English regeneration, wins his place in the chronicle. This sense of a place lost in the familial chivalric pageant is succinctly expressed by Charlemont in Tourneur's The Atheist's Tragedy, after his father has tried to dissuade him from entering the wars:

Your predecessors were your precedents,
And you are my example. Shall I serve
For nothing but a vain parenthesis
I' the honoured story of your family?
Or hang but like an empty scutcheon
Between the trophies of my predecessors,
And the rich arms of my posterity?


Behind Charlemont's plea lies the presumption that he can earn a noble place between the rich trophies of his predecessors and the rich arms of his posterity. This intention, as Charlemont himself discovers, is liable to frustration and unheroic diminution.

Hotspur makes a similar discovery. He has entered his war and lost; he becomes merely a parenthesis to a greater march of history. In Shakespeare's scheme of heroic renewal we have already seen many instances of youth reviving, or being invited to revive, the glories of ancestry. This is perhaps where Hotspur perceives his own failure. In falling to the sword of Harry, the myth of his soldierly preeminence, expressed time and again in the play, has been shattered. And, as important as that, with his death has come to an end the cyclical process of familial honor. Perhaps he is being a bit hard on himself. But, then, chivalry had its own etiquette, and Hotspur's reading of the situation is apparently affirmed by Harry. Drifting into oblivion, Hotspur's final sentence is completed by his foeman.

                                                                                                    life, time's fool,
And time, that takes survey of all the world,
Must have a stop. O, I could prophesy,
But that the earthy and cold hand of death
Lies on my tongue. No, Percy, thou art dust,
And food for—                                                                                          [Dies.]
                                                  For worms, brave Percy.

(1 Henry IV V.iv.81-6)

Harry Morris understands Hotspur's words as an acceptance that “a man can dazzle the world only in the time of his life”19 but life, of course, must end. Seeking only an earthly reward rather than a religious one, Morris concludes, Hotspur inherits only “two paces of the vilest earth” (V.iv.91). More likely, it seems to me, Hotspur here implicitly acknowledges that he has lost eternity precisely because he has not dazzled in his time on earth, and that his reputation, in the manner of the English heroic myth, will not live beyond physical mortality. That failure is finally and conclusively summated by his defeat at the hands of Hal. In this regard it is revealing that Hotspur chooses, on one of the few occasions in the play, to address himself as Percy: “No, Percy, thou art dust.” Percy, not Hotspur. His allusion is to the familial name; he refers to himself but also, through the name, to his ancestral lineage. It is the family name that has become dust because heroic regeneration has been foiled.

There is, though, a regenerative process of sorts here. The worms. Percy's body will certainly provide the food for their regeneration. In this repulsive presentation of the life-in-death theme, just as in the benign version, Shakespeare echoes popular religious iconography—though not, on this occasion, from the emblem books. In the Wakeman Cenotaph in Tewkesbury Abbey, Gloucestershire, the sixteenth century alabaster effigy of Abbot Wakeman presents a decaying cadaver with stone worms crawling through the “rotting” joints. …20 The tomb is covered in graffiti, much of it from the sixteenth century, so it was clearly a popular tourist destination in Shakespeare's day. The Abbey also had strong associations with royalty and the Wars of the Roses, leading one commentator to describe it as

                                        an acre sown indeed
with the richest, royallest seed.(21)

A lesser known parallel to the Wakeman Cenotaph is a mid-sixteenth century brass floor plaque at St. Andrew's Church, Oddington, a popular stop-over on the road from London to Stratford. Commemorating the life of Ralph Hamsterley, it depicts him as a shrouded cadaver out of whose eye-sockets, joints and stomach cavity crawl a seething mass of worms. … A scroll issuing from the skeletal mouth reads (translated from the Latin): “To worms am I given up and, thus, give the warning / That just as I am here toppled, so is all earthly honor overthrown.” These bizarre representations were clearly aimed at devaluing the notion of transient mortality and extolling the virtues of spiritual eternity. They endorsed the frequent allusions to “Wormes Meate” and such like in non-emblematic literatures, and it is entirely feasible that Shakespeare exploited the iconic dimensions of such images to encourage an array of unwholesome associations in the minds of his Elizabethan audience. They carried with them, as well, an acute sense of “life-cycle,” of the destruction of one physical entity by and to the advantage of another. For the worms to flourish, life must end; for Hal to survive, Hotspur must perish. The life-in-death bell tolls with dissonant irony.

An integral part of Gaunt's vision of a heroically regenerating English paradise was the notion of England as the “seat of Mars” (II.i.41). Elizabethan literati had good cause to celebrate the place of the war god in their mythopoeic encomium. They had it on the authority of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Britonum that, looking upon the shores of Britain, Julius Caesar himself had declared that the Romans and the British had a common Trojan origin, and that Brutus had founded Britain, just as Aeneas had founded Rome, after both had fled the destruction of Troy.22 Since Mars was the patron of Rome and the esteemed father of Romulus, the ancient founder of that great city, it was perfectly natural for the Elizabethans to take a strong interest in his mythography—more so since the god was the sometime defender of Troy and the notion of London as the “New Troy” (Troynovant) had been espoused at least since the thirteenth century and reiterated frequently, most authoritatively perhaps in Caxton's Chronycles of Englande.23 As the logical sequitur to a historical mythography of inheritance, pre-Elizabethan cosmography sought further to decipher the English temperament in Martian terms. Richard Argol, for example, describes the planet Mars as the controller of war-like England, and as the determinant of the English military disposition.24

The English Mars was not the barbaric and destructive Mars Ultor described in Stephen Batman's The Golden Booke of the Leaden Goddes (1577), the sixteenth century English vulgate of classical lore, who when he “inuadeth, all thinges are lefte desolate, & destroyed.”25 Nor is he necessarily that Mars who Bel-Imperia in The Spanish Tragedy automatically associates with war: “where Mars reigneth, there must needs be war” (II.iv.35).26 Sixteenth century England had engineered a particular kind of Mars as its patron, a sort of anglicized Mars. This native English Mars had a split personality. At home, he was the preserver of peace, the protector of the English realm; abroad he was the irresistible warrior. This function is well illustrated at Hampton Court Palace where a statue of Mars guards the central entrance of the Fountain Court (south facade). In this ancient seat of English monarchy, originally gifted to Henry VIII by Cardinal Wolsey, Mars symbolizes the defense of the realm against outward attack, a function reiterated by the menacing death's head depicted at the base of his shield. In sum, he was the consummate and advised warrior, whether he be defending at home or conquering abroad. The anglicized Mars, god of English war, is central to the revivification of paradise. He is that thread of immortality that finds earthly perpetuity through the cyclically repeating glories of individual English beings. Such beings, though themselves physically mortal and therefore transient, have yet the power to carry the mantel of superlative warriorship for their short space on earth, and to pass it on to their physical inheritors, their sons and their daughters, whose task it is in turn to replenish the myth and deliver it to their offspring.

The English Mars is proverbially guided by the wise counsel of the Roman goddess Minerva (the Greek goddess Pallas). Gerard Leigh in 1583 writes of the anglicized war-god as Pallas' knight, “an armed Mars, A champion pollitique in fielde to fight, or at home to defende.”27 William Wyrley, in The Trve Vse of Armorie quotes a great English soldier as declaring: “For highly was my knightly seruice deemd, / As well for Mars as prudent Pallas grace.”28 The position is summarized admirably by Henry Peacham in Minerva Britanna:

Though Mars defendes the kingdome with his might,
And braues abroad his foe, in glorious armes,
Yet wiser Pallas guides his arme aright,
And best at home preuentes all future harmes.(29)

This idea of Mars tutored by the wisdom of Pallas at home and abroad was not an English invention, though it was zealously adapted to local conditions. Its roots are classical; and its representation in art was familiar across Renaissance Europe. Rubens' painting “Mars pushed back by Hercules and Minerva” is perhaps the most celebrated example of such, with Hercules and Minerva restraining Mars as he attempts to drag a woman (representing Peace) by the hair.30 Similarly, a sixteenth century etching in the New York Metropolitan Museum, after Tintoretto and titled “Minerva expelling Mars,” shows Minerva urging Mars to assuage his violent intentions, positioning herself protectively between the war god and two female figures, symbolizing Peace and Abundance.31 For the Elizabethans there was an obvious familial example for the dual Mars figure. York recalls in Richard II:

the Black Prince, that young Mars of men. …


The Black Prince was the consummate home defender, and a foreign conqueror par excellence. The context of the utterance is important. York is upbraiding Bullingbrook for bringing civil war onto English soil. He remembers how he and Bullingbrook's father had rescued the Black Prince from “forth the ranks of many thousand French.” It is foreign conquest that wins the colors of an English Mars, not the fomenting of civil strife.

If the genuine “Pallas souldier,” to expand Gerard Leigh's comment, is “an armed Mars, A champion pollitique in fielde to fight, or at home to defende, An ordered Iusticer without respect,” then how does the newly ascended Henry V, the physical inheritor of Edward III and the Black Prince, measure up to the English myth? At the end of 2 Henry IV, Falstaff had been banished from the new king's company and the Chief Justice firmly embraced. That must be a good sign. And the Archbishop of Canterbury, at the outset of Henry V, ardently asserts the nature of the transformation:

Consideration like an angel came
And whipt th' offending Adam out of him,
Leaving his body as a paradise
T' envelop and contain celestial spirits.


Remember, this is the Archbishop speaking, the highest religious officer in the land, so he ought to know a thing or two about Adam and paradise. And he has no doubt that Hal's contemplative experiences have transformed him radically. His body has become the imagistic symbol of England as a second Eden, an embracing paradise. The sense of the king as England has been mooted once before. This is how Margaret consoles Richard in Richard II: “Ah, thou, the model where old Troy did stand” (V.i.11). She images him as the ruins of Troy, the remnants of what England was before insurrection destroyed his paradise. It's all a matter of opinion, sure enough, but Richard's party needs little convincing that Bullingbrook is the barbarous Greek who has shattered England's New Troy.

Momentarily, this takes us down a disturbing associative line. If it is Bullingbrook who is the decimator of paradise, then surely the principle of malign regeneration that is so powerful in Shakespeare's earlier History plays might suggest his son, his inheritor, may also emerge as a decimator of paradise. Not so, Canterbury assures us; the young man has reformed and is now the very essence of paradise itself. Certainly, the omens are good. Not only is Henry aiming at an ambitious foreign campaign but he is taking steps to preserve the kingdom's peace. Interestingly, in Holinshed's original chronicle of this episode, it is not Henry but Rafe Neville, the Earl of Westmoreland, who raises the matter of protection from the Scots.32 Shakespeare's “complete king,” on the other hand, comes to that sage conclusion without the help of counsel. This, as Henry's advocates may point out, is a refreshing change. The problem with Richard's regime, allegedly, was that the “England, that was wont to conquer others, / Hath made a shameful conquest of itself” (Richard II II.i.65-6). It comes as little surprise that within the first few lines of Henry V the link with Mars is both re-established and re-affirmed.

O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention!
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act,
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
Then should the warlike Harry, like himself,
Assume the Port of Mars, and at his heels
Leash'd in like hounds, should famine, sword, and fire
Crouch for employment.

(Prologue 1-8)

In the writings of Samuel Daniel, frequently a source for Shakespeare, the (pagan) Mars is described as the “Muse-foe Mars.”33 In the Prologue, Shakespeare moves tellingly in the opposite direction. He longs for a poetic “Muse of fire” so that he could more persuasively describe the thrilling scene of Harry assuming “the Port of Mars.” Even so, there are frightening dimensions to this Mars-like Harry. After all, he is about to engage in foreign conquest and, as a foreign conqueror, it is only appropriate that famine, sword and fire should “Crouch for employment” at his heels. These are the constructs of war—but note that they are “Leash'd in like hounds.” This anglicized Martian, unlike his Classical namesake, is distinguished by discipline.

By the end of the first act, an impressive profile has been established of the ideal English monarch embarking on a campaign to revive the glories of his ancestors and of England. The moral aspects of invading France are affirmed, regardless of whether or not we accept the Salic argument; appropriate parallels have been drawn to the exploits of Edward III and the Black Prince; and Harry has been ensconced as an anglicized Mars archetype. He is the regenerative successor, the heroic life-in-death, of his ancestors. There is a slight hiccup on the home front when Grey, Scroop and Cambridge are caught in conspiracy against the crown. In a rather extravagant declamation, the king labels them in suitably monstrous terms: “English monsters!” (II.ii.85), “inhuman creature[s]” (II.ii.95); and he goes on to lament that “this revolt of thine, methinks, is like / Another fall of man” (II.ii.141-2). The defilers of paradise are duly dispatched to the execution block, and the interruption soon forgotten.

The journey to what should be the fulfillment of the Mars myth, and the ultimate fulfillment of the idea of heroic life inheriting the spirit and replicating the feats of heroic ancestral dead, takes the English army through Harfleur, Picardy and finally to the battle field at Agincourt—all of these emotive names to an Elizabethan audience enculturated in notions of English greatness on French soil. The astonishing victory at Agincourt is preceded by a series of Mars allusions:

Dieu de batailles! where have they this mettle?
Is not their climate foggy, raw, and dull,
On whom, as in despite, the sun looks pale,
Killing their fruit with frowns? Can sodden water,
A drench for sur-rein'd jades, their barley-broth,
Decoct their cold blood to such valiant heat?

(The French Constable speaking of the English, III.v.15-20)

O God of battles, steel my soldiers' hearts,
Possess them not with fear! Take from them now
The sense of reckoning, if th' opposed numbers
Pluck their hearts from them.

(Harry, IV.i.289-92)

Big Mars seems bankrout in their beggar'd host,
And faintly through a rusty beaver peeps:

(Grandpré speaking of the English, IV.ii.43-4)

Few things would have pleased the Elizabethans more than praise from the French. Raleigh, for example, was fond of quoting John de Serre's celebration of English soldiership; others, including Shakespeare, looked to Froissart. There was something particularly satisfying in the notion of a cocky Frenchman having to admit that, yes, the English were better soldiers after all. So, the Constable's awed account of English valor in the battle for Harfleur would have gone down well with a London audience. Equally, Grandpré's arrant miscalculation of English heroism, suggesting that Mars was “bankrout in their beggar'd host,” would have raised English hackles to new elevations and urged on that moment when the Gallic cur would have to eat his words. In the event, death at Agincourt spares him that ignominy.

Harry's appeal to Mars is intriguing. The parallel passage in Edward Hall's chronicle reads as follows: “Therefore puttynge your onely truste in hym, let not their multytude feare youre heartes, nor their great noumbre abate your courages.”34 Hall has the king addressing the Lord God at this point, not the God of War. Holinshed equally has Harry appealing to God, not Mars.35 The king's petition in Henry V is one offered in a strangely detached manner—as if somehow we have moved away from the anglicized certainty of England as the “seat of Mars” and into a more tentative landscape where the patronage of Mars cannot be relied upon and where glory is not necessarily English. This is a curious movement because it contrasts so forcefully with the assertions of the Prologue at the beginning of the play. There, Harry was Mars. Famine, sword and fire crouched at his feet for employment. He was all-powerful, all-seeing. Now, he is something less than that. The diminution in his stature is discernible also in his address to the inhabitants of Harfleur at III.iii. He warns the townspeople to surrender while they still can:

                              Therefore, you men of [Harfleur],
Take pity of your town and of your people,
Whiles yet my soldiers are in my command,
Whiles yet the cool and temperate wind of grace
O'erblows the filthy and contagious clouds
Of deadly murther, spoil and villany.
If not—why, in a moment look to see
The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand
Defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters;
Your fathers taken by the silver beards,
And their most reverend heads dash'd to the walls;
Your naked infants spitted upon pikes,
Whiles the mad mothers with their howls confus'd
Do break the clouds, as did the wives of Jewry
At Herod's bloody-hunting slaughter-men.


Compare this to Tamburlaine's address to the Damascan Virgins, following the fall of their city. As the aldermen of Harfleur were to do, the Damascan city fathers had refused the opportunity to surrender:

Your fearful minds are thick and misty,
For there sits death; there sits imperious Death
Keeping his circuit by the slicing edge.
But I am pleas'd you shall not see him there;
He now is seated on my horsemen's spears,
And on their points his fleshless body feeds.
Techelles, straight go charge a few of them
To charge these dames, and shew my servant Death,
Sitting in scarlet on their armed spears.

(Tamburlaine, Part 1 IV.ii.47-55)36

His last words here order the execution of the virgins, an act rapidly effected despite their terrified supplications for mercy. Barbarous, perhaps, Tamburlaine's inflexible “discipline of arms and chivalry” (V.ii.112) also carries with it the sense of the magical. His “servant Death” flits from slicing edge to spear point—commanded only by the whim of Tamburlaine's imaginative sleight of hand—until, at the last, his pun on “charge” effortlessly transposes fantasy into fatality.

That sense of command and control that Tamburlaine espouses so tellingly here is almost entirely absent in Hal's conceptualization of death to the townsfolk of Harfleur. There, his promise of universal destruction is one predicated on the claim that there will come a point when he has no control over his men. They will become as Death soldiers, mowing all before them—and he without power to stop them. The specter he presents of raped daughters, impaled infants, and wailing mothers is a grim caricature of the control that the opening prologue had promised us. Here is a picture of the English soldier, “the blind and bloody soldier with foul hand,” wantonly defiling an innocent landscape and barbarizing its women and children. Tamburlaine, by contrast, is the master of Death. Disturbing, too, is the comparison to Herod's “bloody-hunting slaughter-men.” It seems as though we are moving away from a spiritualized landscape of ordered foreign conquest into a pagan domain. In an analysis of the hermeneutics of conquest in Henry V, William M. Hawley has argued that Hal is both hero and tyrant and that the threats of rape before Harfleur are part of his tyranny.37 The image is certainly disquieting but I am less convinced that Hal has sufficient control of this situation to be labeled tyrannous. It seems to me that Shakespeare is articulating, and Henry is “experiencing,” the disintegration of an English mythology of presumed heroism. The actuality of war is assuming an unpalatability of which Henry is aware but in the face of which he retains only marginal influence. Far from becoming the heroic anglicized Mars warrior paradigm abroad, reactivating and giving new life to the heroic splendors of a famous ancestry, Harry's English army is coming to represent an uncontrollable monstrosity, repeating its infamies in the march across France.

After Grandpré's misjudged reference to the absence of Mars amongst the English host, the war god is not mentioned again. In a stark inversion of the momentum that had been gathering at least since Richard II, the idea of the conquering English soldier abroad becomes synonymous not with the achievement of paradise but with its destruction. The Duke of Burgundy, pleading for Peace and Abundance, reminds us of Minerva beseeching Mars Ultor to spare the trembling damsels of Peace and Abundance in Rubens' painting or the Tintorettan etching:

                                                            let it not disgrace me,
If I demand, before this royal view,
What rub or what impediment there is,
Why that the naked, poor, and mangled Peace,
Dear nurse of arts, plenties, and joyful births,
Should not in the best garden of the world,
Our fertile France, put up her lovely visage?
Alas, she hath from France too long been chas'd,
And all her husbandry doth lie on heaps,
Corrupting in its own fertility.

(V.ii.31-40, emphasis added.)

The best garden of the world? France? At the end of the same scene the Chorus, that most patriotic of observers, concludes the work with a similar claim, referring to France as “the world's best garden” (V, Epilogue, 7). We have come a long way from the idea of England as a demi-paradise, basking in its native peace and reveling in forays abroad. Instead, fertile France has become the new Eden, the “nurse of arts, plenties, and joyful births.” And within its bounds, the benign processes of regeneration have been subverted and perverted by the English invaders to the point where now “all her husbandry doth lie on heaps, / Corrupting in its own fertility.” It is now the English who have become the harbingers of corruption, the marauding Mars figures who lack the tutelage of Minerva and, as a consequence, have devolved into indiscriminate savagery. In the same speech, Burgundy goes on to offer a gamut of unwholesome references to the destruction of the beauteous garden: “disorder'd” (l. 44), “savagery” (l. 47), “uncorrected” (l. 50), “rank” (l. 50), “hateful” (l. 52). The English harmony of Mars and Minerva has been abandoned in this vandalizing of the French paradise, and Burgundy's words underscore the Classical tradition of Mars as the arch-enemy of Peace and Abundance, pointedly disavowing the English notion of Mars as the protector of paradise and styling him instead as its indiscriminate destroyer. Far from articulating the consummation of a glorious life-in-death panoply of reviving English greatness, the ultimate momentum of the play is characterized by stagnancy and death, a fact hauntingly reiterated by reference in its last lines to the marriage of Henry and Kate and the tragic reign of Henry VI, their son and heir.

The life-in-death theme in the English Histories was essentially an effort to create a valued and human permanence amidst the desolation of a fallen world. The central thesis behind this endeavor relied on the simple corollary of peace at home and heroic conquest abroad. The ideal English hero, be he king or foot soldier, was understood as a Mars-type warrior, sauntering forth from the haven of an English paradise and, having conquered foreigners, returning home to enjoy and preserve the peace and plenty of a second Eden. The historic paradigms—Edward III, the Black Prince, Richard I, but also the ordinary superlative soldier of English myth—all appeared, through the flattering prism of Tudor history, to have established and validated exactly this cycle.

Paola Pugliatti asks the seminal question: “if Henry V is intended to be perceived as the perfect Christian prince, why do so many voices, more or less directly and overtly, condemn his military venture and denounce the violence of the war so convincingly?”38 The voice of this chapter has sounded in a similar direction, affirming Shakespeare's change of intention through his manipulation of the life-in-death theme in relation to the theme of heroic English regeneration. The debilitation of the myth is hinted at in the First Tetralogy, even as attempts are being made to articulate it, and further nuanced in the motifs of repeating monstrosity in Henry IV. But the full scope of its failure is preserved for Henry V, where the opportunity to exercise the “peace at home, conquest abroad” theorem founders, it seems, on the actuality of war and its cruel ways. In the end, the human detail of foreign conquest turns out to be every bit as unsavory and diminishing as that of civil war. The idea that death can be defied by a reviving and repeating cycle of mortal greatness stumbles in Shakespeare's increasingly unwholesome dissection of the very nature of greatness itself. In truth, Shakespeare's theatre does no more than articulate explicitly the realities of war. Despite the brutalities of his French campaign, the Black Prince was still heralded as the very essence of chivalry, his failings filtered out by the sanitizing lens of Tudor history. When Shakespeare comes to define the supposed glories of Edward's illustrious inheritor, Henry V, he moves towards a more pessimistic and cautious understanding of an epoch that the popular but ill-informed imagination had long idealized.


  1. For example, Samuel Daniel, in “The Epistle Dedicatorie” to The Civile Wares betweene the Howses of Lancaster and Yorke (London: 1595, first publ.; Simon Waterson, 1609), his verse account of the civil war, purposes “to shewe the deformities of ciuile Dissension” (sig. A2v); and Thomas Lodge, in The Wounds of Civil War, ed. Joseph W. Houppert (London: Edward Arnold, 1969), draws, as the Elizabethans were apt to do, on the precedent of Italy. The setting and characters may be Roman, but the lesson on “unnaturalness” is distinctly English: “Brute beasts nill break the mutual law of love, / And birds affection will not violate; / The senseless trees have concord 'mongst themselves, / And stones agree in links of amity” (I.i.260-3).

  2. A Knack to Know a Knave (1594; facsimile rpt. Oxford: The University Press, The Malone Society Reprints, 1963), sig. A2r.

  3. Thomas Cooper, Thesavrvs Lingvae Romanae & Britannicae tam accurate congestus, vt nihil pene in eo desyderari possit, quod vel Latine complectatur amplissimus Stephani Thesaurus, vel Anglice, toties aucta Eliotae Bibliotheca (London: 1565), sig. 7G3r.

  4. Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, ed. Thomas P. Roche (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1978), VI.xii.32.

  5. Cooper, sig. 7G1r.

  6. Guillaume de la Perrière, The Theater of fine devices, containing an hundred morall emblemes, trans. Thomas Combe (1593, first publ.; London: R. Field, 1614), emblem XCIX. The original French edition appeared on the continent in 1540.

  7. Combe, emblem XCIX.

  8. Achille Bocchi, Symbolicarum Quaestionum, De vniuerso genere, quas serio ludebat, Libri Qvinqve (1555, first publ.; Bononiae, apud Societatem Typographiae Bononiensis, 1574), bk. 2, p. 22 foll. and bk. 3, p. 92 foll. Joannes Sambucus, Emblemata, cum aliquot nummis antiqui operis, Ioannis Sambuci Tirnaviensis Pannonii (Antwerpiae: ex officina Christophori Plantini, 1564), p. 138. Francesco Tertio, Austriacae Gentis Imagines (1558, first publ.; Venetiis et Oeniponti: Formis Gaspari ab Avibus, 1573), plate titled “Philippus Cathol Resc Hisp.”

  9. Quoted in James L. Calderwood, Shakespeare and the Denial of Death (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1987), p. 49.

  10. Robert Watson, The Rest Is Silence: Death as Annihilation in the English Renaissance (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), p. 30.

  11. Calderwood, p. 50.

  12. Following the later Stoics and Cynics, emblematists like Andrea Alciatus, for example, avoided focusing on the physical achievements of Hercules (i.e. the brute strength and ignorance that characterized some of the Twelve Labors), and instead stylized Hercules' remarkable feats as illustrations of cerebral triumphs of morality or ingenuity.

  13. Patricia L. Carlin, Shakespeare's Mortal Men: Overcoming Death in History, Comedy and Tragedy (New York: Peter Lang, 1993), p. 67.

  14. See Clayton G. MacKenzie, “Falstaff's Monster,” AUMLA: Journal of the Australasian Universities MLA, 83 (1995), pp. 83-6.

  15. Michael Neill, Issues of Death: Mortality and Identity in English Renaissance Tragedy (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), pp. 81-3.

  16. Alastair Fowler, Time's Purpled Masquers: Stars and the Afterlife in Renaissance English Literature (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), p. 115.

  17. William B. Bache and Vernon P. Loggins, Shakespeare's Deliberate Art (Lanham, New York, & London: The University Press of America, 1996), p. 96.

  18. Cyril Tourneur, The Atheist's Tragedy in John Webster and Cyril Tourneur: Four Plays, ed. John Addington Symonds (New York: Hill and Wang, 1966).

  19. Harry Morris, in Last Things in Shakespeare (Tallahassee: Florida State University Press, 1985), p. 261.

  20. For a discussion of the so-called “monumental body” see Nigel Llewellyn, The Art of Death: Visual Culture in the English Death Ritual c. 1500-c. 1800 (London: Reaktion Books, in association with the Victoria and Albert Museum, 1991), pp. 101-8.

  21. The lines are quoted, without attribution, in Lionel Gough's A Short Guide to the Abbey Church of St. Mary the Virgin at Tewkesbury, 5th Ed. (Tewkesbury: Friends of Tewkesbury Abbey, 1991), p. 9. The Abbey was famous for the confrontation between Abbot Strensham and the Yorkist king, Edward IV, who had his brothers George of Clarence and Richard of Gloucester (later Richard III) by his side. Lancastrian pikemen, fleeing after the Battle of Tewkesbury, took refuge in the Abbey and the Yorkists entered the sacred precincts intending to kill them. The Abbot, who was saying high mass at the time, walked the length of the Abbey, holding the Bible aloft, and demanded that the carnage cease. The Royal party complied, agreeing that if the Lancastrians surrendered they would be unharmed. Such was the brutality of the Wars of the Roses that, having surrendered, most of the Lancastrians were marched 400 yards up the road to Tewkesbury Cross and executed. Ironically, George of Clarence, later murdered by his own brother, came to be buried in Tewkesbury Abbey, in a vault behind the altar and just a few yards from where the Wakeman Cenotaph now stands. And so, too, young Edward, the Prince of Wales, who had hoped to emulate the feats of his famous grandfather, Henry V, and “win our ancient right in France again, / Or die a soldier as I liv'd a king” (Richard III III.i.92-3), lies buried beneath a simple brass plaque in the middle of the choir.

  22. Geoffrey of Monmouth, Historia Britonum, ed. J. A. Giles (London: D. Nutt, 1844), p. 2: “Hercle ex eadem prosapia nos Romani et Britones orti sumus, quia ex Trojana gente processimus. Nobis Aeneas post destructionem Trojae primus pater fuit: illis vero Brutus, quem Silvius Ascanii filii Aeneae filius progenuit.” Translation: “In truth we Romans and the Britons have the same origin, since both are descended from the Trojan race. Our first father, after the destruction of Troy, was Aeneas; theirs Brutus, whose father was Sylvius, the son of Ascanius, the son of Aeneas.” G. H. Gerould, in his article “King Arthur and Politics,” Speculum, 2 (1927), p. 34, believes that Geoffrey issued his history between 1136 and 1138.

  23. Caxton, Biiii, p. 4.

  24. Argol is here writing in a prefatory address to the reader in Gerard Leigh's (sometimes Legh) The Accedence of Armorie (London: 1562, first publ.; R. Tottel, 1591), sig. A5v: “For this our clime being subiect to Mars … the people naturally must yeeld such effects, as that mighty planet imprinteth in these inferiour bodies his subiects. For as the heauens haue ruled old the earth, an vnmoueable masse, with their beneficiall effects: so in this our region, the fire of honour mounting by martiall prowes, the chiefe aduancer of gentry, must of force so long last in this nation, as matter minstred from aboue maintaineth it.”

  25. Stephen Batman, The Golden Booke of the Leaden Goddes (1577 rpt. New York & London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1976), sig. 6r.

  26. Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy, ed. J. R. Mulryne, in Elizabethan and Jacobean Tragedies: A New Mermaid Anthology, introduced by Brian Gibbons (Tonbridge, Kent: Ernest Benn, 1984).

  27. Leigh, fol. 129v.

  28. Wyrley, p. 135.

  29. Henry Peacham, Minerva Britanna: Or A Garden of Heroycal Devices (London: Wa. Dight, 1612), p. 44.

  30. Rubens' painting “Mars pushed back by Hercules and Minerva” is housed in the Real Academie de San Fernando, Madrid, Spain.

  31. The etching is reproduced as plate 57 in Eric Newton's Tintoretto (Longmans, Green and Co., 1952). Evelyn March Phillipps, in Tintoretto (London: Methuen, 1911), p. 103, compares this print to Tintoretto's “The Three Graces,” and concludes that “The figure ‘Minerva expelling Mars’ while Venice feasts with Peace and Concord, among vines and fruits, has the same happy idyllic note.” See, also: Goltzius' engraving, after Hendrik Goltzius, catalogued by Adam Bartsch, Le Peintre Graveur (Leipzig: J. A. Barth, 1866), p. 122, no. 1: “Pallas assise sous un pavillon au milieu de plusieurs guerriers”; and Vincenzo Cartari's Le Imagini de i Dei de gli Antichi (Venice: 1571), popularized in England through Richard Linche's 1599 translation (published in London), which presents an armed Minerva emerging from Jupiter's brain (opposite p. 458).

  32. Holinshed's Chronicle, ed. Allardyce & Josephine Nicoll (London: Dent, 1965), p. 73 (iii.546): “Rafe Neuill, earle of Westmerland, and as then lord Warden of the marches against Scotland, vnderstanding that the king, vpon a couragious desire to recouer his right in France, would suerlie take the wars in hand, thought good to mooue the king to begin first with Scotland.”

  33. Samuel Daniel, Delia (London: J. Charlwood for Simon Waterson, 1592), sig. G2v.

  34. The comparison is made by John H. Walter, ed., King Henry V (London: Methuen, 1970), note to IV.i.295-8.

  35. Holinshed's Chronicle, p. 78 (iii.552-3).

  36. Christopher Marlowe, The Complete Plays, ed. J. B. Steane.

  37. William M. Hawley, Critical Hermeneutics and Shakespeare's History Plays (New York: Peter Lang, 1992), p. 121.

  38. Paola Pugliatti, Shakespeare the Historian (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996), p. 49.

Bettie Anne Doebler (essay date June 1967)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7358

SOURCE: Doebler, Bettie Anne. “Othello's Angels: The Ars Morendi.ELH 34, no. 2 (June 1967): 156-72.

[In the following essay, Doebler examines Othello's last moments within the tradition of the art of dying well, with particular reference to popular iconography and devotional books. The critic asserts that by framing the Moor's precipitous death within this tradition, Shakespeare intensified the audience's sympathy for the despairing hero.]

The second scene of the last act of Othello invokes the ars moriendi tradition, a popular tradition of comfort for the dying which stands in ironic contrast to Othello's own violent and despairing death. The most familiar prop in the iconography of Renaissance death is the bed, and the bed is the dominant presentational image in this scene, a bed that should probably be both well downstage and as massive as possible while still capable of being rolled forward. In many of the woodcuts that accompany the ars moriendi tracts and in the sixteenth-century paintings of deathbed scenes, the bed is inclined to be massive and rectilinear, in contrast to the curvilinear voluptuous couch hung with tent-like draperies which appears in representations of amorous scenes.1 Supporting this dominant icon of the deathbed is a network of verbal images: especially those associated with angels and devils, the contestants for a dying man's soul.2 There is no great elaboration; the details are commonplaces; but by 1604,3 the projected date of the play's first performance, such a long and popular Christian tradition as the ars moriendi needed only to be hinted at.

The Judaeo-Christian view of life as a trial or a series of temptations is familiar to Medieval and Renaissance scholars. The patterns of temptation and fall, or temptation and victory, appear throughout the history of literature. The great archetypes are, of course, Biblical; the pattern for tragedy to the Renaissance mind was the narrative of Adam and Eve falling to the devil in the Garden; the tragi-comic pattern, however, was exemplified by Job and Christ, both of whom came to ultimate victory over the world, the flesh, and the devil. Some scholars have seen Othello as a type of Adam in his fall through uxoriousness to the temptations of Iago in the main body of the play, but no one has seen Act V, sc. ii, as a parallel temptation and fall underlined by the allusions to the ars moriendi tradition.4 Shakespeare, by the use of this tradition, intensifies the tragic fall of Othello. As he has lived and fallen earlier to temptation, embodied in Iago, so he dies, confronted by his own sins as they seem to be embodied in Iago, falling into the sin of despair and taking his own life. The most explicit allusion to the tradition is made by Gratiano and reminds the audience of the deathbed struggle between good and evil, in which the stakes are very high:

                                        Did he [Brabantio] live now,
This sight would make him do a desperate turne:
          Yea, curse his better Angell from his side,
          And fall to Reprobance.


By the time Gratiano speaks these lines we are conscious that Othello is facing his own struggle with the temptation to despair, suicide, and probable damnation. Critics have found it impossible to believe that Othello is both damned and heroic. On the one hand, those who see his damnation seem to lose sight of the heroic proportion of his struggle and the very human glory of his ending. On the other hand, those who respond to Shakespeare's dramatic portrayal of the struggle try to minimize the theological implications of his suicide. Somewhere in between are the scholars who discuss the play as something of an allegory of fortunate fall; they see many theological allusions to damnation in the language of the play, but at the same time they find in the final scene a structure of redemption, often built upon Desdemona as a Christ-figure and upon Othello's sincere repentance of her murder.5

All three positions seem to me to ignore at some point the actual text of the play as it would be apprehended by a Shakespearean audience. In his professional knowledge of the theater and of the need to communicate immediately to an audience Shakespeare often speaks explicitly. When he is using allusions to suggest a dimension other than that of the particular, he frequently gives his summary clue. In Othello, perhaps his most carefully wrought play, Gratiano, horrified at the murder of Desdemona, brings explicitly into the context the long ars moriendi tradition in his comment on what would have been Brabantio's response to the scene.

The explicit reference to the ars tradition operates dramatically in two ways. It throws into relief the contrast between the tragic suffering of Othello in Act V and the ordinary suffering of one who dies well. By juxtaposing the ideal of dying with something very near its opposite, Shakespeare suggests Othello's damnation. At the same time, however, by showing the heroic intensity of the struggle, and the suffering that results from the recognition of his guilt, against the conventional background of the ars, Shakespeare evokes great dramatic sympathy for the human Othello. Perhaps paradoxically (but not necessarily so) Othello's probable damnation is supported by the references to the ars tradition at the same time that he becomes more dramatically sympathetic in the quality of his suffering.

In order to appreciate fully what the allusion contributes dramatically, one should know something of the ars moriendi tradition. The first work on the theme of dying well which was more than a chapter in a theological treatise was printed in 1450 as a block-book, one which included eleven illustrations and accompanying texts, all printed from wood-blocks. The purpose of the book was to instruct either the religious or layman on the art of dying well when no priest was present. There were two early versions of the text, both widely imitated and reprinted in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, especially in England, France, and Germany. The conventions of the tradition were expressed again and again in both Catholic and Protestant devotional books in the seventeenth century. Although the instruction had its source on the continent, it apparently came into England about 1490 with Caxton's translation of the Tractatus de arte vivendi et moriendi.6

At the heart of the ars tradition is the actual deathbed scene, viewed as a climactic struggle between the forces of evil and the forces of good for the possession of the dying one's soul. In the oldest, simplest, and most iconographic terms, as it is seen in the woodcuts, for example, or in early medieval drama such as The Castle of Perseverance, this struggle takes place between one's Good Angel and one's Bad Angel (or the Devil). The struggle between the two angels centers on five temptations and five inspirations, and the instruction attempts to aid the dying one to overcome the Devil and to die peacefully, with his soul being received out of his mouth and into heaven by the Good Angel.7 Sections other than the temptations were usually included, of course, and sometimes in the seventeenth century the central struggle disappeared so that the instruction consisted of comforts alone.8 Many popular devotional writers, however, such as Cardinal Bellarmine and the Protestant preacher Christopher Sutton have written ars books which show an expansion of the original treatment, but also contain the instruction against temptation.9 Often the first section of an ars book was an extensive treatise on accepting death as the gateway to life and preparing for it; also, there were usually instructions for those attending the sick: questions to be asked, prayers to be said.

In spite of the dramatic sympathy which arises from the recognition by the audience that Othello has not fallen through his own malice but rather, like Adam in the Garden, he has been tempted by the devil through uxoriousness, the audience could hardly fail to see the manner of his dying against the long and popular tradition of the ars moriendi, that by 1604 was deeply ingrained in the English attitude towards death. The counsel of the ars against impatience in the face of suffering or against despair that might lead to suicide could hardly have failed to present a contrast to Othello in his last moments. According to conventional Renaissance theology, Othello dies badly; like Faustus, he does not follow the accumulated wisdom of Christian theology; and, as Roland Frye has said in his Shakespeare and Christian Doctrine, there was nearly universal agreement in the sixteenth century that damnation resulted from suicide committed willfully, consciously, and successfully.10 Shakespeare reminds his audience of this contrast between the ideal death and that of Othello by commonplaces, a technique suggesting that by this time Shakespeare had only to refer to traditional images and themes to bring before the mind's eye of the audience the ordered and optimistic ideal for dying that had come to it through block-books and popular iconography, not to mention the vast quantity of pious treatises that were sold in London every day.11

The constant injunction to carry the thought of death always in one's mind and ever to be preparing for it could hardly have failed to produce a sensitivity to the subject. By far the greater number of the religious devotional books in the ars tradition began with a section on the necessity for accepting death joyfully and preparing one's self for it. As part of this preparation, many writers gave copious advice on how to die to the world. Christopher Sutton's Disce Mori. Learne to Dye (1600) reminds us that an essential part of preparation is self-knowledge:

Well, the perfection of our knowledge is to know God and ourselves: ourselves we best know when we acknowledge our mortal being … by our dying to the world, Christ is said to come and live in us, and by our dying in the world, we are said to go to live with Christ.12

One of the methods used by the devotional writers to encourage meditation on and preparation for death was a warning against just such sudden death as we find in Othello. This warning arose out of the recognition that men desire a leisurely death in order to prepare their souls; even so sophisticated a preacher as Richard Hooker said that the virtuous desire the leisurely death in old age, both for their own joy and for the example that they can give to those around them:

… because the nearer we draw unto God, the more we are oftentimes enlightened with the shining beams of his glorious presence as being then almost in sight, a leisurable departure may in that case bring forth for the good of such as are present that which shall cause them for ever after from the bottom of their hearts to pray, “O let us die the death of the righteous, and let our last end be like theirs.”13

Probably the suddenness and violence of the deaths in the last act of Othello were in themselves enough to arouse horror in an audience warned against being caught unprepared. At the same time, however, that devotional writers warned men to be on guard against sudden death and indeed to aim for a leisurely dying they also warned them not to judge the future of the dying one, presumably because one could not know whether or not the Moriens might have time for repentance between apparent dying and the actual going out of the soul. Erasmus, with characteristic pithiness, says: “For it may be, that he, which for treason, is hanged, drawen, and quartered, passeth into the company of aungelles, where as an nother, the whiche dyeng in a gray friers cote, and relygiously buried, departeth downe into hell.”14

Although even the sophisticated desired a leisurely death, the tradition allowed for a “good” sudden death under one essential condition: that of a good life. Clearly, this is the traditional justification for Desdemona's good death, and, in less ideal terms, for that of Emilia. Neither has time for the traditional preparation, and yet the audience would have seen Desdemona's death in perfect charity as ideal, and Emilia's in heroic truthtelling as something close to ideal.

Clearly, the instructions for deathbed behavior were aimed more surely at those who had doubts about having lived well and therefore envisioned a last epic struggle with the Devil. The tradition was designed to be comforting, especially for those who needed the assurance of a ritual. In fact, the great set of eleven illustrations that accompany the ars block-books narrates what I have already called a “tragi-comedy,” the final scene of which illustrates the happy dying of the sick man, with the vanquished demons uttering execrations as the soul flies off into heavenly bliss. In the other ten illustrations, which comprise the struggle between good and evil, the five temptations of the Devil are those against faith, to despair, to impatience, to vainglory, and to avarice. Alternating with these are the five inspirations of the Good Angel: to faith, against despair, to patience, against vainglory, and against avarice. Central to all of them is the figure of the Moriens on his deathbed. All the representations are crowded with figures; in the temptations the dominant ones are naturally demonic, while in the inspirations the Good Angel takes an important place, as do figures of God, Christ, the Virgin, and the Saints. The effect of the series is not, however, to frighten the reader with the mightiness of the struggle, but rather to reassure him that with the aid of his Good Angel he will be able to overcome the Devil. The Good Angel suggests aids against the Devil in some of the inspirations, in which one sees the vestige of a smile on the face of the Moriens; particularly essential is the patterning of one's death on the Passion of Christ and the remembering of his mercy. The literal expression of this counsel is to fix one's eyes on the figure of Christ on the cross. In the “Inspiration of the Good Angel against Despair,” in the “Inspiration against Avarice,” and in the final scene of the dying well, the figure of Christ on the cross is prominent.15 In “The Craft to know Well to Die,” the following advice is given:

Item [there] ought to be presented to the sick person the image of the crucifix, which alway should be among the sick people, and also the image of our Blessed Lady, and of other saints which the sick man hath most loved and honoured in his life.16

Erasmus even goes to the length of suggesting that the crucifix be laid against the eyes of the sick man.17

Certainly, compared to the danse macabre and even the memento mori which stemmed from that, the ars tradition had a particularly kind and encouraging tone. The writers of the artes moriendi for the most part shunned images of damnation and hellfire and sought to encourage the dying one through the difficult spiritual time of the last illness lest his bodily weakness cause him to fall prey to the Devil's temptations, especially the sin against faith and the sin of despair, both of which might lead to suicide.18 Almost all the authors of these numerous books on the art of dying (which became during the Renaissance a category of the courtesy books) attempted to give very practical instructions. In vivid contrast to the optimistic tone of this instruction, the end of Othello is filled with passion, murder, recrimination, a barrage of temptations for Othello, which he is unable to overcome except in dramatic terms. Anyone familiar with the medieval exempla of good Christians facing their deaths (a tradition which reached at least as far into the seventeenth century as Walton's description of Donne's death) would recognize in Othello's ending a near-antithesis of the ideal. But certainly the ironic contrast is the point. Shakespeare is using the order and tradition to underline the tragedy.

Lest one think that the conventions of the ars had lost their force by the beginning of the seventeenth century, one should remember that the publication of devotional literature was increasing in the early seventeenth century with the Counter-Reformation. Approximately half the books published in England since the beginning of printing had had religious titles, not to mention the many others without religious titles which nevertheless expressed an essentially religious point of view.19 Clearly the literate Elizabethan was more theologically sensitive than scholars have realized until recently. More directly, there was a great quantity of writing on the specific theme of the preparation for death; both in books of popular devotion such as those of Perkins, Becon, and Sutton, and in the more intellectual books of meditation that came into England with the continental books influenced by the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola.20 To this quantitative argument should be added common knowledge about seventeenth century life: the plague, the very high rate of mortality in childbirth and of contagious disease, and the certainty by parents that a high percentage of their children would not live to make old bones.

The popularity of the theme of preparation for death had led, of course, to several levels of writing on the subject: the old ars tradition, with the focus on the struggle, symbolic and visual; the more intellectualized books of meditation; and pious treatises that tended to focus more on practical instructions for setting one's property in order than upon the great spiritual crisis. Shakespeare, with characteristic sense of artistic potential, chose to use the old tradition with its focus on the central deathbed struggle, a tradition which was still very much alive, especially in the popular superstitions of the day. Although one cannot speculate very far about his reasons for choosing this particular strain of the tradition, they no doubt had something to do with the visual or iconic qualities which make it especially appealing for the stage.

This visual quality in the ars suggests Shakespeare's presentational use of the tradition. Inevitably, one recalls the woodcuts mentioned above, which had appeared first with the block-books but had been reproduced and imitated elsewhere up through the sixteenth century. The excellence of the representations suggests that they would have imprinted themselves on the imagination of all who saw them, and the quantity of their reproduction supports that suggestion. There is evidence that originally many considered them central to the ars and merely accompanied by a text of explanation and instruction. At least we know from the closing lines of the introduction of one of the early block-books that the author intended the words and pictures to work together to teach a man how to die.21 Since these books were not designed primarily for the clergy but, rather, predominantly for the uneducated layman, one may deduce the primary importance of the illustrations.

For these reasons, one may speculate that the visual dominance of the bed in Act V was for Shakespeare's audience pervasively suggestive of the deathbed scene in the ars. Also in visual terms, the gathering of the central characters about the bed as the scene progresses, first with the entrance of Emilia, after Desdemona's almost-death, then with the entrance of Montano, Gratiano, and Iago after 1. 207, with the final entrance of Lodovico, Cassio, Montano, and Officers, suggests the visually crowded woodcuts, in which the Moriens is surrounded by friends and foes of a supernatural or symbolic nature as well as by members of his family.

In addition to its suggestion by the bed, the art of dying informs the structure of the scene. Scene ii is divided into two major parallel sections, the first of which is the murder and “good” death of Desdemona and the second the discovery by Othello of his monstrous mistake and his consequent suicide, or theologically “bad” death. In the first section, even a contemporary audience agreed that Desdemona's death was extremely affecting.22 This is true, not only because of her innocence and loveliness but because in exemplifying the ideal of Christian forgiveness, she brings into the context of the play a great body of emotional associations with a good death. During the first part of the scene, before he is overcome by jealousy and rage, Othello behaves as just avenger. Still softened by his first sight of Desdemona asleep and the kiss with which he has wakened her, he himself remembers the advice of the ars tradition that the soul should not depart out of the world unprepared; he admonishes her to think on any crime that she has not as yet confessed because he would not kill her “unprepared Spirit,” her soul (V.ii.37-38). A few lines later he utters the conventional phrase: “Thinke on thy sinnes” (V.ii.49). When, however, Desdemona does not confess, he advises her not to commit the sin of perjury, as she is on her deathbed (V.ii.63-64). The verbal identification of the bed with the deathbed is, of course, a further support for the visual icon of the bed in the scene. The seeming peace, however, of the scene, with its echoes of traditional phrases and kindly advice, is merely a thin overlay for the increasing tension as Othello grows increasingly angry at what he believes to be Desdemona's dishonesty. As the scene builds, Othello shifts his role from that of fatherly adviser or confessor to that of the accusing Bad Angel of the ars series, too overcome by his own passion at the end to allow her even one prayer. Othello, however, retains the sympathy of the audience by his attempt to keep Desdemona from suffering at the end when she seems slow to die.

The second part of the scene begins with Emilia's entrance and the discovery which almost immediately turns her into an accuser. The first section of the scene, Desdemona's good death, is linked with the second by her poignant and momentary waking, which critics have long seen as an emblem of perfect Christian forgiveness and a final attempt at reconciliation. Asked by Emilia who has committed the murder, she replies: “No body: I my selfe, farewell: / Commend me to my kinde Lord: oh farewell,” (V.ii.155-156). Ironically Othello remarks: “She's like a Liar gone to burning hell” (V.ii.161). He sees her as having damned herself by lying on her deathbed. Only as the scene progresses would the audience in its recognition of the dramatic necessity of Othello's death begin to see Othello take the place of Desdemona as the Moriens. During the earlier part of the scene one remains still conscious of Othello as demonic in his murder of Desdemona; this is underlined in one sense by Emilia's line: “Oh the more Angell she, and you the black/er [sic] Divell” (V.ii.163-164). The veriest commonplace of commonplaces,23 the opposition nevertheless may suggest the further implication that Desdemona as Good Angel has sought to save Othello by one inspiration and that in killing her, he has played the role of Bad Angel against himself. His shift to Moriens becomes stronger when Gratiano makes the ars moriendi tradition explicit about a hundred lines later in his reference to Brabantio, already cited:

                                        Did he live now,
This sight would make him do a desperate turne:
Yea, curse his better Angell from his side,
And fall to Reprobance


Gratiano is glad that Brabantio is dead because the sight of Desdemona murdered would have brought him to despair, a state which would cause him to curse his Good Angel from his side and fall into reprobance, or reprobation, defined by the OED as “a state of rejection by God,” and thus he would be ordained to eternal misery.24 Here the text makes explicit for the audience one of the strongest warnings of the ars tradition, the avoidance of despair and suicide.

Gratiano's speech is extremely important in several ways. First it makes clear that Shakespeare is thinking of the ars tradition and therefore not using the references to angels and devils in a loose metaphorical way. Secondly, through implied analogy it helps to shift the focus of the audience to Othello as the dying one, even though he has not yet begun to die physically. Thirdly, and perhaps this overlaps with the second effect, the speech sums up symbolically what Othello has done and foreshadows the tragedy of what he will do. He has by killing her cursed Desdemona, his Good Angel, from his side, and the full revelation of his sin in doing so eventually leads him to the despair which ends in the suicide seen by Renaissance theology as resulting in damnation. Suicide itself is of course not mentioned explicitly in Gratiano's speech, but the connection between despair and suicide was very close by Shakespeare's time.25 For this reason in the ars tradition there was almost an inordinate emphasis on this temptation and the means of overcoming it. In some measure this explains the increasing emphasis in devotional literature on the comforts for the dying. In the little manual attributed to Luther, for example, the whole notion of the great struggle has disappeared, and the book is wholly composed of comforting Bible verses, meditations, and prayers.26

That Iago parallels the Devil of the ars is suggested in a number of places, both before and during Act V. The association is most obviously prepared for by Iago's lines early in the play:

                                        Divinitie of hell,
When divels will the blackest sinnes put on,
They do suggest at first with heavenly shewes,
As I do now


Critics have long recognized the quality of Iago's character as diabolic in its love of evil and deception. Othello's own superstitious response to the depth of deception which Iago has practiced upon him is an explicit suggestion in Act V itself: “I look down towards his feet; but that's a Fable / If that thou bee'st a Divell, I cannot kill thee” (V.ii.350-351). One should not press it too far, but one can hardly help remembering that Othello finally only wounds him. The association between Iago and the Devil is underlined a few lines after the reference to his cloven hoof by Othello's calling him demi-devil and asking him why he has ensnared his soul and body (V.ii.368-369). In terms of the deathbed scene of the ars Iago becomes for Othello the cause and embodiment of the sins of faithlessness and jealousy that have led him to murder and despair.27 The discovery of Iago's perfidy is the means by which Othello confronts his own sins. One remembers the temptation to despair in the woodcuts which shows the Moriens surrounded by six devils pointing to the sins of his past; one of the six carries a scroll which bears the inscription: “Ecce peccata tua,” or “Behold thy sins.” The others point to various representations of those he has sinned against by fornication, avarice, and murder.28

The tragic force of the revelation of his own sins finds Othello without any of the supports that are recommended by the ars tradition. The leisurely deathbed with its time for meditation and repentance is impossible. Desdemona, after one attempt at inspiration, is dead. There are no friends about Othello to encourage him by mentioning the thief on the cross or other examples of sinful men who died saved. Indeed, before her death, Emilia lashes out with fury to judge his guilt. Even as the truth is revealed and Iago shown to be the villain, there is among those present pity for Othello's rashness, but no real comfort for his grief and no mention of Christ's mercy. Because the devilish Iago remains largely inarticulate through the scene, one feels that Othello's despair stems primarily from his own confrontation of his sins.

Othello's despair seems inevitable in these circumstances. It becomes obvious in several speeches and, of course, in the suicide itself. Othello remarks after he wounds Iago but does not kill him: “I am not sorry neither, Il'd have thee live: / For in my sense, 'tis happiness to die” (V.ii.355-356). These lines are ironic in terms of the ars tradition in which one well-prepared should be happy to die. The irony is given its despairing cast, however, by Othello's previous speech:

Heere is my journies end, heere is my butt
And verie Sea-marke of my utmost Saile.
Do you go backe dismaid? 'Tis a lost feare:
Man but a Rush against Othello's breast,
And he retires. Where should Othello go?
Now: how dost thou looke now? Oh ill-Starr'd wench,
Pale as thy Smocke: when we shall meete at compt,
This looke of thine will hurle my Soule from Heaven,
And Fiends will snatch at it. Cold, cold, my Girle?
Even like thy Chastity. O cursed, cursed Slave!
Whip me ye Divels,
From the possession of this Heavenly sight:
Blow me about in windes, roast me in Sulphure,
Wash me in steepe-downe gulfes of Liquid fire.
Oh Desdemon! dead Desdemon: dead. Oh, oh!


Not only does Othello see himself cast out from heaven, as his earlier lines foreshadowed: “O, I were damn'd beneath all depth in hell: / But that I did proceed upon just grounds / To this extremity” (V.ii.171-173), but he also desires to be cast away from the vision of Desdemona's innocence. At the “compt,” the Last Judgment, the sight of Desdemona will hurl him to hell. In spite of his use of what was at one time presumably purgatorial imagery of winds and fiery gulfs, the overall suggestion is that of hell.29

It is only a short step from the sense that Othello's sin is unforgiveable to suicide. One is reminded of the figure of the demon in the woodcut temptation against faith; the demon has his right hand upon the shoulder of the Moriens and his scroll reads: “Interfecias te ipsum,” or “Kill thyself.” But before he commits suicide, Othello makes his dying speech, his final justification and one that dramatically redeems him. One must say with Mr. Siegel that all the imagery of the play and certainly that of the final scene suggest Othello's damnation. This is not to say, however, that he cannot remain humanly sympathetic, or more accurately, tragically heroic.30 The dignity of his final speech surely projects the image of a man who was potentially a great hero and thereby a great loss in his tragic fall. That the suicide is conventionally unacceptable is suggested by the comments of Lodovico and Gratiano:

Oh bloody period
All that is spoke, is marr'd


That the dramatic dimension, the human dimension, takes emotional precedence in the play, however, is shown in Cassio's comment, which comes in the last and most emphatic position: “This did I feare, but thought he had no weapon: / For he was great of heart” (V.ii.435-436). Dramatically, one's tragic sympathy remains with Othello and the strong indication that he is damned only intensifies the tragic loss of potentiality.

Pointing out these theological commonplaces of Renaissance thought should not imply that Shakespeare's audience would be preoccupied with eschatological considerations while it viewed the last act of Othello. The play is not an allegory, and one must agree with Roland Frye that Shakespeare is primarily concerned with the now, the ethical present.31 Shakespeare's audience was no doubt immediately involved in the murder of Desdemona, the discovery by Othello of Iago's diabolical scheme, and the recognition of Othello's own guilt that leads him to suicide. At the same time, however, remembering what scholars have learned from Panofsky and Wind about the Renaissance ability to move back and forth readily between the particular and the universal, one can hardly doubt that the audience was from the beginning aware of universal implications, one of which was that Othello was playing the climactic scene of his life in the scene of his dying. The great bell of the contemptus mundi tradition had already rung so insistently across the ages that men knew the scallop shell of the pilgrim as the emblem of life. Erasmus had sounded the subordination of this life to the next in the most conventional phrasing:

We be wayfarynge men in this worlde, not inhabytants, we be as straungers in Innes (or to speke it better) in bouthes or tentes, we lyve not in our countrey. This holle lyfe is nothing but a rennynge to deathe, and that very shorte, but death is the gate of everlastynge lyfe.32

It is difficult to define precisely the effect of the allusions to the ars moriendi in the final scene of Othello. Clearly the scene is not an allegory of dying badly. The suggestions are neither frequent nor elaborate. It seems to me consistent with Shakespeare's artistry, however, that he deepen the emotional response of his audience to a particular image of life by suggesting analogues from experience and history. In this case the introduction of the ideal for dying well sharpens and universalizes the emotional response of the audience to the “tragic loading of the bed.”


  1. See L. J. Ross, “The Use of a ‘Fit-Up’ Booth in Othello,Shakespeare Quarterly, XII, no. 4 (Autumn, 1961), 359-370, for an interesting discussion of the staging of Othello. Although I am not entirely convinced that a booth was used, I should agree that it seems highly unlikely that the bed was originally in the inner stage. In the sixteenth century the four-poster was the bed par excellence with a paneled tester on four posts—the most important piece of furniture in the private rooms of the house and as a valuable inheritance passed on from one generation to another. See The Tudor Period: 1599-1603, eds. Ralph Edwards and L. G. G. Ramsey (London, 1956), p. 37. For the iconographic distinction between the “family” bed, the childbirth bed or the deathbed, and the bed of luxury, see Gabriel Chappuys, Figures de la Bible (Lyon, 1582). In this illustrated Bible there is only one bed of luxury, curved and voluptuous, belonging to Potiphar's wife, while there are numerous representations of the massive, rectilinear deathbeds, or, upon occasion, beds of birth.

  2. These images belong both to the early medieval drama of the Psychomachia and to the non-dramatic and visual tradition of the ars. I should contend, however, that the popularity and pervasiveness of the ars instruction would make associations with the tradition more immediate to the Shakespearean audience.

  3. E. K. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage, III (Oxford, 1923), 487. All references to the play will be from the following edition: William Shakespeare, “Othello,” The Variorum, ed. Horace Howard Furness (Philadelphia, 1886).

  4. R. N. Hallstead, “Idolatrous Love,” accepted for future publication by The Shakespeare Quarterly. Hallstead argues strongly that Othello's jealousy arises from idolatrous love, but he sees the suicide as the final act of penance.

  5. Paul N. Siegel, “The Damnation of Othello,” PMLA, LXVIII (December, 1953), 1068-1079. Cf. Kenneth O. Myrick, “The Theme of Damnation in Shakespearean Tragedy,” Studies in Philology, XXXVIII (April, 1941), 221-245, who does not see Othello as damned. An example of the third point of view may be seen in Irving Ribner, Patterns in Shakespearian Tragedy (New York, 1960).

  6. See Sister Mary Catharine O'Connor, The Art of Dying Well (New York, 1942), for the history of the ars tradition. Though I have read many of the books within the tradition at the University of Wisconsin Library, at the Newberry Library, and at the Folger Shakespeare Library, I am indebted to Sister Mary Catharine for her historical survey. I am also grateful to Miss Helen C. White, English Devotional Literature, 1600-1640 (Madison, 1931), for much of my understanding of popular devotion in England.

  7. The Ars Moriendi (Editio Princeps, circa 1450), Facs. ed., ed. W. Harry Rylands (London, 1881). The book contains twelve leaves without signatures with illustrations scattered throughout. Dr. William Thomas has described one of the stained glass windows at the great church at Malvern as representing this one of the ars scenes in the fifteenth century. In the top part of the window a monk was kneeling with demons behind him, and in the lower part a man lay on his deathbed with demons trying to seize his soul as it issued from his mouth in the shape of a child, while the Good Angel tried to protect it. G. McN. Rushforth, Medieval Christian Imagery (Oxford, 1937), p. 307.

  8. See Launcelot Andrews, The Private Devotions and Manual for the Sick (London, 1839). No translator is given.

  9. Robert Bellarmine, The Art of Dying Well, tr. C. E. of the Society of Jesus, sec. ed. (n. p., 1622); one illustration of the hold on the popular imagination of the ars tradition is suggested by the practice of recording the deaths of the great or popular men of the day; this little book contains an account of Bellarmine's sickness, death, and burial in Rome. See also Christopher Sutton, Disce Mori. Learne to Dye, eds. Edward H. Dewar and Charles Daman (London, 1858).

  10. Roland Mushat Frye, Shakespeare and Christian Doctrine (Princeton, 1963), p. 25. In Thomas Becon, “The Sicke Mannes Salve,” Works, ed. Rev. John Ayre, IV (Cambridge, 1844), 165, we see the traditional use of Cain as an illustration of one who fell into desperation, believing his sin was too great to be forgiven, and was damned. For full discussion of Dr. Faustus in relation to the ars and the question of despair, see Beach Langston, “Marlowe's Faustus and the Ars Moriendi Tradition,” A Tribute to George Coffin Taylor (Richmond, 1952), pp. 148-167.

  11. Louis B. Wright, Middle-Class Culture in Elizabethan England (Chapel Hill, 1935), p. 235.

  12. Christopher Sutton, Disce Mori, p. 6. This little book was published first in 1600. Sutton's family was in high favor with Queen Elizabeth. See also King Lear, ed. Alfred Harbage (Baltimore, 1958), I.i.292-293: “… yet he hath ever but / slenderly known himself.”

  13. Richard Hooker, “The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity,” Works, ed. the Rev. John Keble, 7th ed., rev. by the Very Rev. R. W. Church, and the Rev. F. Paget (Oxford, 1888), I, Bk. V, ch. xlvi, pp. 195-197.

  14. Desiderius Erasmus, Preparation to Deathe, no tr. (n. p., 1534), sig. D2v.

  15. The Ars Moriendi, Rylands.

  16. Frances M. M. Comper, ed., “The Craft to know Well to Die,” The book of the Craft of Dying (London, 1917), pp. 77-78. Réau also notes in Iconographie de L'Art Chretien (Paris, 1957), II, p. 2, p. 657, the continuing popularity of the injunction to model one's death on that of Christ: he mentions the thirty-nine stamps attributed to Romeyn de Hooghe which illustrate the death of the Franciscan David de la Vigne. Each scene in the process of dying is paralleled by an episode from the Passion of Christ.

  17. Erasmus, Preparation, sig. F3v. The text of this work also appears in Latin in a book by Erasmus and George Aemylius, Imagines mortis (Cologne, 1555), in which the text accompanies some of the plates of the danse macabre.

  18. By the end of the sixteenth century the temptations against faith and to despair seem to have merged in the popular mind. The point is often made in the devotional literature that despair indicates a lack of faith in the mercy of God. For excellent discussions of despair, see Susan Snyder, “The Left Hand of God: Despair in Medieval and Renaissance Tradition,” Studies in the Renaissance, XII (1965), 18-59; and Kathrine Koller, “Art, rhetoric, and holy dying in the ‘Faerie queene’ with special reference to the Despair canto,” Studies in Philology, LXI (April, 1964), 128-139. Since Miss Koller is the leading scholar in the United States on the ars moriendi tradition, this article summarizes a wealth of background materials. In the original ars woodcuts, however, it is the temptation against faith which shows the demon with the scroll advising the Moriens to kill himself; lower in the picture is the representation of a man about to cut his throat. One wonders how closely the knife might be associated with suicide; Sir Trevisan in the Faerie Queene has a rope around his neck, but the Red Crosse knight almost takes his life with a dagger.

    Lewis Bayley, in the extremely popular devotional book, The Practice of Pietie, 12th ed. (London, 1620), pp. 649-717, has a meditation against despair, but no separate one against loss of faith.

  19. Frye, Shakespeare and Christian Doctrine, p. 63.

  20. One has only to note the frequency of editions of popular devotional books to see evidence of this quantity. See for the discussion of the art of meditation and its influence Louis Martz, The Poetry of Meditation (New Haven, 1954).

  21. Sister Mary Catharine O'Connor, The Art of Dying, p. 44.

  22. We even have a Latin letter given in an article by Geoffrey Tillotson, in “Othello and the Alchemist at Oxford in 1610,” The Times Literary Supplement (July 20, 1933), p. 494, which describes the way in which the audience was moved, especially by Desdemona's death scene: “cum in lecto decumbens spectantium misericordiam ipso vultu imploraret.”

  23. In “The Lamentation of the Creature,” Miss Comper's modern printing of one of the ars texts in the Book of the Craft of Dying, p. 139, we may see a characteristic use of the opposition:

    The Complaint of the Dying Creature to the Good Angel

    O my GOOD ANGEL, to whom our Lord took me to keep, where be thee now? Me thinketh ye should be here, and answer for me; for the dread of death distroubleth me, so that I cannot answer for myself. Here is my bad angel and is one of my chief accursers, with regions of fiends with him. I have no creature to answer for me. Alas it is an heavy case!

  24. The Oxford English Dictionary, VIII (reprinted 1961), p. 488. The dictionary gives as one of its illustrations the following quotation from Sir Thomas More, “Confutation of Tindale,” Works, p. 815: “To fall in Despicions upon Gods elecion, … and eternall sentence of reprobation.” Apparently the term was used often in opposition to election.

  25. Traditional advice against suicide is given by the popular preacher, Christopher Sutton, in Disce Mori, in a section entitled: “An admonition for all such as find themselves troubled with evil motions, to commit faithless and fearful attempts against themselves.” In the third paragraph of the section Sutton makes explicit the connection between despair and suicide:

    Abridge the time we may not, we must not, for all the disgraces, and injuries, and obloquies, the crosses and losses this world can lay upon us: fie upon that discontentment that should make any cowardly to run away, or distrustfully to give over his standing, before he be called by the general of the field: fie upon that despair that should make any cast away themselves, and forget they have souls to save

    (p. 252).

  26. Martin Luther, Every Dayes Sacrifice (London, 1607).

  27. In Bayley's The Practice of Pietie, 12th ed. (London, 1620), p. 694, the strategy of the devil is commented upon:

    It is found by continuall experience, that neere the time of death, (when the Children of God are weakest) then Sathan makes the greatest flourish of his strength: and assailes them with his strongest temptations. … And therefore he will now bestirre himselfe as much as he can, and labour to set before their eyes all the grosse sins which ever they committed, and the Judgements of God which are due unto them: thereby to drive them if hee can, to despaire; which is a grievouser sinne then all the sinnes that they committed, or he can accuse them of.

  28. The Ars Moriendi, ed. Rylands, sig. B3v. Cf. also Hieronimus Bosch, “The Death of the Miser.” The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C.

  29. John E. Hankins, “The Pains of the Afterworld: Fire, Wind, and Ice in Milton and Shakespeare,” PMLA, LXXI (June, 1956), 482-495. This article, on the basis of some sound background materials, distinguishes between purgatorial and hell imagery, but my own reading indicates that in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries sometimes the distinction is not made.

  30. Siegel, “The Damnation of Othello,” 1068-1079. Ribner in Patterns in Shakespearian Tragedy is, I think, recognizing this dramatic redemption in his argument that though Othello dies expecting damnation, Desdemona as a symbol of mercy has prepared the audience for his salvation. This argument, although I see the critical problem of the final dignity of Othello that it seeks to answer, does not, I think, take cognizance of the strength of Renaissance theological opinion on suicide.

  31. Frye, Shakespeare and the Christian Doctrine, p. 63.

  32. Erasmus, Preparation to Deathe, sig. A4v.

Bridget Gellert (essay date January 1970)

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SOURCE: Gellert, Bridget. “The Iconography of Melancholy in the Graveyard Scene of Hamlet.Studies in Philology 67, no. 1 (January 1970): 57-66.

[In the following essay, Gellert maintains that the first half of Act V, scene i of Hamlet, while the prince meditates on Yorick's skull and jests with the gravediggers, serves as an emblematic representation of melancholy as both a disorder and a sign of imaginative thinking.]

It is now increasingly recognized that several of Shakespeare's scenes have iconographic or symbolic significances in addition to, and sometimes more important than, their contributions to the development of action.1 These scenes establish tableaux that function as condensations or epitomes of central themes of the plays in which they occur. This device, it has been noted, is fairly common in the history plays.2 In Richard II, for example, the king's physical descent from the walls of Flint Castle is an elaborate visual rendering of the political, moral, and tragic implications of his situation. The same play also contains one of the most elaborately emblematic scenes in all Shakespeare, the gardener's scene (III, iv, 24 ff.), whose setting and characters embody the metaphoric connection between garden and commonwealth that is verbally established throughout the play. The device extends to comedy and tragedy also, and many examples could be cited. The black hole in which Malvolio is imprisoned in Twelfth Night is “dark as ignorance, though ignorance were as dark as hell” (IV, ii, 44); it is a visual equivalent of the mental state of madness or foolishness that is being depicted.

The graveyard scene in Hamlet provides a kind of emblematic epitome for several of the important themes in the play. The contrast between appearance and reality, for example, is epitomized by the discrepancy between “my lady's painting” and the reality of the skull,3 just as the presence and talk of rotting bodies renders in a different mode the idea of decay and disease, the idea of Denmark as “rotten.”4 What has not been noticed is that the subject of melancholy, used throughout the play to define the distance between Hamlet and the other characters, is here also represented in a highly condensed verbal and pictorial form. The general association of graveyards and melancholy would, of course, have been obvious to Shakespeare's audience; the graveyard quite naturally creates the kind of melancholy atmosphere that Hamlet briefly invokes earlier in the play:

'Tis now the very witching time of night,
When churchyards yawn, and hell itself breathes out
Contagion to this world.

(III, ii, 378-80)5

Graves and graveyards were traditionally the subject of melancholy dreams like those described by Nashe in The Terrors of the Night, a work that discussed those qualities of churchyards, their affinity with melancholy and night, that made them the fitting setting for tragedy.

The concept of melancholy in the Renaissance was complex, however, as can be seen even in the multiple references of this scenic tableau, and an important basic duality in it has now been made familiar to us by scholars of the subject.6 On the one hand, Galenic medical tradition defined melancholy, the humor whose coldness and dryness were inimical to life, as the most difficult of the temperaments and, at worst, a dangerous disease requiring alleviations and cures. On the other hand, by extension and elaboration of an Aristotelian maxim,7 melancholy was considered the temperament of people exceptionally gifted in politics and the arts. Saturn was the planet most closely associated with the melancholy temperament, and it shared in the contradiction that was central to the idea of melancholy. “Children of Saturn” were both blessed and cursed; they could have unusual gifts of contemplation, but these were inextricably bound up with their solitude and their alienation from those around them.8 The professions and activities governed by Saturn included the highest and the lowest, extreme wealth as well as extreme poverty, authority and command on the one hand, and lowly services like gravedigging on the other.

If the first part of the graveyard scene is viewed as a kind of Saturnian-melancholy emblem, its center is the figure of the thinker, turning the world over for his own inspection, considering the vanity of all human activity against the perspective provided by the skull that he holds. It is in this kind of pose that personifications of Melancholy, whether male or female, were often portrayed in paintings and engravings, and the picture of Hamlet in the pose of the melancholy thinker, meditating on objects of death and especially on the skull of the court jester, contains the same amalgamation of the medieval “vanity” motif with the more modern one of Melancholia which was often seen in the pictorial arts.9 Where the medieval skull, frequently meditated on by saints, had pointed a moral about the shortness of life and the transitoriness of all things, the melancholic meditating on a skull was cultivating and dramatizing his own sensibility as much as pointing to any objective lesson.10

Examples of personified figures of Melancholy brooding over skulls can be found in the collection in Saturn as well as elsewhere: an engraved portrait of a pensive young nobleman with a skull in his hand, made by Lucas van Leyden in 1519, may well be a representation of this subject.11 The seventeenth-century painting of “Meditation” or “Melancholy” by Domenico Feti is another, more certain example.12 Here a female figure sits resting her forehead on one hand and looks down at a skull; the objects around her include broken columns, a broken torso of a satyr, some books, an hour glass, and artistic implements; a dog is chained up in the corner. The purpose of the picture is to show the vanity of all the human activity surveyed by the thinking figure. An etching of Melancholy by Benedetto Castiglione13 is even more relevant to the scene from Hamlet. In this picture, a female figure sits with a skull and a musical scroll in her lap, with various artistic and musical instruments, emblematic also of distractions from melancholy, around her. Behind her are a cat and a chained dog. The inscription at the top of the etching, “Vbi Inletabilitas ibi Virtus” makes the subject matter very clear. The unhappiness of the melancholic, in fact his incapacity for being cheered up, are the conditions of virtue.

In Hamlet, the tableau in which the central figure is the emblematic one of the melancholy man meditating upon a skull is filled out, visually and verbally, by a group of human figures, animals, occupations and professions traditionally associated with melancholy. The gravediggers represent and talk about most of the professions that were considered to be under the jurisdiction of Saturn; their particular work, gravedigging, was one of the lowly Saturnian and melancholic professions,14 and the earth in which they dig and of which they sing was the element particularly associated with melancholy and with Saturn. The pick-axe of which the Clown sings (V, i, 91) was occasionally Saturn's instrument,15 and almost all of the professions mentioned in the Clowns' quibbles were governed by Saturn: the gardeners and ditchers (V, i, 30), the mason, shipwright and carpenter who figure in the riddle about gravemaking (V, i, 41 ff.), the gallows-maker, and the tanners (V, i, 162-8).16 The lowly activities mentioned by the Clowns provide a counterpoint to Hamlet's meditations, even while they amplify the frame of reference that is central to the whole scene.

While the Clowns discuss and represent the lower Saturnian professions, Hamlet himself speaks of the higher ones: the politician who “would circumvent God” (V, i, 77-9); the lawyer with his cases, tenures and tricks (V, i, 95-8); and the greatest commanders of earthly power: Caesar and Alexander (V, i, 201-10). Melancholics, even when not endowed with the true wisdom that could apprehend the hidden (sometimes occult) reality behind appearances, were thought to have a kind of experiential shrewdness that made them astute politicians, and they had a talent for wielding power.17 The law, especially with the negative connotations that Hamlet gives it (V, i, 95 ff.), also had a connection with melancholy: extensive litigation was thought to be both a cause and an effect of the melancholy disposition.18 The only profession mentioned by Hamlet that was not specifically a Saturnian one is the courtier's, and even this figure is presented in his most political aspect, precisely the aspect of courtiership on which Burton was to expatiate in his preface to the Anatomy of Melancholy.19

The perspective for the activities that are discussed in the graveyard is that of mutability; this was also the particular province of Saturn, who was closely associated with the idea of time.20 The scythe or sickle that he carried was a symbol of the connection, and the story that he devoured his own children was interpreted allegorically to mean that time was the destroyer of what it had created. In addition to his association with time Saturn also represented the sciences of measurement, and often the two went together. Clocks and dials were part of the paraphernalia of Saturn, and the hour glass is prominent on the wall behind Dürer's figure of Melencolia. The measurement of time and the genesis of historical thinking were therefore both attributed to Saturn. As Cartari put it: “de Saturne l'histoire commença d'avoir voix, & d'estre cognue: car sans doubte au paravant que les temps fussent distinguez elle ne povuoit estre sinon muete & incognue.”21

The subject of time in its relationship to personal and general history, as well as to death, enters into the songs and dialogue of the scene. The Clown sings a song about the passage of time and the onset of age and of death:

But age, with his stealing steps,
          Hath clawed me in his clutch,
And hath shipped me intil the land,
          As if I had never been such.

(V, i, 71-4)

Hamlet meditates on the vanity of all human activities, because death is the end of them, and he and the Clown discuss in some detail the length of time required for the decomposition of a body.

The idea of historical time has another kind of importance here as well: Hamlet's personal life is now related to the sequence of public events that have been alluded to in the play, and the gravedigger is a measurer in this regard also:

How long hast thou been a grave-maker?
1 CLO:
Of all the days i' th' year, I came to't that day our last King Hamlet overcame Fortinbras.
How long is that since?
1 CLO:
Cannot you tell that? Every fool can tell that; it was that very day that young Hamlet was born. … I have been sexton here, man and boy, thirty years.

(V, i, 137-57)

It has been said that Hamlet suffers from a disoriented time sense throughout the first part of the play; one of the many ways in which he is cut off from those around him is that he cannot and does not want to adjust to their time scheme.22 In his first soliloquy, for instance, he seems far more appalled by the speed with which his mother has remarried than by the incestuous nature of her marriage, and he expresses the disproportion between his feelings about time and the actual succession of events in a highly exaggerated form to Ophelia during the play scene (II, ii, 120-30). The dialogue with the grave-maker in which Hamlet is placed objectively in time and in relation to his father is the antithesis of the subjectively dislocated time sense we have seen earlier. Hamlet's age is presented with the same detachment as the information about the length of time it will take a tanner's corpse to rot.

Not only death as the end of all, but especially death by suicide (Ophelia's questionable death by drowning), dominates the conversation in the graveyard, and suicide too was the particular province of Saturn, as well as the special preoccupation of melancholics. The work of the “gallows-maker,” whose craft and product are discussed by the Clowns (V, i, 43-9), was shown in many representations of the children of Saturn,23 for the gallows were associated not only with criminals (who were Saturnian types) but also with suicide: in at least one picture of the gallows-tree the victim is a suicide stringing up his own rope.24 Death by drowning, Ophelia's particular fate, was claimed by Chaucer's Saturn as part of his prerogative and power.25

The scene in the graveyard consists of two main parts, with the arrival of the funeral procession introducing the second, less emblematic portion. At the very end of this part, however, Hamlet's weary and ironic couplet, after his unhappy confrontation with Laertes, can be seen as reiterating in symbolic terms the negative connotations of melancholy as a disease or evil which have been implicit throughout the play:

Let Hercules himself do what he may,
The cat will mew, and dog will have his day.

(V, i, 285-6)

The dog and the cat were two of the most common animal symbols of melancholy; as we saw, they were both represented in pictures of Melancholy like that of Castiglione, and Shakespeare himself elsewhere mentions the cat in connection with melancholy.26 The meaning of the couplet appears to be that even if Hamlet were to attain the heroic stature of Hercules, he cannot entirely overcome the worst kinds of melancholy around him, the melancholy that is involved in the animal imagery applied to Claudius: “a paddock … a bat, a gib” (III, iv, 190).27 The cat and the dog symbolize the objectively evil state of a world that even the hero's efforts cannot correct. Melancholy in its undesirable sense becomes connected with the metaphoric disease which is central to the play and in which all of the characters are involved. Not only has the disease of melancholy infected Hamlet with grief and a desire for death, but it is also identified with such characters as Claudius, who in a sense is a disease or “canker” (V, ii, 69). Even if Shakespeare's audience did not know that almost all the diseases mentioned in the play were specifically related to melancholy,28 there is an unmistakable metaphoric connection in the very notion of disease.

The graveyard scene has often been regarded as a turning point in the play; Hamlet's disposition after his return from the sea journey can be seen as expressing his release from the disordered thought and behavior (partly associated with melancholy in its unfavorable aspects) which he has exhibited earlier.29 The scene marks a change in the relationship of Hamlet's moods to his situation: whereas earlier his levity was in contrast with the gravity of what was taking place (his behavior during the first encounter with the Ghost, or his jokes about Polonius's corpse are examples), the discrepancy between his situation and his reaction to it has now disappeared. His first remark on entering the graveyard is tantamount to a denial of his own behavior in earlier episodes: “Has this fellow no feeling of his business, that he sings in grave-making?” (V, i, 64). It is now the Clowns who do the fooling, although the verbal quibbling they indulge in, based on their inability or unwillingness to understand what their interlocutor is saying, is not in fact very different from Hamlet's more deliberate quibbling earlier. Yorick's skull, the focus of the early part of the graveyard scene, is the most visible token of Hamlet's abandonment of the comic mode. His meditations about death and the passing of all things include thoughts about the transitoriness of the jokes and antics of the court jester. To the extent that Hamlet himself had been fulfilling the role of jester,30 the scene is a comment, visual and verbal, on the whole “antic disposition.”

Since melancholy was associated not only with disordered behavior but also with contemplative thought, the emblematic treatment accorded it in the graveyard scene is appropriate as a way of confirming the portrait of Hamlet as a thinker, already established in earlier parts of the play by means of thoughtful soliloquies. The iconographic features of the scene, moreover, give an added dimension to the ordering of the imagination that it dramatized at this point—the new consonance between the hero's vision and reality. In conversation with Horatio Hamlet now defends the imaginative faculty that enables him to trace the dust of Alexander stopping a beer-barrel (V, i, 196-206). The imagination, the faculty most closely associated with melancholy, and feared earlier by Hamlet for this reason,31 is finally vindicated.


  1. See for instance Alan Downer, “The Life of Our Design: The Function of Imagery in the Poetic Drama,” Hudson Review, II, no. 2 (Summer, 1949), 242-63; R. A. Foakes, “Suggestions for a New Approach to Shakespeare's Imagery,” Shakespeare Survey, V (1952), 81-92; Clifford Lyons, “Stage Imagery in Shakespeare's Plays,” Essays on Shakespeare and Elizabethan Drama in Honor of Hardin Craig, ed. Richard Hosley (New York, 1962), 261-74; Maurice Charney's treatment of Antony's “elevation,” and other relationships between verbal motifs and visual scenes, Shakespeare's Roman Plays: The Function of Imagery in Drama (Cambridge, Mass., 1963); and Russell Fraser's use of emblems in his study of Lear: Shakespeare's Poetics in Relation to King Lear (London, 1962).

  2. Martha Hester Golden, The Iconography of the English History Play (unpublished Columbia dissertation, 1964).

  3. This was a common subject in paintings and engravings: Death was depicted as holding a mirror up to a woman, and showing her a skull instead of her own face. See Samuel C. Chew, The Pilgrimage of Life (New Haven, 1962), 77.

  4. Downer, p. 255.

  5. See also, for example, the Prologue to Marston's Antonio's Revenge. All quotations from Hamlet are from Peter Alexander's edition (London, 1958).

  6. The original seminal study by Erwin Panofsky and Fritz Saxl of the background of Dürer's engraving, Melencolia 1, has now appeared in an expanded and illustrated English version: Raymond Klibansky, Erwin Panofsky and Fritz Saxl, Saturn and Melancholy (New York, 1964). I shall refer to this work as Saturn. The subject of melancholy in English literature of the Renaissance has been studied by Lawrence Babb, The Elizabethan Malady (East Lansing, Mich., 1951).

  7. Aristotle's Problem XXX, 1, which proposes that men of melancholic temperament are often eminent in philosophy, politics, or the arts, is reprinted and translated in Saturn, pp. 18-29.

  8. See Margot and Rudolf Wittkower, Born Under Saturn (New York, 1963), for accounts of the tortured and gifted artists who sometimes consciously associated their temperaments with Saturn.

  9. Saturn, pp. 388 ff.

  10. Wolfgang Clemen observes that we are given to see from Hamlet's imagery in general, but especially in the graveyard scene (the number of ideas and images that the skull gives rise to) that his sensibility is far superior to that of anybody else in the play. The Development of Shakespeare's Imagery (Cambridge, Mass., 1951), p. 111.

  11. See Maria Fossi Todovow, Mostra delle incisione di Luca di Leida (Florence, 1963), p. 27, and the comments to the effect that the subject of this unidentified portrait may well be allegorical (pp. 24, 45).

  12. Saturn, Pl. 134. The painting, significantly, as the authors note (pp. 388-9), is known in its several copies by both names.

  13. Ibid., Pl. 135. For a brief analysis of another drawing of Melancholy by Castiglione see Richard Bernheimer, “Some Drawings of Benedetto Castiglione,” The Art Bulletin, XXXIII (March, 1951), 47-51, esp. 50 and Fig. 4. The Feti painting dates from around 1614 and the Castiglione etching was influenced by it; there is no question, therefore, of any direct influence on Shakespeare, only of similarity of intention.

  14. Saturn, p. 131, gives two quotations from astrological sources about grave-digging as one of the lowly professions over which Saturn presided. Diggers in the earth in general were thought to be Saturnian types. See Pl. 40 for the picture of Saturn himself as a digger.

  15. Ibid., p. 204 and Pl. 25.

  16. Dürer's Melencolia is surrounded with the appurtenances of carpentry, and stone masonry as well as carpentry are occupations in the big fresco of Saturn's children in the “Solone” of Padua; see Saturn, pp. 307-14, Pls. 32-3, and Guy de Tervarent, Attributs et symboles dans l'art profane 1451-1600: Dictionnaire d'un langage perdu (Geneva, 1958), I, cols. 101, 412. For Saturn as the patron of sea journeys, see Saturn, pp. 130-1, and also p. 204 for “working in leather.” See also p. 190: a description by Guido Bonetti of Saturn's children as leather and parchment workers (cf. the parchments discussed in Hamlet, V, i, 110-3); and note the conjunction of Saturn with other planets as determining the subjects in which workers on parchments would be skilled—juridical, business deeds, etc.

  17. “The melancholicke are accounted as most fit to vndertake matters of weightie charge and high attempt.” M. Andreas Laurentius, A Discourse of the Preservation of Sight, tr. Richard Surphlet, London, 1599 (London, Shakespeare Association Facsimile, 1938), p. 85. For rulers born under Saturn, see Greene's Planetomachia in The Life and Complete Works in Prose and Verse of Robert Greene, ed. A. B. Grosart (London, 1881-86), V, 46.

  18. There is an extended discussion of this subject in Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, ed. Holbrook Jackson (New York, 1964), I, 62-5; and see also Nashe's Christs Teares Over Jerusalem in The Works of Thomas Nashe, ed. R. B. McKerrow (Oxford, 1958) II, 132.

  19. Burton, I, 66.

  20. Vincent Cartari, Les images de dieux anciens (Lyons, 1581), pp. 35-6; and see also Erwin Panofsky, “Father Time” in Studies in Iconology (New York, 1962), esp. pp. 73-5.

  21. Cartari, pp. 35-6. For the association of Saturn and melancholy with measurement, geometry, etc., see Saturn, Pls. 1, 115, 118, 132 inter alia, and pp. 332-45.

  22. Wyndham Lewis, The Lion and the Fox: The Role of the Hero in the Plays of Shakespeare (London, 1927), p. 36.

  23. Saturn, Pls. 38, 39, and 42 all contain men on the gallows.

  24. Ibid., Pl. 52, Maarten van Heemskerck, “Saturn and his Children.”

  25. The Poetical Works of Chaucer, ed. F. N. Robinson (London, 1933), p. 48.

  26. “I am as melancholy as a gib cat,” 1 H IV, I, ii, 83. For dogs and cats as melancholy, see the Frontispiece and Argument to the Frontispiece of Burton's Anatomy; for cats, see the “melancholly Pusse” in Peacham's emblem of melancholy: Minerva Britanna: Or a Garden of Heroical Deuises (London, n. d.), p. 126. For dogs as symbols of melancholy (and the possible explanation that their sad faces and their propensity to madness were the reason), see de Tervarent, Attributs, I, cols. 94 and 431, and also Burton, I, 79.

  27. Bats, as night creatures, were emblematic of darkness and melancholy, and a bat is the bearer of the title of Dürer's Melencolia. Both the cat and the bat appear in a much later version of melancholy (based, however, on the earlier symbolism), Goya's “Caprichio 43”; see Folke-Nordström, Goya, Saturn and Melancholy (Uppsala, 1962), Pl. 62 and p. 119. Frogs are among Nashe's melancholy night-animals; McKerrow, I, 386.

  28. Many diseases were connected with melancholy, including fevers, stomach troubles, jaundice, epilepsy, cancer, etc.; Greene's Planetomachia (Grosart V, 51) has a long list. For the “canker” as a melancholy illness, caused by choler or melancholy adust, see Andrew Boorde, The Breviarie of Health (London, 1587), fol. 24r. The same was true, for example, of “imposthumes” (Hamlet IV, iv, 27); frenzy or madness were “imposthumes” of the brain (Boorde, fol. 92v).

  29. This sort of approach to the scene is taken, for example, by Harley Granville-Barker, Prefaces to Shakespeare: Hamlet (Princeton, 1965), p. 82; Harry Levin, The Question of Hamlet (New York, 1961), p. 116; S. F. Johnson, “The Regeneration of Hamlet,” Shakespeare Quarterly, III (1952), 187-207.

  30. Levin, p. 123.

  31. For a discussion of the connection between melancholy and the imagination (and citation of a relevant passage from Spenser's Faerie Queene, II, ix, 50-2), see Northrop Frye, Fables of Identity: Studies in Poetic Mythology (New York, 1963), pp. 154-61. Hamlet expresses his earlier fears in II, ii, 594-601; and III, ii, 78-82.

Bridget Gellert Lyons (essay date spring 1977)

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SOURCE: Lyons, Bridget Gellert. “The Iconography of Ophelia.” ELH 44, no. 1 (spring 1977): 60-74.

[In the following essay, Lyons discusses two emblematic episodes in Hamlet that feature Ophelia: her distribution of flowers (IV.v) and the scene where the prince encounters her as she walks about reading a book (III.i). In the first instance she is closely associated with the mythical nymph Flora, the critic points out, and in the second with figures of female piety—including the Virgin Mary—yet on both occasions the iconographic associations are deeply ambivalent and support conflicting interpretations of her character.]

When Polonius arranges Ophelia's meeting with Hamlet in the third act of the play, he assigns gestures to her and provides her with a prop, deliberately fashioning her into an image intended to convey an easily readable meaning:

Ophelia, walk you here. …
                                                                                                                        Read on this book;
That show of such an exercise may colour
Your loneliness.—We are oft to blame in this:
'Tis too much prov'd, that with devotion's visage
And pious action we do sugar o'er
The devil himself.


Significantly, Ophelia is not coached in what to say to Hamlet. Rather, she is supposed to communicate an impression by her visual appearance alone, and it is this that will trigger Hamlet's response. The book she is given provides her with an excuse for being in the lobby alone, but more specifically, in Polonius' plan, it serves to convey an impression of prayerful devoutness.

Since Hamlet's greeting to Ophelia (“Nymph, in thy orisons” etc.) confirms Polonius' strategy, we may well ask why the sight of a girl reading was so readily understood to mean that she was saying her prayers. Annotations of the play generally suggest either that the book Ophelia holds is recognizably a prayer-book, or that, when Hamlet takes notice of her, she is kneeling as if she were praying. Neither assumption is necessarily correct. When Hamlet walks in the lobby reading in Act II, his book is obviously not identifiable, since Polonius inquires about it at some length; there is no reason to suppose that Ophelia's can be more easily identified even when she is seen from a fairly short distance. The supposition that she is kneeling is even more far-fetched, since Polonius has instructed her to “walk.” It is much more likely that when Hamlet immediately interprets her presence in exactly the way he is intended to, he is to be imagined as responding to an established iconographical language.

The image of a solitary woman with a book was conventionally interpreted as representing an attitude of prayer and devoutness,2 just as a man walking with a book, as Hamlet does earlier, was assumed to be melancholy and philosophical. While the assumption that a reading woman showed religious devotion rather than intellectual curiosity suggests interesting differences in the way the sexes were regarded, it was a very old idea. The woman with a book was reminiscent of countless representations of the Virgin, who was most commonly shown reading when the Angel of the Annunciation came to visit her.3 The gestures and the prop assigned to Ophelia therefore have established significances, and she becomes for Hamlet, as she often does for the audience of the play, a problem in iconography.

The scene that Polonius has arranged, then, depends for its effectiveness on the knowledge of traditional visual symbols. But the episode dramatizes also the gap between traditional significations of the girl with her book, and the uses to which this picture is put by Polonius and Claudius. The falseness of the tableau is openly revealed to the audience by both Polonius and the King, who acknowledge their hypocrisy in language that is rich in words about visual deception and concealment. What Polonius calls the outer “show” has nothing to do with reality; Ophelia's supposed aloneness is being “colored” by the appearance of devotion. The King carries the language of painting and concealment even further in the aside which follows, where he compares his own hypocrisy—his deed as opposed to his “painted” word—to the woman most opposite to the devout maiden, the harlot whose cheek is deceptively “beautied with plast'ring art.” The eavesdroppers, admitting their own duplicity, point to the difference between the scene's iconographic message of piety, and the courtly calculation that manipulates that image for its own political purposes.

The scene in the lobby, where Ophelia is staged with her book and “loosed” to Hamlet, is an important one for our perceptions of her. Of all the characters in Hamlet, Ophelia is most persistently presented in terms of symbolic meanings. Except for some speculation, mostly by Polonius, about the effects of her behavior on Hamlet, and some brief concern about the harm she may unwittingly cause herself or others in her madness, nobody in the play thinks too much about the effects of her actions. As the audience sees her—a character who is passive and obedient at the beginning of the play and mad towards the end of it—she exerts little independent influence on the shape of the action, and it seems fair to say that her importance is primarily emblematic rather than consequential. But the meanings she expresses are often ambiguous, and other characters in the play find her difficult to decipher. In the scene we have been considering, Hamlet is forced to wonder if she is really what she appears to be. Those who meet her in her madness try to extract some meaning out of her gestures, as well as her words (IV.v.7-13). Finally, her death—suicide or accident—is pointedly made the subject of conflicting interpretations. Since she is a character who needs to be read by others and who often conveys riddling significances, she expresses the difficulty of straightforward iconographic interpretation in the play.

Iconography, however, depends on a stable connection between object and meaning, and requires shared knowledge about the symbolic meanings of physical objects and their arrangements. In its narrowest sense, iconography in the visual arts was defined by Erwin Panofsky in terms of the following examples:

It is apprehended by realizing that a male figure with a knife represents St. Bartholomew, that a female figure with a peach in her hand is a personification of Veracity, that a group of figures seated at a dinner table in a certain arrangement and in certain poses represents the Last Supper, or that two figures fighting each other in a certain manner represent the combat of Vice and Virtue. … The identification of such images, stories, and allegories is the domain of iconography in the narrower sense of the word.4

It has now long been recognized that Shakespeare and other Elizabethan dramatists sometimes made use of such iconographic conventions—whether in the form of particular props, like Ophelia's book, or in the composition of scenic tableaux—to enrich and clarify particular dramatic points that they were making. The image of Orlando in As You Like It, for example, carrying old Adam on his back into the Forest of Arden reminded the knowledgeable viewer of the pietas of Aeneas, rescuing his father from the burning city, and added a dimension of epic seriousness to a scene from pastoral romance.5 As this example shows, to clarify the moral intention of a scene by iconographic allusions often meant, in drama of any richness of texture, to complicate and deepen it. To take another famous example, Prince Hal in the tavern in 1 Henry IV was reminiscent of visual representations of the Prodigal Son, while Falstaff, parodying the King, showed his kinship with the allegorical figure of Sloth by putting a cushion on his head as a crown.6 But Falstaff, with his good nature and abundant physical and mental energy, cannot be reduced to a morality-play figure in any simple way. Rather, the visual allusion to Sloth at the moment when Falstaff is being most delightfully entertaining points up the human difficulty of the Prince's moral duty and the harshness of tone that this duty will ultimately require.

Iconographic allusions function in an even more complicated way in Hamlet, because the world of Denmark, unlike that of Hal's England, cannot sustain any of the public agreement about the values and significances of physical objects on which iconography depends. We are made to see in a variety of ways how problematic the interpretation of images in the play is. The Ghost, an impalpable object which exists only to impart meaning, is an apparition whose meaning is open to question. Hamlet himself, furthermore, makes a point of telling us how different his perceptions are from other people's. His conversation with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in the second act dramatizes the difficulty of agreeing about even the most common tropes (on which emblems were often based), such as “the world is a prison”; and his observation that “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” (II.ii.248-49) throws doubt on the validity of universal symbols.

In the confused meanings she ascribes to her flowers in her madness, Ophelia expresses in its most extreme form the gap between an ordered world of shared symbolic meanings and the murky world of intrigue and mental disorder that exists in Denmark. The confusion that she expresses verbally, moreover, is complemented by her iconographic associations in the fourth act with the ambiguous figure of the flower-dispensing nymph, Flora. This was a figure with complex double meanings, whose contradictions Shakespeare exploited in Hamlet in order to establish the difference between a mythical world of natural fertility and innocence, and an urban or courtly world of deception and calculation.

Two contradictory versions of the Flora story were both very familiar during the Renaissance.7 According to the Ovidian myth that provides one source, the nymph Chloris, raped and then married by the west wind, Zephyrus, was thereupon turned into Flora and given dominion over all the world's flowers.8 Chloris-Flora was therefore associated with spring (her festival is described in the late April-early May section of the Fasti), with fertility and growth, with the love and pleasure of the young and with the rejuvenation of the old. In Jonson's masque, “Chloridia” (to name only one of the innumerable Renaissance works where she is mentioned), Chloris, identified as the flower-goddess of Ovid's Fasti, is associated with the beauties of spring and with love that is purged of the jealousy and libidinous turbulence of the antimasque's Cupid.

A very different set of associations, however, prevails in another version of the Flora story, where the nature goddess is tracked down to her all too human origins. This version, referred to by Plutarch in his Roman Questions,9 was elaborated by Boccaccio in his De Claris Mulieribus, and it was also widely known and disseminated during the Renaissance. Spenser referred to this version, along with the Ovidian one,10 and it could be found in popular Renaissance handbooks on mythology like Cartari's.11 It seems unlikely that Shakespeare would not have had some knowledge of it. According to this version, “Flora Meretrix” was a Roman prostitute whom Hercules won for a night in a wager with the keeper of his temple. As a reward, Hercules promises Flora the first man she meets on leaving the temple as a husband. While Plutarch's and Boccaccio's accounts differ about whether she met an old man or a young one, they agree that he was rich, and that after his death Flora inherited his fortune. Flora's wealth in these versions had its source in urban commercial activity rather than in natural bounty, and she bequeathed it to the Roman people to memorialize herself, “stipulating that all the yearly income received from it be used for public games on her birthday.”12 Since the Roman Senate was scandalized by the known origins of these celebrations, they invented the myth of Flora the flower goddess to explain the holiday. With the transformation of the prostitute into the flower goddess, the yearly income of invested capital became the annual rejuvenation of nature in springtime.

In Renaissance art, as Julius Held's excellent study shows,13 the two traditions of the nature goddess and the urban courtesan are well represented, separately and in conjunction. A celebrated example of the Ovidian version is Botticelli's “Primavera.” In this painting with its idealized landscape of springtime, greenness, and flowers, two female figures represent, respectively, Chloris, blowing flowers out of her mouth, with Zephyrus hovering next to her, and Flora after her transformation, with flowers on her dress and in her hair.14 There are also several Renaissance paintings that portray Flora straightforwardly as a courtesan. Palma Vecchio's “Flora,” now in the National Gallery in London, is a real woman with her dress seductively pulled down over one shoulder, holding out flowers that are clearly meant to be interpreted as the sexual favors she is dispensing. Titian's “Flora” in the Uffizi also offers flowers that are related to the offer of herself.15 A third type of painting—one that is most relevant to my argument—exploited the incongruity between the two versions of the Flora legend. Jan Massys' Flora, for example, is a courtly woman who is incongruously naked, holding out flowers, while Guido Reni's somewhat later Flora, with her garments in disarray, holds up a rose in a not quite innocent gesture to indicate, as Held comments, that she is ready to be plucked.16 Shakespeare's complex use of the Flora figure in connection with Ophelia can be associated with well-known literary and visual traditions, and on the use that both of these traditions made of the ambiguous language linking sexuality with flowers (picking flowers, young girls as flowers, “deflowering,” and so forth).

We can better appreciate Shakespeare's complexity if we compare his use of the double image of Flora in Hamlet with his more straightforward evocation of Flora the nature goddess in The Winter's Tale. In the fourth-act sheep-shearing scene of The Winter's Tale, Florizel explicitly refers to Perdita as “no shepherdess, but Flora / Peering in April's front” (IV.iv.2-3). The similarities between Perdita's language in giving away flowers that she considers appropriate for her visitors and Ophelia's gestures and remarks on the propriety of the flowers she dispenses are obvious and have often been commented on. As one of her offerings, Perdita even gives away the same plants as Ophelia; the rosemary and rue that Perdita first gives to Camillo and Polixenes, with the comment “Grace and remembrance be with you both!” (IV.iv.76) are reminiscent of the rosemary for remembrance and rue (which “we may call … herb of grace a Sundays”) that are among the flowers and herbs Ophelia distributes.

Despite the fact that both figures claim particular symbolic meanings for the flowers that they distribute, however, it is obvious that Perdita clearly spells out the meanings she intends, while Ophelia's comments are never more than vaguely suggestive. The difference reflects, of course, the basic distinction that Perdita is sane while Ophelia is not, but it also points to the issue of how meaning, particularly iconographical meaning, is to be understood and shared. The language of flower symbolism, while not as arcane in the sixteenth century as it is now, was usually open even then to multiple interpretation and had to be controlled by the context in which it was used.17 Among the plants Ophelia mentions, fennel could be a medicinal herb, particularly good for clearing the sight, but it could also denote flattery, as one example cited in the Variorum (“Fennel is for flatterers”) shows. Columbines could mean cuckoldry, or forsaken lovers; because of their connection with melancholy, however, they were also associated with the Sorrows of the Virgin.18

Perdita controls the meanings of the flowers she distributes by clearly spelling out her sense of their significance. She arranges her extensive list of flowers according to their seasonal importance (flowers of spring, mid-summer, etc.) and conveys their more particular meanings very clearly:

                                                                                          pale primroses,
That die unmarried ere they can behold
Bright Phoebus in his strength—a malady
Most incident to maids …
The marigold, that goes to bed wi' th' sun,
And with him rises weeping; these are flow'rs
Of middle summer, and I think they are given
To men of middle age.

(IV.iv.122-25; 105-09)

In this way, Perdita as Flora shows by her language that nature and the social life of men are in harmony with each other. The flowers, early or late, suggest clear analogies with the lifecycles of men and women. Furthermore, the meanings she discerns are not idiosyncratic; they are rooted in social custom and common understanding (“I think they are given / To men of middle age” means “I think they are usually given” etc.). Ophelia, on the other hand, while suggesting that clear connections between flowers and their meanings exist, is in fact drawing attention to the confusion that such linkings can create. She does say that rosemary is for remembrance and pansies for thoughts, but we are not sure for whom she intends these particular plants, or why “remembrance” or “thoughts” are important points to raise. In some instances, she does not assign any meanings to the plants she distributes, although these plants (fennel and columbine) can have, as we have seen, widely different meanings. In other instances, she suggests that the same plant can have different meanings for different people, or that it can have double meanings, perhaps sacred and profane ones:

There's rue for you; and here's some for me. We may call it herb of grace a Sundays. O, you must wear your rue with a difference.


Ophelia's efforts to suggest with her flowers that nature expresses truths that are in harmony with human experience puzzle her audience, and reveal the possibilities for obscurity and confusion that were latent in the language of flower symbolism itself.

Perdita as Flora, on the other hand, embodies those fruitful harmonies between natural and social experience that Ophelia is unable to sustain. Perdita succeeds, at least during the festival, in showing that her goddess-like or queen-like costume (which she modestly thinks inappropriate) is in fact intimately related to her nature. When she appears like a goddess to Florizel and like “something greater than herself” in a social sense to Polixenes, both of these perceptions incorporate her natural virtues, and the language used to describe her—“the queen of curds and cream”—expresses the blend of royalty and naturalness that the two visitors see. In contrast, Ophelia's grotesque get-up with her flowers19 is particularly inappropriate after her father's death, and it is the funereal associations of flowers and their transitoriness that she emphasizes. Her appearance and her manner cause others in the play to see her as pitiful and maimed, not as something greater than herself, but as something pathetically less than herself. Claudius remarks on her dividedness rather than her capacity to unify, and associates her with the unintelligent world of animals and objects rather than with goddesses and queens:

                                                                                                    … poor Ophelia
Divided from herself and her fair judgment,
Without the which we are pictures or mere beasts …


While Ophelia goes through some of the same motions as Perdita, then, the effect in Hamlet is to make us see the disharmony between the supposedly pastoral figure and her world.20 Apart from the jarring contrast between the tragic events of the play and her appearance and performance with flowers, Ophelia embodies the doubleness possible in presentations of Flora herself—a doubleness of which Spenser had already made use in the first book of The Faerie Queene.21 Ophelia is beyond calculating deception, but her language draws attention to the difference between the pastoral, mythical Flora and the urban “city nymph,” as one art historian has called her.22 The split between urban and rustic forms is dramatized, first of all, by the difference between her folk-songs, folk-legends, and the like, and the voices of sophisticated courtliness that she also assumes. While the figures of Robin Hood and Maid Marian, the local English personages of the Whitsun Pastorals, and the classical nymph, Flora, may enrich each other in the springtime festivities of The Winter's Tale, the effect of the folk-songs in Ophelia's repertoire is to reveal the fragmentation of the worlds to which she can relate imaginatively. The tones of folk-singing—the stanza forms, the refrains like “hey nony” and “A-down a-down”—are most clearly incongruous when they are set against more courtly sophisticated tones: “I thank you for your good counsel. Come, my coach! Good night, ladies …” (IV.v.69-70). In fact, both kinds of language—the folk-song with its “hey nony” and the tones of the high-society lady, imperious and at the same time elaborately courteous—seem like exaggerated parodies because they are disjoined from any kind of dramatic situation that would give them substance. Ophelia's confused mixture of voices therefore manages to debase both courtly and country values. Courtly tones here express genteel manners without substance, and country naturalness becomes bawdy (“Young men will do't, if they come to't; / By Cock, they are to blame” [IV.v.58-59]).

Perdita's language, on the other hand, conveys a sense of sexual pleasure and of fruitfulness that is in harmony with social refinement. A very emphatic point is made of this in the sheep-shearing scene, and it marks a striking contrast between Perdita and Ophelia. Perdita's language is frank and down-to-earth, and she dislikes both artifice and lewdness:

                                                                                                    I'll not put
The dibble in earth to set one slip of them;
No more than were I painted I would wish
This youth should say 'twere well, and only therefore
Desire to breed by me.


The word “breed” is a deliberately unfanciful one; like her planting analogy, it associates the romantic love between herself and Florizel with the fruitfulness of all of nature. Her abhorrence of the idea of “painting” and her reluctance to plant the “gillyvors,” the streaked flowers that she associates with loose women and unnaturalness, are consistent with her concern that the pedlar's songs should not be dirty: “Forewarn him that he use no scurrilous words in's tunes.” It is the peasant girls who insult each other about whether or not they are pregnant, and it is the country ballads, excluded by Perdita, that contain “such delicate burdens of dildos and fadings: ‘Jump her and thump her …’” (IV.iv.191-92).

If Perdita's language expresses an ideal conjunction between natural fruitfulness and social refinement, Ophelia's bawdy songs and comments reflect a world in which people's natural impulses and their social situations are likely to be in conflict. Unlike Perdita, Ophelia knows very well who her real father and brother are, and both of them have warned her that she is not a suitable match for Hamlet. The girl in the folk-song who is told by her lover that he would have married her if she hadn't slept with him is hearing something very similar to what Ophelia herself has been told by Polonius and Laertes at the beginning of the play, and the folk-song's “young men will do't if they come to't” is a somewhat more direct version of Polonius' knowledge of how “the blood burns” in young men. While Ophelia's songs may be popular and rustic ones, they express precisely those realistic attitudes about love that prevail in her family.

Ophelia's flower-giving therefore reflects, among other disharmonies, the necessarily discordant nature of her sexuality. The two-sidedness of the Flora figure restates, in pictorial and mythological terms, the dramatic contrast between Ophelia as the potential heroine, pure and marriageable, of romance, and the actual lust and danger of the Danish world that Laertes and Polonius, as well as Hamlet, insistently impress upon her imagination. For the city-Flora, sex has a commercial value that makes her calculating in the bestowal of her favors. The mythical, pastoral Flora, on the other hand, is associated with the growth and uncalculating bounty of nature itself. The contradictions between the two meanings of the figure are expressed in Ophelia's gestures and language. Unlike Perdita, whose flower-giving is associated by her with love and rejuvenation, Ophelia appears to comment on the chariness that has been enjoined on her from the beginning of the play. Her remark about the owl who was a baker's daughter has generally been interpreted as an allusion to a legend about an uncharitable woman who was turned into an owl when she tried to reduce the amount of bread that her mother was offering to Christ. Ophelia may be dispensing flowers later in the scene, but here she seems to be alluding (however obliquely) to niggardliness, and for good reason. From the beginning, Laertes and Polonius have suggested that her virginity, or her “chaste treasure,” has a commercial as well as a moral value, and that therefore thrift is a prudent virtue in the area of sexuality as well as in others. Polonius' language to Ophelia when he advises her how to act in the “perilous circumstances” of being wooed by Hamlet is loaded with commercial metaphors:

                                                                      … think yourself a baby
That you have ta'en these tenders for true pay
Which are not sterling. Tender yourself more dearly …
                                                                                          From this time
Be something scanter of your maiden presence;
Set your entreatments at a higher rate
Than a command to parle.

(I.iii.105-07; 120-23)

As in economics, scarcity increases the value of the object. Although the commercial implications of Polonius' common-sense fatherly advice are metaphoric, he defines a world in which for a young girl to be “free and bounteous” (I.iii.93) is to be cheap. Laertes too enforces the notion that it is easy to be contaminated and that “chariness” is prudent: “The chariest maid is prodigal enough / If she unmask her beauty to the moon” (I.iii.36-37). Laertes' advice is based on the assumption that natural as well as human life is radically infected:

The canker galls the infants of the spring
Too oft before their buttons be disclosed;
And in the morn and liquid dew of youth
Contagious blastments are most imminent.


Since Ophelia's language in the fourth act recalls the worldly advice of Polonius and Laertes, her simultaneous evocation of a bounteous pastoral figure is especially incongruous.

The iconography of Ophelia as Flora reinforces some of the verbal and dramatic complexities of the play as a whole. The point is not that Shakespeare intended the audience to see Ophelia as a loose woman, as has been suggested by at least one critic,23 but that she expresses emblematically the gap between the free world imagined in pastoral or comedy and the unsavory world of Denmark. Hamlet's language to Ophelia, in which equivocation, puns, and double entendres abound, reveals his sense of her potential doubleness, and conveys the same contradictions that she herself communicates, pictorially as well as verbally.

Just as Hamlet's equivocal language expresses the difficulty of interpreting Ophelia as a figure of unequivocal innocence, so the Queen's speech describing her death (IV.vii.167-84) falls short of placing her exclusively in a pastoral context. Here again pictorial details and dramatic meaning are inseparable; the emblematic features of this description reveal dissonances appropriate to the Queen as speaker and to the dramatic occasion. In its context, the Queen's pastoral description, absorbing though it is, creates only a brief pause in the action of the play; Laertes is not calmed by it, but on the contrary, his determination to revenge himself is strengthened by the news of his sister's death. Furthermore, since the Queen herself has persistently been associated with a sexuality that is far from innocent, her sexual allusions in the speech, jarring in their pastoral context, reveal as much about her as they do about Ophelia. While the Queen's description, therefore, comes closer than anything else in the play to presenting Ophelia to our imagination as an innocent, flower-bedecked creature of nature, even her words fail to dispel entirely the disharmonies that Ophelia has represented:

There is a willow grows aslant a brook
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream;
Therewith fantastic garlands did she make
Of crowflowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do dead men's fingers call them.
There, on the pendent boughs her coronet weeds
Clamb'ring to hang, an envious sliver broke;
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide
And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up;
Which time she chanted snatches of old lauds,
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element; but long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pull'd the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.


This is more than a decorative set-speech because it reinforces and focusses our perceptions of Ophelia in important ways. Since the speech creates a visual tableau, striking especially for its pictorial qualities, it is appropriate to the iconographic presentation of Ophelia earlier. Ophelia's death is “beautified” by the Queen (to use a word that has been applied to Ophelia earlier in the play); it is described visually in terms of the flowers with which she has been associated, and in language that emphasizes the natural beauty rather than the horror of the scene. The Queen's language, furthermore, is loaded with mythological overtones that suggest a connection, as many myths do, between nature and man. The willow's “hoar leaves” reflected in the stream suggest an old man's hair and a looking glass; the branch that breaks is “envious,” and the brook is weeping. Ophelia, for her part, is like a water-nymph or mermaid—“mermaid-like,” “like a creature native and indued unto that element.” There is a sense of harmony between the humanized landscape and the image of Ophelia as a nymph-like creature who is at home in the water.

But it is clear that even the Queen's speech cannot sustain the force of these mythological suggestions, any more than the water can sustain Ophelia. Ophelia-as-goddess is an incongruous figure; her garlands are “fantastic” or crazy under the circumstances, and the mermaid is a “poor wretch.” Even more striking, perhaps, is the Queen's seemingly gratuitous interpolation about the sexual connotations of the “long purples” which are among the flowers in Ophelia's garland. Both the “liberal shepherds” and the “cold maids” are aware of the flowers' phallic associations, and neither seem able to incorporate that awareness easily into the beauty of flowery pastoral. The shepherds' language is “gross,” while the virgins' evasion of “gross names” is in keeping with their own “coldness”—they associate the phallic flowers with death. Even the Queen's pastoral beautification still alludes to a contaminated world in which “grossness” on the one hand, and deathly coldness or seclusion (“Be thou as chaste as ice. …” “Get thee to a nunnery”) on the other, are presented to a young girl as the only sexual alternatives.

In death as in life, then, Ophelia is made to suggest mythical and symbolic meanings more appropriate to pastoral comedy than to the realistic world of political intrigue and sexual danger in which she actually finds herself. Because these mythological associations cannot be sustained without ambiguity and confusion, moreover, they reflect, in a different key, Hamlet's doubts about the mythological analogies he applies to himself. While Hamlet finds comparisons with Jove, Hyperion, Mars and Mercury appropriate expressions for the heroic nature of his father, he ironically deflates the heroic analogies that might dignify his own role. Early in the play he rejects bitterly his comparison of himself with Hercules, and after his leap into the grave with Laertes, he suggests that his world can no longer sustain heroic hyperbole: “Let Hercules himself do what he may, / The cat will mew, and dog will have his day” (V.i.293-94). Hamlet's bitterness about himself as Hercules and Ophelia's mad appearance as Flora both refer to a world that is hostile to ennobling comparisons. While her language is more oblique, pictorial, and symbolic, she expresses the discords that Hamlet registers more consciously and with greater control in his language and behavior. The images of Flora and the Virgin that she evokes allude to mythical enrichments of experience that are simply incongruous and jarring in their context in the play. The iconography of Ophelia and its incongruities typify a world in which the most important imaginative transformations, whether religious, heroic, or pastoral ones, become problematical.


  1. All quotations from Shakespeare's plays are taken from Peter Alexander's edition of the Complete Works (London, 1958).

  2. In The White Devil,, when Vittoria enters “with a book in her hand,” Flamineo mockingly suggests that she has become religious. The editor of the Revels edition of the play notes that the book must be a devotional one in order to elicit Flamineo's response, but there is no indication of this in the text. John Webster, The White Devil, ed. John Russell Brown (Cambridge, Mass., 1960), 169n.

  3. Examples of this motif are extremely common; a famous example is Fra Angelico's Annunciation in the Convent of San Marco, Florence, where the Virgin has a book in her hand. See John Pope-Hennessy, Fra Angelico (London, 1952), Plate 83. While the Virgin of the Annunciation was often painted kneeling, she could also be standing or walking (see for instance the Virgin with a book in the Metropolitan Museum's Hours of Jeanne d'Evreux, reproduced in Erwin Panofsky, Renaissance and Renascences in Western Art (1960; reissued New York, 1969), Fig. 121; or she could be sitting with a book, like Angelico's Virgin in the Museo del Gesù Cortona. When Angelico simply painted the heads and torsos of Mary and the Annunciatory Angel, he still gave the Virgin a book as an identifying motif. See Pope-Hennessy, Plate 36. On the Virgin's book as a common motif in Western art, as opposed to Eastern versions of the Annunciation where she is usually spinning or working, see Louis Réau, “La Vierge au livre,” Iconographie de l'art chrétien (Paris, 1957), II, 179-80.

  4. Erwin Panofsky, Studies in Iconology (New York, 1962), p. 6.

  5. Nancy Lindheim, “King Lear as Pastoral Tragedy” in Some Facets of King Lear: Essays in Prismatic Criticism, ed. Rosalie L. Colie and F. T. Flahiff (Toronto, 1974), 171-73 and 183, n. 10. For a discussion of Shakespearean iconography in general, with several specific examples from the plays and poems, see William S. Heckscher, “Shakespeare in His Relationship to the Visual Arts: A Study in Paradox,” Research Opportunities in Renaissance Drama (The report of the Modern Language Association Seminar, ed. S. Schoenbaum), XIII-XIV (1970-71), 5-71.

  6. See Samuel C. Chew: The Virtues Reconciled: An Iconographic Study (Toronto, 1947), 15-17 for the cushion as an emblem of Sloth, or of the Flesh, in representations of the Christian Knight assaulted by the World, Flesh, and Devil. Flesh, in his example, wears a large tasselled cushion on her head as a crown. Chew makes a connection between this emblem and Falstaff with his cushion.

  7. I am indebted to the excellent account of the background of the Flora myth given by Julius Held: “Flora, Goddess and Courtesan,” De Artibus Opuscula XL: Essays in Honor of Erwin Panofsky, ed. Millard Meiss (New York, 1961), I, 201-18.

  8. Ovid, Fasti (with an English translation by Sir James George Frazer). Loeb Classical Library (New York, 1931), V, 183 ff.

  9. Plutarch was talking about the courtesan “Acca Laurentia,” but she was given the same history that Boccaccio gave Flora, and as Cartari pointed out, the two figures were often conflated. See Plutarch's Roman Questions, tr. Philemon Holland (1603; London, 1892), 135; and Vincent Cartari, Les Images des Dieux Anciens, tr. from Italian by Antoine du Verdier (Lyon, 1581), pp. 284-86. See also E. K.'s gloss on Flora in the March Eclogue of Spenser's Shepherd's Calendar.

  10. See Rosemond Tuve's article on Spenser's use of Boccaccio, and on the many manuscripts of the De Claris Mulieribus circulating in Spenser's time. “Spenser's Reading,” SP [Studies in Philology], XXXIII (1936), 147-65.

  11. Cartari stresses this version of the story especially. Loc. cit.

  12. Boccaccio, Concerning Famous Women, tr. Guido Guarino (New Brunswick, New Jersey, 1963), p. 140.

  13. See footnote no. 7.

  14. For this interpretation of the two figures, see Edgar Wind, Pagan Mysteries of the Renaissance (1958, rev. ed. London, 1967), Ch. VII.

  15. Held points out that while some early representations of Flora, after Boccaccio, represent “Flora Ribaude,” paintings like Titian's, which are beautiful and dignified, reflect the respect that was felt in the Renaissance for the great courtesans of antiquity.

  16. See Held, Opuscula II, Figs. 69, 74; and his commentary, I, 216-17.

  17. See the Furness Variorum Hamlet, I, 347-49 for various interpretations of rosemary, rue, fennel, and the rest, and J. W. Lever, “Three Notes on Shakespeare's Plants,” RES [Review of English Studies] n.s. III, 10 (1952), 117-29.

  18. For the association of columbines with cuckoldry, or with forsaken lovers, see the examples in the Variorum Hamlet, I, 347; for the association of columbines with melancholy, and therefore with the Virgin's sorrows, see Erwin Panofsky, Early Netherlandish Painting (Cambridge, Mass., 1953), I, 146, 416 (n. 6).

  19. The Variorum edition points out (p. 343) that while most modern stage versions of the play have Ophelia enter (in IV.v.149) festooned with flowers and straws, there is no real evidence in the text for this; the first Quarto merely mentions that her hair is down. There is no doubt, however, that her appearance is grotesque, since Laertes is appalled by the mere sight of her; that flowers loom large in the way she presents herself in her language; and that by the time she dies, as the Queen's description of her death indicates, she really is festooned with flowers.

  20. It is possible that the hint for the incongruity of Flora in any dramatic situation that was not pastoral or comic was taken from the Ovidian version of the story, where a light-hearted scene, not a tragic one, is described as suitable for her: Ovid, Fasti, V, 347-8: “scaena levis decet hanc: non est, mihi credete, non est / illa courtunata inter habenda deas.” (She is not a buskined goddess, but at home on a lighter stage.)

  21. See Miss Tuve's comment: “This calculating doubleness, stressed in the Boccace account, even more than the mere lasciviousness of Flora-as-Harlot, makes her a fit figure for the uses of Archimago in the tricking of the Red Crosse Knight through the false Una (FQ I, i, 148)” (p. 162).

  22. The art historian, Hans Tietze, is quoted by Held, p. 211.

  23. Salvador de Madariaga, On Hamlet (London, 1964. 1st ed., 1948), Chs. II and III.

A. Robin Bowers (essay date 1984-86)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6291

SOURCE: Bowers, A. Robin. “Emblem and Rape in Shakespeare's Lucrece and Titus Andronicus.Studies in Iconography 10 (1984-86): 79-96.

[In the following excerpt, Bowers examines the structure and style of Lucrece and Titus Andronicus, and notes that in both Lucrece and Titus the social and political ramifications are emphasized in extended speeches that serve as verbal emblems.]

From the beginning of his career, Shakespeare seems to have been fully aware of the poetic and dramatic potential of the emblem. While we are indebted to Rosemary Freeman and Henry Green for reviving our modern interest in Renaissance emblem books, questions about the nature and extent of their influence on the technical aspects of Shakespeare's works require further exploration and analysis. On the one hand, emblem books made sophisticated use of iconology inherited from the previous centuries to produce complex visual picturae combined with a verbal explanation of the picture, resulting in a reference book which applied both to personal conduct and to moral philosophy. On the other hand, these books represented a mode of thought common to the period, in which the visual and the verbal continually complemented each other in the theory and practice of artistic communication. The Elizabethan theater proved an ideal medium through which the techniques found in the emblem books could be adapted for audiences already familiar with printed emblems. In his early poetry and drama, Shakespeare frequently developed his scenic units first by presenting a relatively static pictura (like those found in emblem books) in what I will call emblemic scenes; and second, by amplifying and mobilizing these picturae to produce what I will term emblematic scenes. Shakespeare's store of traditional iconic conventions and iconographic associations were employed in new conjuctions in his poems and plays to create scenes which carried the force both of the widespread, printed emblem book and also of the fluid rhetoric of dialogue and the mobile picturae found on the Elizabethan stage.

As examples of Shakespeare's early poetry and drama, the almost contemporaneous Lucrece and Titus Andronicus present and discuss the causes of rape, together with its personal and social consequences. While the focus of Lucrece is on the personal causes and effects of rape, in terms of Tarquin's decision to carry out the rape and the resulting disturbance of Lucrece's psyche which leads to her suicide, Titus Andronicus presents a theatrical version of the essentially similar story of Lavinia's rape, but with greater emphasis on the breakdown of social order. These two areas of private rape and public rapine were widely discussed in Renaissance society, particularly in works of moral philosophy, theology, courtesy, and domestic conduct, as well as in literature and pictorial art of the period. Rapists were often condemned to death, but rape frequently produced more sweeping results of death and destruction to whole societies. The rape victim, too, was always respectfully pitied for her suffering, whether or not she died as a result of the attack. Usually discussed under the headings of chastity or adultery, the rape victim is viewed as an emblem of chastity destroyed; and the stories of such heroines as Proserpine, Philomel, Susanna, Sophronia, Virginia, and Lucretia are most frequently cited.1

Not only did the examples of these heroines abound in literature, but they also became popular subjects for pictorial artists by the end of the sixteenth century. Several artists portrayed the entire story of heroines such as Lucretia: Henricus Goltzius produced a series of four engravings: 1) the banquet of Collatine, 2) Lucretia and her women spinning, 3) Tarquin's rape of Lucretia, and 4) Lucretia committing suicide. Sometimes the different episodes in the life of Lucretia were painted on one panel, such as that attributed to Biago di Antonio.2 In all of these sequences, the illustrated incidents show the virtue of Lucretia and the violent force of the rape, which results in the scene of suicide and ensuing lamentation. The aesthetic effect on the viewer is a personal one, as a result of the cause-and-effect sequence frequently found in Renaissance panels, but beyond that, the individual is usually portrayed in a social setting of family, friends, and others, so that the viewer also gains an awareness of the social and theological implications of violence by and to the individual.

More numerous than the complete histories are representations of the rape scene itself, such as Titian's painting of “Tarquin and Lucretia” … the engraving by Agostino Veneziano, “Tarquin and Lucretia” … or Antonio Tempesta's “Tereus and Philomena”. … In Titian's painting, Tarquin wears scarlet breeches and hose to symbolize his lust, and his right stocking is rolled down to expose his leg and knee, which become symbols of phallic attack. Agostino Veneziano goes one stage further by supplying the copulating dogs to reinforce the symbolism of bestial sexuality in the scene. All three works show the knee in the same position, so that this phallic icon had apparently become standard by the late sixteenth century. Not surprisingly, it was incorporated by Shakespeare in his description of the approaching Tarquin in Lucrece. As Tarquin stealthily breaks through the door locks on his way to Lucrece's chamber (ll. 295-359), he finally makes his entry: “his guilty hand pluck'd up the latch, / And with his knee the door he opens wide” (ll. 358-59). The sexual puns in this episode on Lucrece's “chamber”3 and this iconographic use of the phallic knee produce a proleptic, imagistic rape foreshadowing the actual rape recounted later (ll. 673-93). In addition, the symbol of violence associated with rape, the brandished sword or dagger, is present in all these rape scenes, and Shakespeare likewise adopts the same iconograph, augmenting its predatory implications with the falcon-falchion pun:

This said, he shakes aloft his roman blade,
Which like a falcon tow'ring in the skies,
Coucheth the fowl below with his wings' shade,
Whose crooked beak threats, if he mount he dies:
So under his insulting falchion lies
          Harmeless Lucretia, marking what he tells
With trembling fear, as fowl hear falcons' bells.

(ll. 505-11)

By far the most popular artistic subject in these representations of rape myths and legends is the victim herself.4 In particular, Lucretia is most frequently depicted in the act of suicide, as in Titian's painting, “Lucretia” … or the portrait “Lucretia” by Veronese, where the subject is frequently nude or partly nude to emphasize the virtuous beauty of Lucretia, with the violence of her suicide only hinted at by the presence of a sword or dagger placed almost parallel to the outstretched arm of Lucretia. Sometimes the sword is more evident, as in the beautiful painting by a follower of Cranach, the “Lucrecia Romana” … but the violence of imminent suicide is still de-emphasized by the fact that the sword forms part of the stabilizing compositional triangle. Such triangular forms are usually found in paintings of religious subjects like the Holy Family, and in this painting they lend a tone of martyrdom to the portrait of Lucretia. Moreover, the “Lucrecia Romana” merges with the tradition of the emblem book itself by incorporating a motto-like inscriptio which points out the moral to be heeded: “Satius est mori quam indecore vivere.”

In keeping with the artistic conventions of his age, Shakespeare chose and developed his stories of rape in Lucrece and Titus Andronicus to draw attention both to the private, personal insult and injury of rape, and also to the public, social repercussions which inevitably followed from such a destructive act. For the most part in Lucrece, he dwells upon the faulty reasoning of Tarquin, which leads him to commit rape, and then upon the resulting private dismay and shame of Lucrece who eventually decides on the desperate act of suicide. Throughout the poem Shakespeare makes his heroine a symbol of chastity, while demonstrating in the sequence of scenic episodes the connections between private assault and public decadence. To do this, he incorporates conventional iconographic imagery, emblemic description, and a sequence of emblematic scenes to develop the pitiable demise of Lucrece.

As a part of the increasingly violent imagery associated with rapacious lust developed gradually and subtly during the first half of the poem, the narrator introduces us early and calmly (at this point) to the heraldry seen in Lucrece's face:5

But beauty in that white entituled
From Venus' doves, doth challenge that fair field;
Then virtue claims from beauty beauty's red,
Which virtue gave the golden age to gild
Their silver cheeks, and call'd it then their shield;
          Teaching them thus to use it in the fight,
When shame assail'd, the red should fence the white.
This heraldry in Lucrece' face was seen,
Argu'd by beauty's red and virtue's white.

(ll. 57-65)

The face, here literally a herald to the person, provides also a symbolic shield rather in the manner of an impresa to indicate to the viewer the essential attributes of character. In the changing red and white of blush and pallor we find symbols of the intimate relationship of the external beauty and inner virtue of Lucrece, both of which will be soiled later by Tarquin in his deed of rape.

Likewise, hardly more than a hundred lines later, Tarquin reveals his own impresa: just like all of Shakespeare's villains he is well aware of his own evil, which will “live engraven in my face:”

Yea, though I die the scandal will survive
And be an eye-sore in my golden coat;
Some loathsome dash the herald will contrive,
To cipher me how fondly I did dote:
That my posterity sham'd with the note,
          Shall curse my bones, and hold it for no sin
          To wish that I their father had not been.

(ll. 204-10)

His face, unlike Lucrece's heraldic shield of virtue, has now become the engraven impresa of Tarquin's foulness; it will be transformed into a coat-of-arms darkened by “some loathsome dash” as a permanent reminder to future generations of the heinous familial and social ramifications of rape. Again this shield stands at the outset of the poem to point up the viciousness of Tarquin's deed, well recognized by Tarquin himself in his direct speech, in contrast to the innocence of Lucrece's face, described indirectly by the narrator to point up the unselfconsciousness of Lucrece concerning her own virtue and beauty. Moreover, the emblemic description of Tarquin's coat-of-arms foreshadows the crime he is about to commit, and also leads the reader to envision the social dislocations resulting from his rapacious plans. This foreshadowing is of course amplified by the emblemic description of Lucrece as she lies asleep in bed (ll. 365-448). The conventional Petrarchan blazon, intruded upon by Tarquin's assaulting eyes and hands, creates again the proleptic, imagistic rape, like the knee in the chamber door.

One of the sections most puzzling to critics is that of the centrally located diatribes of Lucrece against Night, Opportunity, and Time, after her rape. They are viewed as being annoyingly digressive and as adding little to the order and effectiveness of the poem; in fact Shakespeare is requently viewed as being particularly self-indulgent and immature in including these parts.6 However, I suggest that the diatribes form a coherent sequence based on accepted Renaissance precepts of rhetorical amplification and are included for the purpose of enhancing the affective qualities of the poem and of developing the thematic concepts to produce pity for Lucrece. While the poetic impetus here is rhetorical, the method proves once again to be emblematic.

In his standard Tudor treatise, The Arte of Rhetorique, Thomas Wilson reflects the views of Quintilian when he recognizes the importance of rhetorical amplification and its function in influencing audience response:

Because the beautie of Amplifying, standeth apte mouyng of affections: … Neither onely are wee moued with those thynges which we thinke either hurtful, or profitable for our selues, but also we reioyce, we sorie, or we pitie an other mannes happe. …

In mouyng affections, and stirryng the iudges to be greued, the weight of the matter must be so set forth, as though they saw it plaine before their eyes, the report must be suche and the offence made so hainouse, that the like hath not been seene heretofore, and al the circu[m]staunces must thus be heaped together: The naughtines of his nature that did the dead, the cruel orderying, the wicked dealing and maliciouse handelyng, the tyme, the place, the maner of his doyng, and the wickednesse of his wil to haue doen more. The man that susteined the wrong, how litle he deserued, how well he was estemed emong his neighbours, howe small cause he gaue hym, how great lacke men haue of hym.7

By means of such rhetorical amplification, therefore, the pity of the audience is carefully increased to produce an appropriate aesthetic result. In doing this, the topics of time, place, and manner are included as typical ways of bringing the audience to an increased awareness of the wickedness which has been perpetrated.

No doubt as a consequence of his educational training in rhetoric,8 Shakespeare unhesitatingly chose the topics of time and occasion to amplify the devastating effects of the rape on Lucrece. While the rape itself is narrated in only a few lines (ll. 673-86), the enormity of the wickedness could only be realized by such amplification, given particular emphasis by the fact that Lucrece herself complains against Night (the specific and symbolic time) and Opportunity (the occasion), as well as Time (the overriding philosophical aspects of time, mutability, and corruption).

Reflecting the overall structure of the poem, which moves from the specific instance of rape to its resulting personal and social turmoil and destruction, Lucrece bewails the triumphs of Night, Opportunity, and Time, which move from the literal and symbolic darkness of night in which she has been raped, through the presentation of an ominous, though apt, opportunity (or occasion) for sin, to her misfortunes seen in the light of “injurious shifting Time” (ll. 930) which is the “ceaseless lackey to Eternity” (l. 967). At each point of the diatribe Lucrece first describes the attributes of each personified abstraction—Night in ll.764-70, Opportunity in ll.876-89, and Time in ll. 925-31—before applying these characteristics in a kind of subscriptio to her own dire situation and to the troubles of others. At the end, she asks Time to “teach me to curse him that thou taught'st this ill,” only to realize that such cursing will be in vain (ll. 1023-27); her remedy in this case is to commit suicide, for which she will find an appropriate occasion, but not before the reasons for her inner turmoil and despair have been given to her husband, family, and to the reader: “Yet die I will not, till my Collatine / Have heard the cause of my untimely death” (ll. 1177-78).

In a reiteration of the causes and effects of rape, we find one of the most highly emblematic scenes of Lucrece in the Trojan painting or tapestry which Lucrece views and comments on as she awaits the arrival of her family. This analogue of rapacious destruction, alluded to in Titus Andronicus, was to find fullest development, of course, in Troilus and Cressida, where not only destruction of the individual, but also social and universal corruption are the manifest results. In the poem, after an extended narrative ekphrasis of this “piece of skilful painting,” wherein is seen “the power of Greece, / For Helen's rape the city to destroy, / Threat'ning cloud-kissing Ilion with annoy” (ll. 1366-1370), Lucrece herself comes to the painting “to find a face where all distress is stell'd” (l. 1444) and discovers the “despairing Hecuba” who at once becomes a symbol, like Lucrece, of the withering effects of rape on Trojan society:

In her the painter had anatomiz'd
Time's ruin, beauty's wrack, and grim care's reign;
Her cheeks with chops and wrinkles were disguis'd:
Of what she was no semblance did remain.
Her blue blood chang'd to black in every vein,
          Wanting the spring that those shrunk pipes had fed,
          Show'd life imprison'd in a body dead.

(ll. 1450-56)

Lucrece recognizes at once the parallels of her own situation with that of the distraught, suffering Trojan queen, who is the ultimate, symbolic victim of the earlier rape of Helen.

After the pictura of the Trojan War is presented by the narrator, Lucrece comes before it to comment on the situation in lamentations which provide, in effect, a subscriptio on the painted scene of the Trojan War. Following her recognition of the symbolic qualities of Hecuba parallel to her own, Lucrece brings the silent picture to life by commenting with her own voice, so that the wider social implications and significance are clarified for the reader:

“Show me the strumpet that began this stir,
That with my nails her beauty I may tear!
Thy heat of lust, fond Paris, did incur
This load of wrath that burning Troy doth bear;
Thy eye kindled the fire that burneth here,
          And here in Troy, for trespass of thine eye,
          The sire, the son, the dame and daughter die.
“Why should the private pleasure of some one
Become the public plague of many moe?
Let sin alone committed, light alone
Upon his head that hath transgressed so;
Let guiltless souls be freed from guilty woe:
          For one's offence why should so many fall,
          To plague a private sin in general?
.....So Lucrece set a-work, sad tales doth tell
          To pencill'd pensiveness and colour'd sorrow:
          She lends them words, and she their looks doth

(ll. 1471-84, 1496-98)

Here the close causative relationship of private sin to public destruction is clearly demonstrated, so much so that this emblematic episode functions not only as personal comparatio to Lucrece's own situation,9 but also both as a flashback to earlier historical, social destruction as a result of rape, and as a warning of the social results of the present rape of Lucrece.

The emblemic descriptions and emblematic scenes of Lucrece focus on the actual rape and its personal consequences. Readers benefit from a narrative persona who can report and comment on scenes in emblemic fashion, while the interior monologues and debates between Tarquin and Lucrece emblematize the episodes in a rhetorical, quasi-dramatic way. Thus the reader responds both with horror at the brutal, irrational act of Tarquin, and also with pity for the disastrous effects on Lucrece herself. In similar ways, the rape of Lavinia provides the centerpiece of Titus Andronicus: placed literally and emblematically at the midpoint of the play, its affective function is to produce a response of sadness and pity in both characters and audience alike, aided by the choric commentary of Marcus and the heartfelt lamentations of Titus himself.

Immediately after the rape in Titus Andronicus, the rapist sons of Tamora, Chiron and Demetrius, drag on stage the mutilated Lavinia with the comments that, mute and handless, she can only “See how with signs and tokens she can scrowl” (II, iv, 5),10 so that she might as well commit suicide: “And 'twere my cause, I should go hang myself” sneers Chiron, while Demetrius taunts, “If thou hadst hands to help thee knit the cord” (II, iv, 9-10). Their equation of rape with death would have been recognized as Lucrece-like by the Elizabethan audience, and the mention of signs and tokens doubtless introduced viewers to the essentially emblemic qualities of Lavinia's presence on the stage.11

These emblemic aspects are emphasized once more by Marcus, who, finding the abandoned Lavinia, likens her to a tree “lopp'd and hew'd” of her branches, which would probably have reminded the audience of the well-known arboreal symbol of chastity, the classicial Daphne, now brought to bay and mutilated by her attackers.12 As Marcus points out, she is also a Philomela figure, but one made even more incapable of communication by her handless inability to identify her ravishers in embroidery. While the audience is viewing the mute and mutilated Lavinia, the long (often-criticized) speech by Marcus serves as the verbal emblem of her sad plight; this static, descriptive lament by Marcus comments on Lavinia as emblem and also serves to introduce the dramatically mobile, emblematic lament by the Andronici in the next scene. Just as the tears and lamentations prevail as a result of the rape of Lucrece, so the tears well up at the end of Act II, Scene iv, in preparation for the more widespread lament to come:

Come let us go, and make thy father blind,
For such a sight will blind a father's eye,
One hour's storm will drown the fragrant meads,
What will whole months of tears thy father's eyes?
Do not draw back, for we will mourn with thee.
O, could our mourning ease thy misery!


The formal, static, apparently over-long and too ornate qualities of this commentary by Marcus have troubled modern critics, who view the scene as impossible to present effectively on stage;13 but when viewed in its emblemic contexts, one must conclude that Shakespeare considered this scene to be both rhetorically and dramatically significant. It presents and glosses the most important event in the play, and gives the impetus to a long string of rapidly-developing episodes which result in domestic and social destruction, accompanied by private and public lamentation. As such, it is seminal to all that follows, so that it would be most unwise to separate this from subsequent scenes, as does the act division of the First Folio. Shakespeare's technique here is, moreover, not unique, for he uses similar emblemic structures in his proximate Romeo and Juliet. Almost identical in position, structure, and function are the two scenes in which Friar Lawrence provides the verbal commentary as two visual picturae emblematicae are created onstage.

Both of these scenes (II,iii and vi) are close together, both contain Friar Lawrence's initial comments on each of the two young protagonists, and both scenes display the choric function of Lawrence after the disappearance of the Chorus figure at the beginning of Act II. In the first of these scenes, Friar Lawrence enters at dawn, carrying a basket which he must fill with “baleful weeds and precious-juiced flowers.” The first twenty-two lines are filled with imagistic oppositions of nature, such as the smiling morn and the frowning night, the “baleful weeds” and the “precious-juiced flowers,” and “The earth that's nature's mother is her tomb. / What is her burying grave, that is her womb.” He then moves to the different facets of nature, some good, some bad, which “We sucking on her natural bosom find”; then his didactic intent becomes apparent when he comments that, depending on its proper or improper use, nature can turn from good to bad, or bad to good. Just as he reaches this moral turning-point with the abstract motto-like comment that “Virtue itself turns vice, being misapplied, / And vice sometime by action dignified,” the other part of this visual emblem, Romeo, enters, unseen by the Friar, to complete the theatrical creation of an emblem which juxtaposes the basket of flowers held up and discussed by the Friar, on one side of the stage, and on the other the arrival of a young man with all kinds of blossoming potential. The audience itself must recognize the relationship, as the Friar provides an explanatory subscriptio to this visual emblem by way of choric application:

Within the infant rind of this weak flower
Poison hath residence, and medicine power;
For this, being smelt, with that part cheers each part,
Being tasted, stays all senses with the heart.
Two such opposed kings encamp them still
In man as well as herbs, grace and rude will;
And where the worser is predominant,
Full soon the canker death eats up that plant.


By the time the two characters recognize and greet each other, the audience has understood the emblem, realizing that although a situation can be made to go either way, the prognosis for this young man's ability to choose aright is darkly ominous—where “rude will … is predominant.”

Likewise, only a few scenes later (II,vi,9-20), Shakespeare provides an identical emblemic structure, where the Friar gives first an abstract commentary on the failure of intemperate love, before Juliet enters to become a symbol of Vanity as explained by the commentary of the Friar. The remaining parts of both scenes demonstrate, in mobile tableaux with dramatic dialogues, the willful characteristics introduced by the introductory emblems—Romeo (in II,iii) is only capable of “doting, not … loving,” and Juliet herself admits that “my true love is grown to such excess / I cannot sum up sum of half my wealth.” The increased flexibility and dramatic potential of the complete emblematic units were probably reasons why this type of scene superseded Shakespeare's use of the Chorus figure in this early play.

In the same ways, Act III, Scene i, of Titus Andronicus makes mobile and dramatic the emblem of rapacious destruction found in II, iv. Focused on the personal and family crises of the Andronici seen in terms of the wrongs done to them by Saturnine and Tamora, it ends with family pledges to undertake the final sequence of revenges against Saturnine and Rome. The scene opens with a plea for pity by Titus for his condemned sons (a parallel to Tamora's fruitless pleading to Titus for her own son's life at the play's beginning); his plea goes unheeded, and Titus himself lapses into weeping for the first time, so that his tears “are now prevailing orators” (III,i,25-26).

When Marcus enters with Lavinia, the tears of Titus are only intensified by this sight of his “mart'red” daughter. While editors gloss this adjective as “mutilated,” it no doubt alludes here (in lines 81 and 107, and III,ii,36) to the traditional mutilation of martyrs, so that Lavinia, like Lucrece, is easily associated with martyrdom as well as mutilation. Lavinia stands silent as pictura throughout this scene, while Titus comments at length in emblematic fashion on this “sympathy of woe” (1.148), so that Lavinia's handless and tongueless condition reminds him how he perhaps should do the same and “in dumb shows / Pass the remainder of our hateful days” (11. 131-32).

The immediate result of this pitiable picture of Lavinia ravished is the cruelly ironic cutting off of Titus' hand as a result of another of Aaron's vicious ruses. Like the emulation of lament by Lucretius and Collatine over the corpse of Lucrece, so Lucius, Marcus, and Titus vie for the false honour of sacrificing a hand to release the imprisoned sons, Martius and Quintus. The sacrifice is futile, and as the sons' heads and Titus' severed hand are brought on stage, Titus' tears and lament boil over, past the reason urged by Marcus, past even the traditional icon of despair and rage noted by Marcus (11. 260-262),14 into a rage which vents itself by family vows for revenge. Like Brutus in Lucrece, Lucius sums up for the audience the misery endured, while he promises the vengeance which is to be carried out in the remainder of the tragedy.

The pathos of this scene is reiterated in the next, when Titus, now a nascent Lear “all mad with misery” (III,ii,9), sits down with Lavinia, a “map of woe, that thus dost talk in signs” (III,ii,12), at a pathetic family repast which foreshadows the tumultuous Procnean banquet scene at the end of the play (V,iii). Now both handless, Titus identifies with Lavinia in her suffering, so much so that he explains how they will both become emblems of sorrow:

In thy dumb action will I be as perfect
As begging hermits in their holy prayers.
Thou shalt not sigh, nor hold thy stumps to heaven,
Nor wink, nor nod, nor kneel, nor make a sign,
But I, of these, will wrest an alphabet,
And by still practice learn to know thy meaning.


These scenes at the center of Titus Andronicus do in fact demonstrate how closely parallel they are to the situations and development of the poem Lucrece. In both Titus and Lucrece the rape scene is centrally placed and either narrated (Lucrece, ll. 673-686) or offstage (Titus, II,iv,stage directions). This central location in both works narrows the audience's focus down to the abuse of the individual, from which spring devastating personal and ultimately socio-political consequences. The socio-political upheaveals are only proleptically implied, however, in the development of Lucrece by the use of the battles observed in the Trojan War tapestry by Lucrece in her tearful lament. The actual banishment of the Tarquins and the fall of the monarchy are not included in the poem; instead, only the promise of revenge is made, and the final emphasis is on the pitiable downfall of Lucrece as a result of “Tarquin's foul offence” (l. 1852). Thus the poem ends where Act III of the play ends, while Titus Andronicus further demonstrates the socio-political ramifications stemming directly from the scenes of personal abuse and family grief. As part of this dramatic development, a false masque of Revenge (V,ii) is played out by Chiron and Demetrius as Rape and Murder. The unusual ironic duality of this scene, wherein the characters play themselves while taking on at the same time the traditional allegorical figures of medieval morality drama, provides for the audience instant abstraction of the stage events and also an immediate widening from the specific to the universal. Only in the final horrific scene, which leaves bodies scattered onstage in a triumph of death, do we find attention given to the connections between specific causes and the subsequent social repercussions. As a distraught Titus adopts a Virginius role in killing his only daughter, he reminds us that it is not really he who has killed her:

Not I, 'twas Chiron and Demetrius:
They ravish'd her, and cut away her tongue,
And they, 'twas they, that did her all this wrong.


Like Virginius, Titus sees himself as the inevitable instrument by which the violence of others is carried out. Renaissance views of the Appius and Virginia story, often portrayed in Renaissance art …, tended to adopt this exonerative attitude, in the same way that Lucrece exclaims on the point of suicide how Tarquin, by his act of rape, is in effect killing her: “He, he, fair lords, 'tis he / That guides this hand to give this wound to me” (ll. 1721-22). As in the twin engravings by Antonio Tempesta …, of Tereus and Philomena, and the Procnean banquet, the follow-through from rape to death was a frequent Renaissance theme.

In a final crowd scene with Lucius as leader and future emperor, we are reminded (by Aemilius) of the destruction of the Trojan War, which has given “our Troy, our Rome, the civil wound” (V,iii,87), and that it has been caused by the foul sons of Tamora:

Then, gracious auditory, be it known to you
That Chiron and the damn'd Demetrius
Were they that murd'red our Emperor's brother,
And they it were that ravished our sister.
For their fell faults our brothers were beheaded,
Our father's tears despis'd, and basely cozen'd
Of that true hand that fought Rome's quarrel out,
And sent her enemies unto the grave.


In the midst of all these “uproars,” which have produced bodies scattered onstage before them in an emblem of death, the underlying cause has been rapaciousness symbolized by the vicious attack on Lavinia. In keeping with the tearful situation in Act III, this culminating episode of the play is replete with lachrymose imagery in a scene of general lamentation for the woe which has riddled society; though wider in scope, it does in fact hark back to the similar scene of familiar lament at the end of Lucrece. Thus the emblem of rape at the center of the play, in the form of the martyr-like Lavinia, has been broadened by the end to an emblem of rapine: the narrowing of focus to the despoliation of the individual is symbolic as well as causative of the more general socio-political upheavals.

The affective purpose of the rape situations in both Lucrece and Titus Andronicus is to develop in the audience a response of pity for the victims who suffer abuse and resulting death. This pity is not to be seen as a condescending sympathy (a common modern view), but rather as a compassionate understanding with a view to amelioration of the situation which causes such abuses; it is what Milton, in Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, calls “a true and Christian commiseration.” The imagistic use of tears and the reiterative rhetoric of lament in both poem and play produce pity which evokes in the audience a negative evaluation of the social situations which produce such disruptive and devastating effects. The rapes and the subsequent isolation of the heroines symbolize the disruption of personal and social means of communication. The handless, tongueless, and even tearful, state of Lavinia forces the audience to appreciate anew the necessity for civil discourse, which has been reduced to incomprehensible signs by such rapacious wounds. Even though Lucrece retains the use of her tongue (for which modern critics have condemned her), she is similarly isolated by the rape and suffers the desperate ruminations which result in her pitiful suicide. In both cases, the emblematic purpose is to stir in the audience an awareness of the interrelationships of the individual and the social, of the private and the public, so as to produce an impetus for solving those problems which have such debilitating consequences to our moral, ethical, and social framework. Central and crucial, Lucrece and Lavinia demonstrate the facility with which Shakespeare adopted traditional emblems and incorporated them poetically and dramatically in his early works.


  1. See Henry Bullinger, The Decades of Henry Bullinger, trans. H. I., ed. Rev. Thomas Harding, The Parker Society (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1849), I, p. 417; John Hooper, A Declaration of the Ten Holy Commandments of Almighty God (London, 1550), ed. Samuel Carr, The Parker Society (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1843), pp. 284, 354; Juan Luis Vives, The office and duetie of an husband, trans. Thomas Paynell, (London, 1553?), sigs. E3v-E4r, A5v-A7r; The Warfare of Christians: Concerning the conflict against the Fleshe, the World, and the Devill, trans. Arthur Golding, (London, 1576), sigs. B6v-B7r, pp. 12-13; Pierre de la Primaudaye, The French Academie, trans. T. B., (London, 1586), sigs. R1rff; and Francis Meres, Palladis Tamia (London, 1598), sigs. Rr4v-Rr7r, pp. 308-11. See also my earlier discussion of this background material, “Iconography and Rhetoric in Shakespeare's Lucrece,” Shakespeare Studies 14 (1981), 3-6.

  2. For the sequence by Goltzius, see F. W. H. Hollstein, Dutch and Flemish Etchings Engravings and Woodcuts (Amsterdam: Menno Hertzberger, n.d.), Vol. VIII, p. 37; the panel on the history of Lucretia by Biago di Antonio is in the Ca'd'Oro, Venice. I have viewed this in the Photographic Collection, Warburg Institute, London (reference, Mostra, Lorenzo il Magnifico, 1949, 10, p. 70f).

  3. The use of “chamber” for the vagina was quite common in Elizabethan drama. See James T. Henke, Courtesans and Cuckolds (New York: Garland Publishing, 1979), p. 38; and Eric Partridge, Shakespeare's Bawdy (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1948, 1960), p. 85. Textual quotations from Lucrece are taken from The Poems, ed. F. T. Prince, the Arden Shakespeare (London: Methuen, 1960).

  4. There are innumerable art works depicting the individual victim. For example, there are over fifty different full-length studies of Lucrece commiting suicide, about fifty three-quarters-length, and about fifty half-length studies, including those by many famous Renaissance artists, in the Photographic Collection, Warburg Institute, London.

  5. This heraldry has been noted briefly by Muriel C. Bradbrook, Shakespeare and Elizabethan Poetry (London: Chatto and Windus, 1951), p.111.

  6. See, for example, the views of F. T. Prince, The Poems, Arden Edition (London: Methuen, 1960), pp. xxxiv-xxxviii.

  7. Thomas Wilson, The Arte of Rhetorique (London, 1553), ed. R. H. Bowers (Gainesville: Scholars' Facsimiles and Reprints, 1962), pp.154-56, fol. 71v-72v; see also pp. 157-59, fol. 73r-74r. For the significance of Wilson's work in England, see Wilbur S. Howell, Logic and Rhetoric in England, 1500-1700 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1956), pp. 98-110.

  8. For discussion of Shakespeare's rhetorical training, see T. W. Baldwin, William Shakespeare's Smalle Latine & Lesse Greeke (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1944).

  9. See Clark Hulse, Metamorphic Verse: The Elizabethan Minor Epic (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981), pp. 179-80.

  10. Quotations from Titus Andronicus and Romeo and Juliet are taken from The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1974).

  11. These emblematic qualities have been noted briefly by Bradbrook, Shakespeare and Elizabethan Poetry, pp. 105-106, and by Dieter Mehl, “Schaubild und Sprachfigur in Shakespeares Dramen,” Deutsche Shakespeare-Gesellschaft West. Jahrbuch, (1970), 19.

  12. The story of Daphne hunted by Apollo in Ovid's Metamorphoses, Book I, became a standard reference for the preservation of chastity. In George Sandys' translation, Daphne appealed to her father to be transformed (into the laurel tree) to prevent rape:

    Helpe Father, if your streames containe a Powre!
    May Earth, for too well pleasing; me devour:
    Or, by transforming, O destroy this shape,
    That thus bétrayes me to undoing rape.

    Daphne is regarded as a symbol of chastity, and Sandys' commentary explains, “Daphne affects Diana, which is chastity.” See George Sandys, Ovid's Metamorphosis (Oxford, 1632), ed. Karl K. Hulley and Stanley T. Vandersall (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1970), pp. 40, 73-74. William Caxton and Arthur Golding also expressed the same views: see William Caxton, The Metamorphoses of Ovid (1480), The Phillips Manuscript, facsimile (New York: George Braziller, 1968), Vol I, Book 1, Ch. 18; and Arthur Golding, Metamorphosis (London, 1612), “The Epistle,” sig. 13v. For a discussion of the wider implications of the tree image, see Albert H. Tricomi, “The Mutilated Garden in Titus Andronicus,” Shakespeare Studies IX (1976), 89-105.

  13. See, for example, the views of J. Dover Wilson, ed., Titus Andronicus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1948), Introduction, pp. liii-liv; and G. R. Hibbard, The Making of Shakespeare's Dramatic Poetry (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1981), pp. 47-53.

  14. The tearing of the hair as a traditional icon of despair is shown in Moshe Barasch, Gestures of Despair in Medieval and Early Renaissance Art (New York: New York University Press, 1976).

Clifford Davidson (essay date 1984)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5685

SOURCE: Davidson, Clifford. “The Iconography of Wisdom and Folly in King Lear.” In Shakespeare and the Emblem: Studies in Renaissance Iconography and Iconology, edited by Tibor Fabiny, pp. 189-214. Szeged, Hungary: Department of English, Attila Jozsef University, 1984.

[In the following excerpt, Davidson calls attention to the way symbolic associations underscore the motif of reversals and inversions of order in King Lear. He argues that although the first four acts may be read as a traditional Christian presentation of the operation of divine providence, the iconography of Act V appears to question the wisdom of relying on moral or religious certainties.]

Sometimes individual plays in the Shakespeare canon take on particularly strong significance in the light of events which we see taking place in the world around us. While it is unwise to see Shakespeare as a great sage, comparable perhaps to Socrates, the immediacy of some events in one or another of his stage plays will strike us particularly strongly from time to time. At this juncture in history, I am thus struck by the events of King Lear, which I find to challenge us in our complacent notions about the stability of the social order and the inherent goodness of men. In this sense the play perhaps will not teach so very much more than we could learn from surveying the dislocations and the terrible events of our own century. Nevertheless, Shakespeare's drama seems to have some further significance for us. It certainly places events within perspective, and it provides a grid against which we can examine the widom and folly of our own age.

If we may agree that Shakespeare thought of his theater as an emblem of the world,1 then we can see the heart of the problem as one that can be translated into theatrical and visual terms. Life in a civilized society must be more than mere play-acting, going through the gestures and uttering the words demanded by the script before it is time to leave this earthly stage. Hypocrisy in the pursuit of a private and sinister kind of self-defined “wisdom”—a “wisdom” that must be hidden so as to seem to be something other than actual foolishness—provides therefore the paradox around which the visual tableaux and iconography of King Lear are organized. Such pretended wisdom, identifying life as shadow sans substance, will in the play persist in violating the meaning of life, in jeopardizing civilization itself. Thus Lear, after he has fallen to Fortune's lowest point which is also the kingdom's lowest point, recognizes in his madness that the world now appears to be nothing but a “great stage of fools” (

Goneril and Regan, the two sly daughters of the king, are actresses whose faces do not match what is in their hearts. To use Geoffrey Whitney's words from his Choice of Emblemes, their “flatteringe speeche” with their “sugred wordes” will have the purpose of deceiving trust: “And few there bee [who] can scape theise vipers vile.”2 Such, then, is the wisdom of the deceptive Goneril and Regan, whose mastery of “that glib and oily art / To speak and purpose not” (I.i.224-25) persuades the old king of their love and loyalty. But as soon as they are able to confide in each other, these two daughters drop their actors' masks before the audience as they agree to “[hit] together” to deny any authority the king might wish to retain after his abdication (I.i.302-03). These daughters are, like Macbeth and Lady Macbeth welcoming King Duncan of Scotland to their castle at Inverness, hypocrites who turn to their monarch fair faces while their actual intentions remain hidden. They are, as we would say, “two faced”, like Cesare Ripa's Fraude as illustrated in his Iconologia.3 And they are acting out a role which conceals their malice, poisonous envy, perverse desires—qualities which only their self-love can translate into what will seem to them to be wise behavior. Goneril and Regan place self above all bonds of duty and all pretensions of love where love is due, and, as we see in the play's first scene, in order to gain their objectives they will engage in the most blatant flattery.

These two women, Lear's older daughters, may thus be said to represent the iconography of wicked femininity, which draws upon the original act of Eve in the Garden of Eden when in the Hebrew myth she succumbed to ambition and the lust for power. Shakespeare's play depicts this iconography with very great precision. When Goneril's letter is intercepted by Edgar, the good son exclaims, “O indistinguishable space of woman's will!” ( She and her wicked sister, in spite of their pretensions to wisdom, are dominated by their wills as these faculties in turn are influenced by their passions and appetites without any real guidance from reason. Their wills are boundless, infinitely selfish. Hence Goneril finds the limits placed on her by the marriage bonds, which hold her to Albany's bed, like a jail. And, as we are reminded by Regan herself at I.i.69, she is “made of that self metal as my sister [italics mine].” Metal in this instance may be seen in terms of envy—a traditional association4—but it might also be compared to the important notion of which we are reminded in The Merchant of Venice I.iii.134, that metal is “barren” and hence cannot “breed” or reproduce itself. If all women were of the same “metal” as Goneril and Regan, nature would clearly be unredeemable, and Lear's mad and cynical words about them would be universally applicable:

Down from the waist they are Centaurs,
Though women all above;
But to the girdle do the gods inherit,
Beneath is all the fiends': there's hell, there's
There is the sulphurous pit, burning, scalding,
Stench, corruption …

(IV. vi. 124-30)

Such double natures present us with a feminine character which is defined in terms of the magical but deadly mouth and cave of hell.

Fortunately, one of Lear's daughters is not thus controlled by her lower nature. The iconography of Cordelia stresses the contrast with her sisters, for she lacks their empty and flattering rhetoric as well as their essential “hollowness.” Despite the “Nothing” of her answer to her father, she does in fact love and respect him according to her “bond.” She has no wilful desire to reach beyond the limits set by nature for parent-child relationships; she will in all sincerity “Obey,” “love,” “and most honor” her father and king (I. i. 98). Her stance is on the side of that which makes possible the coherence holding the commonwealth together, while her sisters' individualism and selfishness tend only toward the terrible chaos that is at the iconographic center of the play. Thus Lear truly has “[one] daughter / Who redeems nature from the general curse / Which twain have brought her to” (IV. vi. 205-07). The implicit imagery which identifies the evil daughters with the Fall of Man is balanced by an explicit reference to the second Eve, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the mother of the Redeemer in Christian tradition.

The subjection of England to this cursed “twain,” Goneril and Regan, comes about, of course, through the choleric king's unfortunate decision to divide the kingdom and through his public preference for flattery over truth. In the first act, the king's “hideous rashness” (i. 151) seems impelled by a strange and mysterious force beyond the comprehension of rational philosophy. Blinded by his passion, Lear can only describe the intensity of his rage by the iconography of the line spoken to Kent: “The bow is bent and drawn, make from the shaft” (I. i. 143). The tension of the drawn bow ready to be released is appropriately analogous to the violence of the king's temperament. And it is sufficient to dislocate the precarious social balance achieved by civil society.

King Lear will be personally punished, of course, for his pride and anger. At the beginning, Lear is described in iconographic terms as being at the top of Fortune's wheel; when he steps down from his place at the top, he causes a great spinning of the wheel. The forces which are visually described as out of control become the means by which Edmund and the wicked daughters attempt to raise themselves to absolute power, while these same forces are turned against Lear and the other good characters in the play. Therefore “the rack of this tough world” (V. iii. 315) itself become a source of torture to the king. As Kent notes at the end, only someone who “hates” this formerly proud king would wish at last to see his life stretched out longer (V. iii. 316). The emblem is of a man whose body is tied or otherwise placed forcibly upon a globe or other circular instrument of torture. Thus will the proud be eternally treated, according to the account of the punishment of the seven deadly sins as told by Lazarus after his return from death in The Kalender of Shepherdes, translated by R. Copland (c. 1518): “I have seen in helle wheles ryght by sette on an hylle / the whiche was to loke on in maner lyke Milles incessauntly tournynge about by great Impytuosyte roaryinge and hurlynge as it were thonder.”5 The woodcut which accompanies the text shows the wheels in action. What we have here is Ixion's fiery wheel of punishment become a standard kind of punishment in hell. And it is a frightening vision. We are reminded of Lear's lines, spoken in the midst of the “rough” and hellish storm, in which he draws an analogy between “filial ingratitude” and “this mouth” tearing “this hand / For lifting food to't” (III. iv. 14-16).6

When King Lear in his insensitive rage had banished Cordelia, he had sworn by the icon of the sun's “sacred radiance”—not an inappropriate oath for an ancient Celtic king—but also by “The [mysteries] of Hecat and the Night,” that this daughter was henceforth no longer to be regarded as his daughter (I. i. 109-16). The goddess of the witches, dreaded Hecate who presides over the midnight rites of her devotees, and dark Night, who appears widely as a vivid personification in Renaissance literature,7 are heralds of the overwhelming tragedy that will carry the king through madness and then to the sorrowful death which he will encounter at the end of the drama. In words which comment directly on his foolishness at this point, he refuses to “See better” (I. i. 158), and hence eclipses the solar “radiance” that we might iconographically associate with a harmonius, ordered Apollonian existence. Indeed, “the night comes on,” as Gloucester emblematically notes after the king has been refused shelter by his daughters (II. iv. 300). Lear will shortly experience something analogous to being hurled into “utter darknes” where there is only “weping, and gnasshing of teeth” (Matthew 25.30, Geneva Version). Indeed, the hell into which the king descends must have not only its symbols of torture but also its demons, whose power over him seemingly will be broken when Cordelia returns to take him “out o' th' grave” (IV. vii. 44) in a symbolic gesture of redemption.

In the sub-plot, Edmund, like Goneril and Regan, represents a principle of inversion, for he too is an agent who wishes to insure that the wisdom of order and degree in family and state is turned upside-down. To achieve his demonic ends, he must fearlessly grasp the forelock of Opportunity as she is visualized in the emblem books, and he does in fact make the most of whatever chances fall in his way. Before he is toppled in Act V, he has raised himself from an unpropertied illegitimate son without status or power to be the Duke of Gloucester who is the “conductor” (IV. vii. 87-88) of the English forces. He is for a time very close to the English throne which, had he achieved it, would have completed the transformation of the lowest to the highest—at least in appearance.

Thus the iconography of the world-upside-down topos becomes a major factor in King Lear8 and illustrates emblematically what the ascendancy of Goneril, Regan, and Edmund means in the political sphere. Thus when the oily steward, Oswald, tells the “chang'd” Albany of “Gloucester's treachery, / And of the loyal service of his son [Edmund],” Goneril's husband reacts by telling him that he “had turn'd the wrong side out” (IV. ii. 6-9; italics mine). Unquestionably, the dramatist intends everyone to see that with Lear's evil daughters and Gloucester's bastard son in the ascendant, all positive values have been reversed: treachery is now “loyal service,” and service is “treachery”. In such a world, “Truth's a dog must to kennel, he must be whipt out, when the Lady Brach may stand by th' fire and stink” (I. ii. 111-13). Everything indeed is upside-down. As Ernst Curtius, who has identified this topos in ancient and medieval literature, observes, impossibilities are commonly strung together: “the ass plays the lute; oxen dance. … The Fathers … are to be bound in the alehouse, in court, or in the meat market. … Cato haunts the stews, Lucretia has turned whore. What is outlawed is now praised. Everything is out of joint.”9 This topos, which was understood by Shakespeare in terms of its visual effect, survived into the seventeenth century in two pamphlets by John Taylor in 1642, a time of unprecedented political chaos. One pamphlet is A Plea for Prerogative: or, give Caesar his due, Being the Wheele of Fortune turn'd round: or, The World turned topsie-turvie, which comments: “Thus vice is entred, virtue is thrust out, / And Fortunes Wheele is madly turn'd about.”10 The second little pamphlet, Mad Fashions, Od Fashions, All out of Fashions, contains on its title page a woodcut which depicts a scene “like this Kingdome”: the central figure wears a “doublet on his lower parts,” gloves on his feet, shoes on his hands, breeches over his arms. At the top, a church is turned upside-down, fish fly, and a candle burns downward; the bottom of the woodcut shows a cat being chased by a mouse and a dog by a hare. On each side is another detail: a man being pushed by a wheelbarrow on the right, and on the left a cart pulling a horse. The woodcut is understood as “the Emblem of the Times”: “All things are turn'd the Cleane contrary way.” Similarly, in the inverted order of the iconography of King Lear a bedlam beggar is called “this philosopher” and “this same learned Theban” (III. iv. 158, 161). At II. iv. 223-24, the dramatist indeed gives us precisely one of the details illustrated in the woodcut at the beginning of Mad Fashions, Od Fashions, All out of Fashions: “May not an ass know when a cart draws the horse?” In power and authority, the lesser seem to have exchanged places with the greater, with disastrous results, and Lear himself becomes “this child-changed father” (IV. vii. 16).

Having initially reversed the order of things in England, Lear is now surprised when his daughters Goneril and Regan expect him to be “an obedient father” (I. iv. 235). Edgar, legitimate and loyal, must disguise himself as a madman who possesses only a blanket to cover his nakedness, while Edmund proceeds to rise in power and glory, in influence and wealth. “Everything is out of joint.” Such chaos could only be successfully communicated in the drama visually and by means of the storm which Gloucester describes in terms of one of the traditional signs of Doomsday:11 “The sea, with such a storm as [Lear's] bare head / In hell-black night endur'd, would have buoy'd up / And quench'd the stelled fires” (III. vii. 59-61). It is in the midst of this storm that Lear becomes transformed into the emblem of the poor, mad pilgrim, who will journey to Dover to be reconciled with his daughter Cordelia. The journey is a symbol of his alienation in a hostile world which is essentially upside-down.

In her return to England to rescue her suffering father, Cordelia is proven to be in inward substance no less than she had been in outward show at the beginning of the play when she had stood as an icon of truth against flattery. Described in terminology which implicitly links her to the “perle of great price” of the New Testament (Matthew 23.46), this youngest daughter is disinherited with only “truth” as her dowry (I. i. 108). Though she speaks only a little more than a hundred lines in the entire play, she is throughout a moving image of the true and the beautiful who is able to function iconographically in the play with all the power of a central symbol that has come to life. She must be seen as an emblem of the highest wisdom which paradoxically is also the greatest foolishness—a foolishness which is particularly underlined at the painful close of the play when her father comes on stage with her body and exclaims, “And my poor fool is hang'd” (V. iii. 306). Of course, the term fool with reference to Cordelia is meant in quite a different sense than when it appears on Goneril's lips with regard to Albany, whom she calls a “Fool [who] usurps my body” (IV. ii. 28). Cordelia's foolishness, however, places truth above expedience, love above glib words about love.

The opposition between Cordelia and her “dog-hearted” sisters, then, establishes the basic opposition upon which the entire play is structured. In contrast to Cordelia's selflessness and love for her father, Goneril and Regan express a strong preference for prudential behavior, which means unscrupulously advancing their own causes at all times. Sometimes such behavior, especially when set forth visually, must shock and horrify us, as when Regan exclaims: “It was great ignorance, Gloucester's eyes being out, / to let him live …” (IV. v. 9-10). All matters are to be judged without regard to higher standards of morality: neither sister wants to be thought of as a “moral fool” (IV. ii. 58).12 Curiously it is the Fool who outlines the principles of this prudential behavior in terms of iconography: “Let go thy hold when a great wheel runs down a hill, lest it break thy neck with following; but the great one that goes upward, let him draw thee after” (II. iv. 71-74). Yet the Fool (like Cordelia the “fool”) does not himself follow the rising fortunes of Goneril and Regan: “The Fool will stay, / And let the wise man fly” (II. iv. 8283). Such “wisdom,” defined by the New Testament as “the wisedome of this worlde” (I Corinthians 3.19), will be ultimately doomed, if we are to believe St. Paul who insists that God “wil cast away the understanding of the prudent” (I Corinthians 1.19).

On the other hand, imprudent Cordelia must be understood iconographically in terms of her father's words at IV. vii. 45-46 which describe her as “a soul in bliss.” Though we should be careful not to romanticize her, she is in some sense a prefiguration of the Christian saint who later in history will imitate the way of the Christian Redeemer.13 However, her righteousness must, unlike the virtue of the person living in the Christian dispensation, find its total expression in works of goodness in the world rather than in an explicit Christian faith.14 Her truth, loyalty, and beauty15 are not only marks of Botticellian loveliness, but also, like the three Graces in the Primavera, point beyond this world to transcendental values.16 She thus stands in all the harmony of a divine presence which is associated with the heavenly wisdom of the truly “wise man”. In contrast, then, is demonic foolishness, which is represented by the emblem of the “codpiece” (III. ii. 4041). Since it is a world upside-down, however, Cordelia's sisters have no thoughts about goodness, while their minds are very much upon Edmund's physical attractiveness. And to them Cordelia's cause in returning to England seems infinitely foolish. If we may again borrow the language of the New Testament which was clearly in Shakespeare's mind when he wrote this play, Cordelia illustrates how Providence seems to choose “the foolish things of the worlde” in order “to confounde mightie things” (I Corinthians 1.27).

Cordelia thus goes about her “fathers busines” (Luke 2.49) as would any Christian saint:

O dear father!
It is thy business that I go about.

(IV. iv. 23-24)

Her own ambition is set aside (IV. iv. 27), and, motivated by love,17 she returns to her native land for the purpose of expressing her feelings in merciful acts. However, unlike her sisters, she is “queen / Over her passion” (IV. iii. 13-14), an iconographic example of rational goodness triumphing over all selfishness. Her will is in harmony with her reason. To those who lack the perspective of such regenerate reason, however, Cordelia's actions are destined to be thought merely self-destructive and absurd, for such “Wisdom and goodness to the vild seem vild” (IV. ii. 38). In an upside-down world which can neither trust nor hope, she is a seeming fool because she is saintly. Such a fool also was Milton's Abdiel in Paradise Lost, for he was the one among the angels who rebelled against his leader Lucifer's perverted plot to turn heaven upside-down (PL, Book V).

The central paradox of Cordelia is again derived from the New Testament, as the following quote from the Geneva Bible will make clear:

If anie man among you seme to be wise in this worlde, let him be a foole, that he may be wise. For the wisdome of this worlde is foolishnes with God: for it is written, He catcheth the wise in their owne craftines.

(I Corinthians 3.18-19)

Goneril, Regan, and Edmund are implicitly like crafty spiders who have caught themselves in their own webs.18 On the other hand, Cordelia seems on the level of iconography to be clearly a divine instrument, a fool for the sake of higher values. The wicked ones, in contrast, are surely “fools of time” who have “liv'd for crime” (Sonnet 124).

Sealed as she is within the sphere of a totally temporal perspective, Goneril in particular represents a royal irresponsibility diametrically opposed to Cordelia's sense of duty: she diabolically places herself above justice and insists to her husband Albany that “the laws are mine” (V. iii. 158-59). This “monstrous” statement is reminiscent of the lines spoken by “that old white-bearded Satan,” the fool and jester Falstaff, when he hears that Hal is now Henry V: “Let us take any man's horses, the laws of England are at my commandment” (Henry IV, Part I, V. iii. 135-37). In the end, however, Albany's assessment of his wife's arrogance and ambition (I. iv. 346) is proven correct: “Striving to better, oft we mar what's well.” Finally, the fabric of her reversed values and power crumbles even at the moment in which military victory has been achieved over the invading French army. Despairing, she ends her life with her own hand. It would seem superficially that Shakespeare is dramatizing a maxim found in the Elizabethan Homilies: “although God [may] suffer sometimes the wicked to have their pleasure in this world, yet the end of ungodly living is at length endless destruction.”19

As the above analysis shows, the first four acts and part of the fifth act of King Lear will bear interpretation as a conventional Christian drama, showing the hand of Providence working for good in the lives of individuals and the nation as well as countering the machinations of the wicked. But, especially in the light of iconographic study, portions of Act V are most disturbing; indeed, the whole dramatic thrust of this act seems in a different direction. Our emotional attachment to Cordelia is not diminished, and it is true that the wicked have their judgment here. For Edmund and the two wicked daughters, the wheel of Fortune has come round “full circle” (V. iii. 175). Yet the bitter, woefully tragic deaths of Cordelia and King Lear mean that somehow the neat iconographic pattern of Providence and its alleged redemptive action have gone all awry. Edgar, of course, looks down on the fallen Edmund and with justification proclaims: “The gods are just …” (V. iii. 171), but this statement comes before the disclosure which reveals the martyrdom of saintly Cordelia. When he learns of her death, Kent, speaking for all of us, asks, “Is this the promised end?” and Edgar, in words that surely qualify his defense of justice among the gods in V. iii. 171, adds, “Or image of that horror?” (V. iii. 264-65). The apocalyptic language is continued by Albany even as he signals the group of characters to be quiet: “Fall and cease” (V. iii. 265).

Lear, who has been brought back from the hellish chaos of his “untun'd and jarring senses” (IV. vii. 15) by the harmonious music of a consort of viols20 and the redemptive presence of his saintly daughter—it is as if he is being extracted from hell—has been brutally sent to prison by the villain Edmund, the tough-minded and ambitious general of the English forces. This is the man who has told his subordinate officer that he must not question “Thy great employment” (V. iii. 32-33) as he is given written orders to do some terrible deed without a name. The officer, of course, stands in direct contrast to Cornwall's servant in III. vii. 72-75; he will do whatever he is told to do. Then we learn that, as we had suspected, Edmund's “commission,” signed also by Goneril, has been “To hang Cordelia in the prison, and / To lay the blame upon her own despair, / That she fordid herself” (V. ii. 254-56). Act IV does not, therefore, actually involve the release of Lear from hell through the divine instrument Cordelia, but appears only to be the ironic prelude to a most disturbing final act. Albany's prayer that “The gods defend her” (V. iii. 257) is not heard in heaven, for Cordelia has been killed.

In a drama that has focused to a large extent on the theme of wisdom versus foolishness, the iconography of its conclusion involves a serious probing of the veneer of civilization and its theological underpinning. Shakespeare, of course, does not overtly attack the religious beliefs of his time, and he has no intention of letting his unbelieving villains go free at the end. Like Iago, Macbeth, and Hamlet's uncle Claudius, the wicked sisters and the ambitious brother must receive the justice that is their due. Shakespeare also insists, as he almost always does, on some remedies to heal and sustain “the gor'd state” (V. iii. 321). But when he has Lear hold a feather before dead Cordelia's lips and say,

This feather stirs, she lives! If it be so,
It is a chance which does redeem all sorrows
That ever I have felt

(V. iii. 266-68)

the playwright seems through his iconography to be mocking all certainties. The possibility of being redeemed “from the general curse” seems to be insubstantial in the face of such words. There is no chance that Cordelia will live, and somehow the order of nature itself suddenly seems infinitely less benign. No one can deny that, on “this great stage of fools” which is the world we live in, the gods allow men and women to be tortured needlessly, though in the joyless and woeful moment of Lear's words at the end it also becomes impossible to believe that they do it in sport. But it may be worse: the gods may be indifferent. If human existence is never perfectly orderly, so also can it never be without its elements of chaos and pain. In the final tableau of King Lear, the pain overflows all measure.

When we last see Cordelia alive, her father is telling her:

                    Come, let's away to prison:
We two alone will sing like birds i' th' cage;
When thou dost ask me blessing, I'll kneel down
And ask of thee forgiveness. So we'll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we'll talk with them too—
Who loses and who wins; who's in, who's out—
And take upon's the mystery of things
As if we were God's spies: and we'll wear out,
In a wall'd prison, packs and sects of great ones,
That ebb and flow by th' moon.

(V. iii. 8-19)

There is irony here too, for the villain Edmund simply will not allow them together to “wear out … packs and sects of great ones.” No time will be given to them to sing like a pair of tamed birds in a cage, for they have been caught in the dangerous snare of the great fowler. This demonic figure appears with his limed line in the borders of one of the illuminations in the Book of Hours of Catherine of Cleves.21 The birds are being attracted to the line by a pair of caged birds who serve as decoys. In the symbolic language of the illuminator's art, the birds are, of course, souls jeopardized by the snares of Satan. The iconographic meaning becomes especially clear when the illumination itself is examined, for it shows an angel leading five souls out of the flames of hell-mouth into safety. Such an outcome is promised in Psalm 91, which tells men that God will deliver them from the snares of the fowler. But in King Lear, the gods are silent and acquiescent: no angel will come in this, the final act of the play to release Cordelia from the cage which is Edmund's prison. “She's gone forever,” Lear laments, as he carries her body onto the stage (V. iii. 260).

But there is a sense in which these two will be like “God's spies” even here, for the honesty of the fifth act of this drama may be said to reveal to us the world's most perplexing. paradoxes. The “mystery of things” is thus to be regarded as a much more complicated secret than the heart of Hamlet's “mystery” which will remain forever closed to the small-minded Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The “mystery of things” must be the complex and contradictory reality which the world itself reveals to us. Surely it involves the ever-present temporal dialectic between wisdom and foolishness, between topsy-turvy and right-side-up.

Edgar in his final speech (V. iii. 324-27) speaks of “The weight of this sad time” and the necessity at this moment to be absolutely honest about the realities of the emotional life as it gazes upon the woeful Death (“Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say”). Then, in words that underline precisely the audience's feeling at this point, he notes: “The oldest hath borne most: we that are young / Shall never see so much, nor live so long.” But then, after we have returned home from the theater or closed the pages of Shakespeare's play, we may wonder with dread if we too might be asked to bear “so much.” Our divided world, like Lear's, is seemingly out of joint and in need of reconciliation, but having larger means to destroy and ravage, we have a very special reason to value Shakespeare's analysis of wisdom and foolishness.


  1. See especially Frances A. Yates, Theatre of the World (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1969), passim.

  2. Geoffrey Whitney, A Choice of Emblemes (Leiden, 1586), p.

  3. Cesare Ripa, Iconologia (Rome, 1603), p. 174; (Padua, 1630) pt. 1, p. 276, sig. R6v.

  4. See Henry VIII III.ii.239.

  5. The Kalender of Shepherdes (London, [c. 1518]), sig. E5v.

  6. Caroline Spurgeon, in her Shakespeare's Imagery (1935; rpt. Boston: Beacon Press, 1958), p. 339, noted how pervasive in this play is the imagery “of a human body in anguished movement, tugged, wrenched, beaten, pierced, stung, scourged, dislocated, flayed, gashed, scalded, tortured and finally broken on the rack.”

  7. See The Faerie Queene I.v. 20-45, for example.

  8. See William R. Elton, King Lear and the Gods (San Marino, California: Huntington Library, 1966), p. 130.

  9. Ernst Robert Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, trans. Willard R. Trask, Bollingen Ser., 36 (New York: Pantheon, 1953), p. 95.

  10. Quoted in Samuel C. Chew, The Pilgrimage of Life (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1962), p. 44.

  11. The first of the Fifteen Signs of Doomsday in The Golden Legend, trans. Granger Ryan and Helmut Ripperger (London: Longman, Green, 1941), I, 4, is as follows: “On the first day, the sea will rise fifty cubits higher than the mountains, and will rear up as a solid wall.” This event receives illustration in fifteenth-century glass in All Saints, North Street, York.

  12. See also G. Wilson Knight, The Wheel of Fire, 5th ed. (New York: Meridian, 1957), p. 204.

  13. See especially Elton, pp. 75-114.

  14. Ibid., pp. 83-84.

  15. These are the traditional attributes of Cordeilla (Cordelia). See J. S. P. Tatlock, The Legendary History of Britain (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1950), pp. 382-83.

  16. See Edgar Wind, Pagan Myteries in the Renaissance, revised ed. (New York: Norton, 1968), pp. 117-26.

  17. According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, she had lived while in France in Karitia, a city most appropriately named. See Tatlock, pp. 92-93.

  18. See Edmund's speech at II. i. 15: “This weaves itself perforce into my business” (italics mine). With such a net he will catch his father and his brother, and he will make himself duke. Cornwall and Regan are likewise described in terms of thread put to no good use when they come to see Gloucester “out of season, threading dark-ey'd night” (II.i.119).

  19. Homilies Appointed to be Read in Churches in the Time of Queen Elizabeth, 4th ed. (Oxford, 1816), p. 70.

  20. On the usefulness of music as therapy for mental illness, see Raymond Klibansky, Erwin Panofsky, and Fritz Saxl, Saturn and Melancholy (London: Nelson, 1964), pp. 46, 85, 267ff.

  21. John Plummer, The Hours of Catherine of Cleves (New York: Braziller, n.d.), pp. 10-24, 347, Pl. 48.


Chew, S. C. 1962. The Pilgrimage of Life New York Yale UP

Curtius, E. R. 1953. European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages Transl. W.R. Trask New York Pantheon

Elton, W. R. 1966. King Lear and the Gods San Marino, California, Huntington Library

Klibansky, R. - Panofsky, E. - Saxl, F. 1964. Saturn and Melancholy London: Nelson

Knight, G. W. 1957. The Wheel of Fire New York, Meridian

Spurgeon, C. 1958. Shakespeare's Imagery (1935) Boston: Beacon Press

Wind, E. 1968. Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance revised ed. New York, Norton

Yates, F. A. 1969. Theatre of the World University of Chicago Press

András Kiséry (essay date 2000)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6675

SOURCE: Kiséry, András. “Emblems of the Polity: The Wounds of Rhetoric and of the Body Politic in Shakespeare's Rome.” In The Iconography of Power: Ideas and Images of Rulership on the English Renaissance Stage, edited by György E. Szönyi and Rowland Wymer, pp. 161-79. Szeged, Hungary: Institute of English and American Studies, University of Szeged, 2000.

[In the following essay, Kiséry contrasts the emblematic use of wounded bodies for political purposes in Coriolanus and Julius Caesar.]

When at the end of Titus Andronicus, Lucius is requested to tell the tragic story of the Andronici to an audience apparently dumb-struck by the weird consecution of four on-stage killings within the span of something like 20 lines, he sums up his part in the events just about as precipitately, dwelling on his heroic struggle to preserve Rome, and then, as if realising the vulnerability of his claims, rather anxiously adds:

Alas, you know I am no vaunter, I.
My scars can witness, dumb although they are,
That my report is just and full of truth.
But soft, methinks I do digress too much,
Citing my worthless praise. O, pardon me,
For when no friends are by, men praise themselves.

(TIT 5.3.112-17)1

Lucius' speech, rather than merely providing a clarifying narrative at the end of a catastrophe, establishes him as the warrior who from Rome's “bosom took the enemy's point, / Sheathing the steel in [his] advent'rous body” (Tit: 5.3.110-11). The testimony of the wounds would commend him with such compelling force that the sheer gesture of offering to display them to the people seems to entitle Lucius to their unanimous vote; so much so, that there seems no point in actually asking them:

Come, come, thou reverend man of Rome,
And bring our emperor gently in thy hand,
Lucius, our emperor—for well I know
The common voice do cry it shall be so.

(TIT 5.3.136-39)

The association of supreme power with the display of scars or wounds, the presentation of scars as absolute proofs of eligibility, is a characteristic topos of Shakespearean Rome, a distinctive feature of Romanitas, something comparable to suicide as the utmost proof of moral integrity in these non-Christian worlds. In the name of the entire family, Marcus does in fact offer to slaughter themselves, should Rome condemn the Andronici for any detail of their story:

Have we done aught amiss, show us wherein,
And from the place where you behold us pleading
The poor remainder of the Andronici
Will hand in hand all headlong hurl ourselves
And on the ragged stones beat forth our souls […]

(TIT 5.3.128-32)

But Marcus' theatrical threats remain an unusual, indeed unique instance of the rhetorical exploitation of an essentially private response to moral rather than political exigencies. Unlike the stoic act of suicide, the disclosure of one's wounds is clearly a public, political act, intimately connected with the discourses of Roman patriotism and with the idea of a charismatic leader, who embodies the ethos of self-sacrifice for the sake of the country. In the present paper, I try to explore the contexts and implications of this custom for the stage-world of Renaissance Romans, focusing on Julius Caesar and Coriolanus, both of them plays in which references to the wounds or scars of the hero are central to the unfolding of the plot. Coriolanus' reluctance to present his scars to the citizens of Rome in the marketplace forestalls his election for consul, turning the citizens and Coriolanus against each other, whereas Antony's funeral oration, circling around and pointing at the wounds of Caesar, effects a complete reversal in the emotions of the crowd. In both of these cases, as well as in the last scene of Titus Andronicus, wounds are exploited in crucial moments of the contention for power, and, as I shall argue, their effectiveness as means of persuasion hinges on their embeddedness in the discourse of patriotism, and on the emblematic conflation of the wounded Roman body of the candidate with the Roman body politic threatened by some enemy.

In 2.1, when news of the victory and of Caius Martius' return arrive, people seem rather excited about the wounds he has received:

[…] Martius is coming home. He has more cause to be proud. [To Volumnia] Where is he wounded?
I'th'shoulder and i'th'left arm: there will be large cicatrices to show the people when he shall stand for his place. He received in the repulse of Tarquin seven hurts i'th'body.
One i'th'neck and two i'th'thigh—there's nine that I know.
He had before his last expedition twenty-five wounds upon him.
Now it's twenty-seven. Every gash was an enemy's grave. […]

(COR 2.1.130-42)

It is not just the awkward arithmetic that is of interest here, but the implications of its logic: what matters is to surpass the number that went before. The sheer number of wounds seems to be the chief concern of Caius Martius' supporters—who, as will soon turn out, want to see him consul: and the presentation of wounds in Coriolanus appears as a standard part of the consular candidates' appeal for the citizens' support. This is conspicuously so already in Plutarch's “Life of Coriolanus”, a text that provides a concise account of the significance of this custom:

For the custom of Rome was, at that time, that such as did sue for any office should for certain days before be in the market-place, only with a poor gown on their backs and without any coat underneath, to pray the citizens to remember them at the day of election; which was thus devised, either to move the people the more by requesting them in such mean apparel, or else because they might show them their wounds they had gotten in the wars in the service of the commonwealth, as manifest marks and testimony of their valiantness.

(Plutarch 1964, 317)

Wounds here appear as compelling and also necessary proofs of the worthiness of somebody—the tacit assumption underlying the custom seems to be that valiant soldiers, who have excelled in battles for the country, are eligible, indeed perfect candidates for consulate or any other office. Who has wounds is valiant, and the more wounds he has, the more valiant he is, and in the logic of this election procedure, testimonies of his valiance are somehow related to his appropriateness for the position. No sooner is Coriolanus back from the war, than his wounds are transposed and transubstantiated, utilised in the transactions of the marketplace, turned into props of political rhetoric. Quintilian suggests that persuasion is not sufficient as a definition of rhetoric,

since many other things have the power of persuasion, such as money, influence, the authority and rank of the speaker, or even some sight unsupported by language, when for instance the place of words is supplied by the memory of some individual's great deeds, by his lamentable appearance or the beauty of his person.

Significantly, and for our present purposes rather helpfully, Quintilian's prime example for moving the audience with sights presented to them is Antonius' revelation of the wounds of Manius Aquilius:

Thus when Antonius in the course of his defence of Manius Aquilius tore open his client's robe and revealed the honourable scars which he had acquired while facing his country's foes, he relied no longer on the power of his eloquence, but appealed directly to the eyes of the Roman people. And it is believed that they were so profoundly moved by the sight as to acquit the accused.

(Quintilian: II.xv.6-7; emphasis mine)

The priority of visual over verbal means of persuasion is an intriguing aspect of Quintilian's Institutio Oratoria. Quintilian devotes Chapter 2 of the Sixth Book of his Institutio to questions of emotional appeal, stressing the importance of images (visions) for the effectiveness of eloquence. What follows is an outline of his argument:

The prime essential for stirring the emotions of others is, in my opinion, first to feel those emotions oneself. […] if we wish to give our words the appearance of sincerity, we must assimilate ourselves to the emotions of those who are genuinely so affected, and our eloquence must spring from the same feeling that we desire to produce in the mind of the judge. […] But how are we to generate these emotions in ourselves, since emotion is not in our own power? […] There are certain experiences which the Greeks call phantasiai and the Romans visions, whereby things absent are presented to our imagination with such extreme vividness that they seem actually to be before our very eyes. It is the man who is really sensitive to such impressions who will have the greatest power over the emotions. […] it may be possible to turn this form of hallucination to some profit. I am complaining that a man has been murdered. […] Shall I not bring before my eyes all the circumstances […]? […] Shall I not see the fatal blow delivered and the stricken body fall? Will not the blood, the deathly pallor, the groan of agony, the death-rattle, be indelibly impressed upon my mind? From such impressions arises that enargeia which Cicero calls illumination and actuality, which makes us seem not so much to narrate as to exhibit the actual scene, while our emotions will be no less actively stirred than if we were present at the actual occurrence.

(Quintilian: VI.ii.26-32)

For Quintilian, visual images present to “the mind's eye” are central to persuasion. Persuasive communication is here a process moving from image through text to image, where the text, the spoken word is only used for the transmission of the “real thing”, of the visual, which, once translated from the text, is present to the mind without further mediation. If the orator sees the scene before him, his speech will make him “seem not so much to narrate as to exhibit the actual scene.” According to Quintilian's account, these vivid images exert immense power over the emotions of the orator as well as of his audience because mental processes are evidently visual, and the medium of understanding is identical with that of visual perception: so the aim even of the non-emotional type of peroration, the enumeration and repetition of the facts is to “place the whole of the case before [the judge's] eyes” (Quintilian: VI.i.1).2 Such an understanding of the aims of rhetoric implies that visual impulses are compatible with, and can enter immediately, the process of thinking: which explains how Marcus Antonius could rely “no longer on the power of his eloquence, but appeal[] directly to the eyes of the Roman people.” The supposed immediacy of vision accounts for its emotional effect, vision and its impact are indeed barely distinguished in this passage. Seeing, in this view, is being moved, but Quintilian is not concerned here with the direction in which one is pushed by the emotions; at this point, he tacitly assumes that the emotional response is controlled by vision only, and is thus unambiguous, i.e., there is only one way one can react to a certain image. Julius Caesar and Coriolanus problematize this notion to suggest a more rhetorical view of viewing things.

In Cicero's dialogue, De Oratore, this story about the impact of the sight of Manius Aquilius' wounds is narrated by Antonius himself. This Marcus Antonius, the grandfather of Shakespeare's Mark Antony, is easily mixed up, or simply identified with him, a rhetor whose most memorable performance is also marked by the unveiling of his client's wounds. At the end of his funeral oration, he descends from the rostrum to the body and thus enters among the crowd—a decisive contrast to Brutus—and unveils the corpse of Caesar to a similar, if more momentous effect:

O now you weep, and I perceive you feel
The dint of pity. These are gracious drops.
Kind souls, what weep you when you but behold
Our Caesar's vesture wounded? Look you here.
Here is himself, marred, as you see, with traitors.
                                        [He uncovers Caesar's body]
FIRST Plebeian
O piteous spectacle!
FOURTH Plebeian
                                                                                                              O noble Caesar!
THIRD Plebeian
O woeful day!
FIFTH Plebeian
O traitors! villains!
FIRST Plebeian
                                                                                                              O most bloody sight!
FOURTH Plebeian
We will be revenged.
ALL the plebeians
Revenge! About! Seek! Burn!
Fire! Kill! Slay!
Let not a traitor live.

(JC 3.2.187-197)

Shakespeare's play frames the revelation as a rhetorical one: it takes Antony's speech, his step-by-step, or rather stab-by-stab explication of what is there to be seen to turn his countrymen, people who not long ago were even willing to offer Brutus the crown. Wounds in Julius Caesar are not so much seen as shown: this is what Coriolanus is incapable of. A fiercely anti-rhetorical warrior, he refrains from any kind of persuasion, even if his own objectives, or—as now—tradition demand it. His wounds “smart / To hear themselves remembered” (Cor: 1.10.28-9), and even his enemies have heard him swear that

Were he to stand for consul, never would he
Appear i'th'market-place nor on him put
The napless vesture of humility,
Nor, showing, as the manner is, his wounds
To th'people, beg their stinking breaths.

(COR 2.1.218-22)

—which is just what he is expected to do, and what Antony in his complex rhetorical performance very successfully does. Coriolanus' failure results clearly from his refusal to disclose his body to the people: he is paid favourable attention by his audience when he first arrives home, “All tongues speak of him, and the blearèd sights / Are spectacled to see him” (Cor: 2.1.191-92). His success could be taken for granted, were he not, by avoiding showing his wounds, frustrating this initial benevolence and even turning the citizens against himself:

FOURTH Citizen
You have received many wounds for your country.
I will not seal your knowledge with showing them. I will make much of your voices, and so trouble you no farther.

(COR 2.3.97-100)

What such showing could achieve is suggestively described in another passage from Quintilian:

Actions as well as words may be employed to move the court to tears. […] it is with this in view that we see blood-stained swords, fragments of bone taken from the wound, and garments spotted with blood, displayed by the accusers, wounds stripped of their dressings, and scourged bodies bared to view. The impression produced by such exhibitions is generally enormous, since they seem to bring the spectators face to face with the cruel facts. For example, the sight of the bloodstains on the purple-bordered toga of Gaius Caesar, which was carried at the head of his funeral procession, aroused the Roman people to fury. They knew that he had been killed; they had even seen his body stretched upon the bier: but his garment, still wet with his blood, brought such a vivid image of the crime before their minds, that Caesar seemed not to have been murdered, but to be being murdered before their very eyes.

(Quintilian: VI.i.30-31)3

Quintilian's account clearly emphasises the role of the wounds put on display in turning the tide in the marketplace. But Antony's “staging” of the murder, also present in Plutarch's life of Marcus Antonius (Plutarch 1964, 189) is completely missing here (as it is, interestingly, in Plutarch's life of Caesar), emphasising the immediacy of the visual impact made by the garment rather than the rhetorical framing by Antony. Divested of the complicating intervention of elocution, of verbal rhetoric, the passage falls back on Quintilian's picture-theory of the mind outlined above: the image seen has such powerful effect on the spectators because it brings “a vivid image” of something “before their minds,” because, that is, it powerfully reminds them of something. But a reading of Antony's oration and of his presentation of Caesar's garments as an exercise in the art of memory will effectively reshape this interpretation.

In artificial or ‘place’-memory, texts and orations are memorised with the help of images. An image is appointed to each proposition and these images are then ordered in loci: i.e., the images are ordered spatially, in a building for example, and are recalled in the correct sequence by going over the places one by one in thought:

The artificial memory includes backgrounds [loci, i.e. places] and images. […] An image is, as it were, a figure, mark, or portrait of the object we wish to remember; for example, if we wish to recall a horse, a lion, or an eagle, we must place its image in a definite background. […]

[T]he backgrounds are very much like wax tablets or papyrus, the images like the letters, the arrangement and disposition of the images like the script, and the delivery is like the reading.

(Ad Herennium 1954, 3.xvi.29-xvii.30)

Antony first chooses Caesar's mantle for his papyrus, and the holes on it for letters. The papyrus, i.e. the locus where the images are placed, must be “such scenes as are naturally or artificially set off on a small scale, complete and conspicuous, so that we can grasp and embrace them easily by the natural memory” (Ad Herennium 1954, 3.xvi.29). And the mantle certainly answers this description:

You all do know this mantle. I remember
The first time ever Caesar put it on.
'Twas on a summer's evening in his tent,
That day he overcame the Nervii.

(JC 3.2.164-7)

Now the images that stand for the statements can be mounted on this background:

Look, in this place ran Cassius's dagger through.
See what a rent the envious Casca made.
Through this the well-beloved Brutus stabbed;

(JC 3.2.168-70)

Antony turns Caesar's mantle into a background, with pre-fabricated images against it, and assigns to each image a statement. The images are felicitously chosen—gory slits are certainly memorable, fashioned almost after what the textbook prescribes:

We ought, then, to set up images of a kind that can adhere longest in the memory. And we shall do so if we establish likenesses as striking as possible; if we set up images that are not many or vague, but doing something; if we assign to them exceptional beauty or singular ugliness; if we dress some of them with crowns or purple cloaks, for example, so that the likeness may be more distinct to us; or if we somehow disfigure them, as by introducing one stained with blood or soiled with mud or smeared with red paint, so that its form is more striking.

(Ad Herennium 1954, 3.xxii.37)

The holes on the toga are images that stand for facts: for the daggers piercing through the toga and into Caesar's body. They are images or signs of the murderers, and also of their deeds, one by one. Their power is further enhanced by the fact that they are also the proofs of the murder, so the signs stand for an action they were a part of: as signs, they appear to signify themselves as well, thus, illusorily, abolishing the arbitrariness of signification.4 These signs and proofs are then organised into a narrative whole, on the ‘background’ provided by the toga, which holds the bits of the story, memorised with the help of the holes, together: the story of the murder of Caesar, that is.

Wounds serve as the basis of political mnemonics in Shakespearean Rome: Coriolanus' wounds are utilised as elements in a construct similar to the one described above in the dialogue between Menenius and Volumnia, quoted above: they are enumerated as witnesses to a hero's valiantness, their list—with the events they are traces of and thus evoke—amounts to a narrative of the hero's deeds. According to Quintilian, who ascribes great importance to narration as a process crucial to rhetoric, one which contextualizes proofs, it is only against the perspective established in the narrative that proofs become more than “unpersuasive facts”5: the presentation of facts becomes meaningful only when it is interpreted by a story they prove.

The background, the locus of the art of memory frames disparate memories, so that they can be remembered as parts of a larger, visual structure, which—as Quintilian suggests—can then be read as a story. But it takes a rhetor to turn this larger visual structure into a narrative, to turn Caesar's mantle into a narrative of Caesar's assassination, or Coriolanus' body into an account of his valour. Images remain dumb till they are spoken for by someone looking at them, and in spite of the inwardly visualised spectacles recalled by the sight of wounds, the Romans of these plays seem to demand that they be spoken for. The Third Citizen's insistence that “if he show us his wounds and tell us his deeds, we are to put our tongues into those wounds and speak for them” (COR 2.3.5-7), and Brutus' reference to the people's “stinking breaths” which must be “begged” (COR 2.1.222) by Coriolanus when displaying his wounds, seem strangely similar to Antony's soliloquy over the bleeding corpse of Caesar:

Over thy wounds now I do prophesy—
Which like dumb mouths do ope their ruby lips
To beg the voice and utterance of my tongue—

(Caes: 3.1.262-64)

Some human voice is inevitable for the wounds to perform their task: memories are only worthwhile if they find their way into language. Dumbness is dishonourable, ignoble, it is somehow offensive towards the very deeds that are represented by the images. It is not enough that the events or persons they commemorate are remembered, this remembering must be communicated, made public. Wounds demand of their beholders to turn them into vox populi: in Coriolanus' Republic as well as in Lucius' strangely republican Empire, this voice is to be heard in the election,6 whereas in Antony's case, popular voice takes the form of mutiny—but in both cases, wounds, when put on display, are meant to be spoken for—in a rather ventriloquistic manner—by public opinion, by the people. The plurality of wounds figured as the multiplicity of mouths of the self-same body makes this ventriloquism, the association of an essentially plural voice with a single body, strikingly probable, and helps to make Caesar's body appear as the embodiment of the plural voice, his corpse the incorporation of multiple agents into a single figurative body. One dead body is figuratively made to speak, and speak in the voices of the people, which amounts to no less than sounding the vox populi, i.e., standing for the entirety of the people.

But this figurative process, taking place as if by itself, automatically, naturally, is made effective by Antony's rhetorical nudges. The actual processes of visual influences are thus at several removes from the immediacy of the sight Quintilian talks about. One could indeed argue that unmediated representation is one of the rhetorical devices deployed by Antony, a mask on the intricately rhetorical structure of the performance. An oration, if it wants to be successful, has to go out of its way to suggest its honesty, its truth. Absolute honesty is best achieved by cancelling out the rhetor, by denying the rhetoricity of the oration, that is, by making the facts as it were speak ‘for themselves’. Facts cannot speak of course: even the ultimately successful, hence apparently totally unrhetorical oration is in need of some words. But these words should be uttered for the facts, not about them, and success is certain if it is the audience, rather than the orator who utters them, and so it actually ceases to be an oration delivered to a critical audience. Thus the deployment of the vox populi by the orator is itself a subtle way of oratorical self-effacement, used for purposes of rhetorical persuasion. In the context of the marketplace, vox populi is the voice of the things themselves, the voice of facts and truths. Popular voice is immediate, natural signification, undeterred by its medium or the strategies and interests of someone uttering it. This illusion of immediacy is appropriately represented by figuring vox populi as the voice of facts, by making the wounds, seen as mouths, uttering the popular voice by themselves. That the public voice is embodied inevitably, by the very logic of figuration, as a single individual, has of course frightening political overtones—but only for twentieth-century readers. For people participating in a political discourse emblematically represented as the incorporated body politic, it is only, well, natural.

Antony's deployment of traditional rhetorical topoi thus transfigures Caesar's body into the Roman body politic with the uncanny inevitability of figuration. It is this figurative process that is eventually forestalled in Coriolanus—one could even argue because for Coriolanus, an obsessive literalist, a wound is a wound is a wound, whereas Antony does not hesitate for a moment before turning Caesar's wounds into mouths. His grand oration over the body in 3.2. completes the process foreshadowed in the soliloquy (3.1.257-278) and makes “Caesar's spirit, raging for revenge” materialize as the Roman people raging for revenge, with the suggestive ambiguity of “We will be revenged” as implying both “we will take revenge” and “someone will take revenge for us”:

FOURTH Plebeian
We will be revenged.
ALL the plebeians
Revenge! About! Seek! Burn!
Fire! Kill! Slay!
Let not a traitor live.

(JC 3.2.204-6)

In 3.1, Antony first addresses the corpse as an inanimate object, as a dead, purely material body, as “ruins”, a “piece of earth”: but through the act of addressing it, through the figure of apostrophe, he is already resuscitating it. Jonathan Culler discerns “an intimate relation between apostrophes addressed to the dead or the inanimate and prosopopoeia that give the dead or inanimate a voice and make them speak.”7 Antony does in fact enact this relationship between the two tropes by shifting from apostrophe into prosopopoeic utterance, from addressing the dead Caesar into speaking for his inert body, lending his voice to the wounds begging for it:

A curse shall light upon the limbs of men;
Domestic fury and fierce civil strife
Shall cumber all the parts of Italy;
Blood and destruction shall be so in use,
And dreadful objects so familiar,
That mothers shall but smile when they behold
Their infants quartered with the hands of war
All pity choked with custom of fell deeds;
And Caesar's spirit, raging for revenge,
With Ate by his side come hot from hell,
Shall in these confines with a monarch's voice
Cry ‘havoc!’ and let slip the dogs of war,
That this foul deed shall smell above the earth
With carrion men, groaning for burial.

(JC 3.1.265-78)

The voice given to the wounds, to the corpse of Caesar, is seen here raising the spirit of Caesar, or rather, as the above soliloquy is best understood as a rehearsal of Antony's funeral oration, it is the voice lent to the body that emerges as Caesar's spirit. Although only for himself—at this point, he is alone with the body—Antony is already seen here as raising the very spirit he is talking about—by talking about it. An immense power is ascribed here to voice, to words, showing them as agents of a strange conjuring or even necromancy: the spirit of Caesar, itself a verbal construct, engages in the affairs of humans through his “monarch's voice,” crying havoc and thus making “carrion men” groan for burial: Caesar's spirit, the figure of the voice lent to him, is making these dead bodies speak by lending them his own, borrowed voice.

Our reliance on the figurative language offered by Antony's rhetoric is warranted by near-contemporary usage, which referred to the image and the text of the emblem as body and soul, respectively,8 implying, in accordance with our reading above, the insufficiency of an image lacking a verbal soul, apprehending it as an inert body: and indeed, we find George Wither, for instance, describing his emblems as “quickened with metrical illustrations.”9 It is quite easy to see how

[s]uch usage testifies to the enduring strength of the belief, which rhetoric had encouraged, that it was words, not images, which gave the truest representation, and that it was only when pictures spoke that they could come to life.

(Bath 1994, 54)

Pictures, however, cannot speak, nor can dead bodies. Somebody must speak for them in such a way that we may take those words to be their own. This is how the contexts of emblematics help us come closer to some sort of an answer to our original question: how come that the wounds of Lucius Andronicus, Caesar or Coriolanus seem so closely if not immediately related not only to Roman patriotism but also to the question of sovereignty? These lacerated bodies are dumb images, visual aids of memory, icons of the valour of their bearers, reminding their beholders of the deeds of those who received them. Their spectators will then quicken the mute icons by narrating the story that left its traces on the bodies, that created these heroic bodies, that is. The publicly disclosed body is thus literally emblematized, turned into a clearly traditional image quickened by textual interpretation. The common, social contemplation of these emblematic bodies, the very act of public voicing of their narrative inscriptions ascribes a new, powerful meaning to them by turning the bodies from emblems of heroism into emblems of the body politic, of the people. They “beg the voice and utterance of [our] tongue” (JC 3.1.264)—but once they are made to speak, who could tell who is speaking for whom: is it the object, the image, that has begged our voice, or is it us, who are now bidding it “speak for [us]” (JC 3.2.217)? This ambiguity and interchangeability of object and subject, instigated by a reliance on the emotional immediacy of vision and on the compelling force with which an image demands a voice, is what Antony's performance, and any figurative incorporation of the populace, hinges on.

But we should also notice the obvious: that such a performance can only be imagined over a human body, that—as the literal reading of Wither's statement suggests—only human bodies can effectively be quickened by lending them a collective voice. In other words, it takes a body to embody the body politic—but once the embodiment takes place, it acts as a very powerful medium of inclusion and exclusion, of victimisation and monumentalisation. To understand these mechanisms of political self-definition and delimitation, and to see just how powerful this identification is, how indisputable and forceful the connotations of such a wounded body are, the reaction to Coriolanus' only willing reference to the scars on a human body is essential.

After submitting to his mother's supplication, and thus to a highly rhetorical exploitation of the emblematic identification of country and family, Coriolanus makes his first attempt at some sort of a visual supplementation of his meaning. This indicates that, by now, he has developed some understanding of the rhetoricity of bodies, but still relies on it in a troubled, self-destructive manner, turning the figurative production of emblematic meaning against himself. He relies on the rhetoric of patriotic incorporation in a moment when these processes contradict his communicative aims. He tries to deploy the exposure of wounds as means of persuasion, naively assuming, it seems, that the public effect of the wounds is always favourable for the person exposing them—that wounds are the receptacles of sheer rhetorical energy, that can be put to any use the orator intends for them:

Your judgements, my grave lords,
Must give this cur a lie, and his own notion—
Who wears my stripes impressed upon him, that
Must bear my beating to his grave—shall join
To thrust the lie unto him.

(COR 5.6.107-11)

His reference is thus to scars received from him: although he cites these as witnesses to his own case, oblivious of the patriotic contexts they invoke he really sets the scene for being lynched. But he has a keen awareness of the implications of this move, that by lending their voice to the wounded body, the people of Corioles identify with it, and Coriolanus' “stripes impressed upon him” will testify against Coriolanus. He actually invites such an outburst—“Cut me to pieces, Volsces” is his next line—and what proves his first and only successful performance in the marketplace achieves just what he asks for. This time he succeeds because the end to which he tries to put the wounds coincides with their significance for patriotic discourse: Aufidius' scars—and all the other wounds they remind the people of—eventually frame Coriolanus as the arch-enemy of the Volsces once again, assuring their unanimous support for Aufidius, by making him embody their political aspirations.

ALL the people
Tear him to pieces! Do it presently!
He killed my son! My daughter! He killed my cousin
Marcus! He killed my father!

(COR 5.6.121-3)

The reaction of the Volscians is a re-enactment of the violent outburst of passion in Antony's Rome, the ecstatic union of the Roman plebeians that forced Brutus and Cassius to ride “like madmen through the gates of Rome.” (Caes: 3.2.258) That Rome expels Marcus Brutus is a fatal, ironic inversion of Tarquin's banishment by the conspirators' role-model Lucius Junius Brutus—and it also re-enacts the founding moment of the Republic in that the political change is in both cases motivated by the showing of bleeding bodies: in Shakespeare's Lucrece, the founding fathers of the Republic

          … did conclude to bear dead Lucrece thence,
To show her bleeding body thorough Rome,
And so to publish Tarquin's foul offence;
Which being done with speedy diligence,
          The Romans plausibly did give consent
          To Tarquin's everlasting banishment.

(ll. 1850-55)

In Coriolanus as well as in Julius Caesar and Lucrece, effective use of wounded bodies for political purposes involves the affirmation of corporate identity by exclusion: not only do these bodies embody the collectivity of the people of Rome, but this figural identification also casts those afflicting the wounds as enemies of this collective body. These emblems of the body politic become effective in the contention over sovereignty when their iconic nature is interpreted in a way puritan critics of iconic representation would perceive as idolatrous; i.e., when they are taken not only to stand for, but indeed be the body politic, when the damages done to them are understood as done to the body politic. That in Julius Caesar, Brutus—proving less constant than the self-destructively obstinate Coriolanus—manages to escape from turbulent Rome, and evade being slaughtered by an idolatrous crowd, only postpones the inevitable. Caesar's spirit, so far a figurative, and thus in a sense ghostly, personification, the creature of the complex processes of prosopopoeia and apostrophe, is now forced to undergo a final transfiguration: literalisation. The second half of the play could be read as the fulfilment of Antony's prophecy about Caesar's spirit, which, raging for revenge, come hot from hell:

Shall in these confines with a monarch's voice
Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war,
That this foul deed shall smell above the earth
With carrion men, groaning for burial.

(JC 3.1.274-78)

But the spirit's will to revenge has been frustrated by Brutus' absence. Brutus being outside “these confines,” i.e. the confines presumably of the city of Rome, the enraged Plebeians cannot kill him, nor would they follow with Octavius' army to Philippi: so the spirit has to ‘materialise’ and engage in the revenge as a proper Ghost, hot from hell. Before the battle, Octavius is anxious to state that he is the revenging incarnation of Caesar, but the conspirators rather choose to commit suicide in the name of Julius Caesar, thus restating their Romanitas and accepting the judgement Rome passed on them, while clearly denying Octavius' explicit claim to being the embodiment of the body politic. By becoming the agents of Caesar's revenge, they act on behalf of Caesar's spirit, and thus on behalf of the community impersonated by it. But their action proves, as it can be expected, iconoclastic: it asserts—perhaps mistakenly, but that is not the point—that the spirit is in need of an agent, that it is not incorporated in any palpable sense: that no living human being can ever be the sovereign embodiment of the community.


  1. The present paper grew out of research for an MA thesis submitted at the University of Bristol in 1994. The author is indebted for their support, help and comments on that paper to George E. Donaldson and John M. Lyon of Bristol University, Department of English, and for perceptive comments on this version to Géza Kállay and Zsolt Komáromy.

  2. The idea is ubiquitous in Renaissance thinking about rhetoric; Sidney's theory of poetic language is based essentially on this idea, but cf. also Thomas Wilson's Arte of Rhetorique: “In movyng affections, and stirryng the judges to be greved, the weight of the matter must be so set forth, as though they saw it plaine before their iyes …” (269 / S4v).

  3. I remember a Benetton poster out in winter 1993/94, a photo of a dead (?) Bosnian/Serbian soldier's blood-stained clothes, with a bullet-hole in the T-shirt. How did I know it had to do with Bosnia? Benetton posters are not usually verbose.

  4. This abolition is illusory only, as it results from an identification of the sign with its material embodiment: it is like identifying the letter ‘a’ with the pigment on the page. But, although it is easy to point out the difference between the body of the sign and the sign, the fallacy is very common, and its working is essential to an understanding of the market-place scene. Caesar's body is identified with what it signifies in Antony's interpretation in exactly the same way. And this identification of the body of the sign with what it signifies is precisely what Puritans would term ‘idolatry’.

  5. In stressing the importance of the narrative for Quintilian, I am following O'Banion's account.

  6. As we have noted above, in Titus Andronicus the election does not take place. There, Lucius chooses a completely different way to transform his own body into the figurative incarnation of Rome. He first allegorizes Rome as a woman by claiming that he “From her bosom took the enemy's point,” and then refers to his own body as a substitute for hers: “Sheathing the steel in my advent'rous body.” (TIT 5.3.110-11) This substitution proves so effective that there is no need of the public voice.

  7. Culler 1981, 153. The suggestion is made by way of citing Paul de Man: citing, that is, summoning the dead master to appear before our critical judgement as witness to Culler's case.

  8. Cf. e.g. Gilman 1986, 15; Bath 1994, passim, esp. 138 ff.

  9. Cited by Bath 1994, 54.

Works Cited

References to Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, Coriolanus and Julius Caesar are by act, scene, and line numbers to Greenblatt et al. (eds): The Norton Shakespeare, Based on the Oxford Edition. New York and London: Norton, 1997.

Ad Herennium 1954. Ad C. Herennium Libri IV De Ratione Dicendi (Rhetorica Ad Herennium). With an English Translation by Harry Caplan. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press and William Heinemann. The Loeb Classical Library

Bath, Michael. 1994. Speaking Pictures: English Emblem Books and Renaissance Culture. London and New York: Longman

Cicero. 1942. De Oratore. With an English Translation and Introduction by E. W. Sutton and H. Rackham. 2 vols. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press and William Heinemann. The Loeb Classical Library

Culler, Jonathan. 1981. “Apostrophe.” in: Culler, The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction. Ithaca & New York: Cornell University Press, 135-154.

Diehl, Huston. 1986. “Graven Images: Protestant Emblem Books in England.” Renaissance Quarterly 39: 49-66.

Freedberg, David. 1989. The Power of Images: Studies in the History and Theory of Response. Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press

Gilman, Ernest B. 1986. Iconoclasm and Poetry in the English Reformation: Down Went Dagon. Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press

Greene, Gayle. 1980. “‘The Power of Speech / To Stir Men's Blood’: The Language of Tragedy in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar.Renaissance Drama, N.S. 11: 67-93.

O'Banion, John D. 1987. “Narrative and Argumentation: Quintilian on Narratio as the Heart of Rhetorical Argument.” Rhetorica 5: 325-351.

Plutarch. 1964. Shakespeare's Plutarch. Ed. T. J. B. Spencer. Harmondsworth: Penguin

Quintilian. 1975. Institutio Oratoria. With an English transl. by H. E. Butler. 4 vols. Cambridge, MA & London: Harvard University Press and William Heinemann. The Loeb Classical Library

Thomas Wilson. 1982. Arte of Rhetorique. Ed. Thomas J. Derrick. New York & London: Garland

Clifford Davidson (lecture date 1981)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5373

SOURCE: Davidson, Clifford. “The Iconography of Illusion and Truth in The Winter's Tale.” In Shakespeare and the Arts, edited by Cecile Williamson Cary and Henry S. Limouze, pp. 73-91. Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1982.

[In the following excerpt, originally delivered as a lecture at the Ohio Shakespeare Conference in Dayton, 1981, Davidson discusses the symbolic significance of visual effects in a series of episodes in The Winter's Tale, including the display of male friendship, the onset of Leontes's jealousy, the trial scene, the storm on the shore of Bohemia, the sheep-shearing scene, and the transformation of Hermione.]

The spectacle of Shakespeare's drama on stage in his own time made use of scenes which carefully balanced meanings and mirrored human actions or frailties in a theater which was, as Glynne Wickham has suggested, “emblematic” rather than illusionistic in the sense of “seeming to stimulate actuality.”1 To be sure, the term emblematic as used here perhaps needs careful definition, since stage actions are not always to be identified with either the precise form or function of the emblem in the Renaissance emblem book. The latter is often reductive in its interpretation of visual details; as Francis Bacon defined the genre, “Emblems reduce [italics mine] intellectual conceptions to sensible images, and that which is sensible more forcibly strikes the memory and is more easily imprinted on it than that which is intellectual.”2 On stage, however, such a reductive approach to the nature of the scene would perhaps only be applicable in plays of overtly didactic content (e.g., John Bale's King John or Sackville and Norton's Gorboduc), while the emblematic element instead normally functions to provide a broader meaning than would seem superficially to be present. The emblematic scene on stage thus would be consistent with E.N.S. Thompson's broader definition of the emblem as “any figure … or, in fact, any picture signifying more than is actually delineated.”3

The absence of painted scene or realistic backdrop against which a drama might be played focused attention on such elements as gesture and the tableaux formed by the actors appearing on the stage before the audience. Characterization is also given added weight, especially by the use of symbolic costume and disguise—elements especially underlined for us by the fact of doubling by the actors, each of whom would often play more than one role in a play.4 Of course, from the perspective of the twentieth century, the visual side of the performance of drama in the Renaissance may seem to be a very ephemeral aspect of play performance; nevertheless, that which was seen needs to be recognized to have been highly significant—as significant for study, surely, as the bare text of the play itself. Much as we might wish to limit ourselves to the tangible words of the text and perhaps also to that which is presented to “the mind's eye” through imagery, we do need to know that from a scholarly standpoint we are shirking our critical responsibility unless we attempt to come to grips with at least those iconographic elements in the spectacle which are accessible to us.5

The urgency of such a task is surely underlined for us by recent studies in cognition which demonstrate how the visual level functions in learning, which cannot be restricted to what is known through language alone.6 We are reminded that, though Renaissance humanism tended to devalue pictorial knowledge,7 Shakespeare's age still inherited from the Middle Ages a real sense of the importance of the function of sight. As Samuel Daniel wrote, “to represent unto the sence of sight the forme or figure of any thing, is more natural in act, and more common to al creatures then is hearing, and thereupon sayth Aristotle, that we love the sence of seeing, for that by it we are taught and made to learne more then by any other of our senses. …”8

An iconographic approach to The Winter's Tale therefore needs to be more than a mere imagery study, but rather it must take up in a systematic way the handling of visual motifs as set forth through the spectacle of drama itself on stage. We need to understand precisely through our study how the iconographic material is utilized and for what purpose. In this regard, we will surely note from the outset that the function and purpose of the visual display in The Winter's Tale are distinctly different from what we would encounter, for example, in the ritual forms of the liturgical drama in which the action is principally designed (if we may use Heideggerian terminology) to achieve the direct and immediate deconcealment of Being through an iconic dramaturgy.9 In The Winter's Tale, the ritual of the earlier drama plays no part, and hence we find a dramaturgy that represents actuality without the aid of either the theology of the religious image—an essential ingredient in the iconic drama of the twelfth century—or strict verisimilitude and scenic illusion.

In The Winter's Tale, the framework is indeed not liturgy or ritual but play (it would almost be tempting to use the word game, a term also associated with drama as play in medieval criticism).10Play hence acts to mirror the activity of the world by reflecting its rules and by aping its motions. As the Puritan critics of the stage constantly remind us, what we see before us as members of the audience is not literally true but is a rearrangement of reality; stage players are “hypocrites,” for their outward seeming is not consistent with their inner persons. A stage player, as Hamlet reminds us, is one who “But in a fiction, in a dream of passion, / Could force his soul so to his own conceit / That from her working all the visage wann'd, / Tears in his eyes, distraction in his aspect, / A broken voice, an' his whole function suiting / With forms to his conceit? And all for nothing …” (Hamlet II.ii.557-62).11 The art of play, even more than art of a work of the visual arts, is seeming, insubstantial, shadowy when compared to the substance of actual life. A play such as The Winter's Tale is perhaps more dependent upon such insubstantial elements than, for example, one of Shakespeare's histories or tragedies, for this late romance takes as its source a prose narrative that is as improbable as any source to which he turned his dramatizing pen. Though transformed into a play, the title and text of The Winter's Tale still seem to maintain that it is a “tale” in form and substance. As such, it has frequently been called an ill-made play, broken in its center by a “gap” of sixteen years that is bridged only by the emblematic figure of Time, intruding to gloss over the alleged mismanagement of plot and action.12

In spite of its seeming flaws, however, The Winter's Tale illustrates in the playing of its action how the mirroring of man's imperfect seeing (for Leontes' jealousy is perhaps above all itself a failure of sight) becomes convincing in its own terms, and by the end of the play we see events which we believe are actually somehow able to reveal truth.13 As the Pygmalion story which helps to inform Shakespeare's play suggests, art may be able to come alive when its beauty is impelled by love toward transcendental experience. The clue is perhaps to be found, as Inga-Stina Ewbank suggested in an article published in 1964, on the title page of Shakespeare's principal source, Robert Greene's Pandosto, where the story is presented as an example of “The Triumph of Time” and the motto chosen for the narrative is “Tempora filia veritas.14 The motto, as Professor Ewbank demonstrates, is of very great importance for our understanding of the iconography of the play; through the function of Time (the figure that appears allegorically at the beginning of Act IV), Truth is brought to light at the moment of the deconcealment of Hermione—a surprise intended for the audience as well as for the characters on the stage. At the deepest level, therefore, it might be relevant to note that the conventional illustration of Tempora filia veritas shows Time bringing his daughter Truth out of a cave in a manner reminiscent of the Harrowing of Hell, when Christ on Saturday of Holy Week grasps the forearm of Adam as he steps forth from darkness following the soteriological work on the cross which has made triumph over time's bondage possible.15 … The recovery of truth in The Winter's Tale, like the release of Adam, brings with it a vindication of the value of penitence extended over a period of years (though, to be sure, Leontes' period of penitence is nothing like the 4000 winters during which Adam lay bound in limbo), and likewise it shows the role of love in the triumph of that which is transcendentally true.

But when Time appears as a character on stage at the beginning of Act IV, he represents not the figure of Tempora filia veritas but rather the figure of the visual spectacle of the Triumph, the equivalent on stage of the popular literary triumphs of Petrarch.16 The scene is a simple one, with Time pointing out his familiar attributes—his wings and his hour glass. Like the Triumph of Time as it appears in the visual arts—e.g., in Brueghel's engraving of Time's triumph17—Shakespeare's character has the power to bring to life and to destroy—“in one self-born hour / To plant and o'erwhelm custom” (IV.i.8-9). … That which Time has brought into being, he will also terminate—a fact of life illustrated in the engraving by Brueghel by the detail of his infant which he is devouring.18 In The Winter's Tale, Time's glass abrogates the laws of nature and, proclaiming a “wide gap” of sixteen years, sets in motion the final portion of the play, which will focus upon providential events that will conclude in a scene marked by wonder. As a triumphal figure, Time as chorus indeed (in Nevill Coghill's words) “stands at the turn of tide of mood, from tragedy to comedy, and makes a kind of pause at the play's centre.”19 But because in the play the normal order of the triumph is reversed—destructive forces are presented in the first three acts, and the creative ones are illustrated in Acts IV-V—the theme of the play becomes renewal, as a closer examination of the iconographic tableaux of the drama will demonstrate.

Donald Stauffer's Shakespeare's World of Images insists that The Winter's Tale “proceeds in its pictures: the court of justice, the reading of the oracle, the swooning of Hermione, the dancing on the shepherd's green, the unveiling of the statue with Leontes silently weeping.”20 From the standpoint of the play's spectacle, these scenes are all ones with iconographic meaning. The play opens with two scenes that visually underline the friendship of two princes, whose association dates back to childhood innocence when “there rooted betwixt them then such an affection which cannot choose but branch now” (I.i.23-24). Leontes and Polixenes participate in that classical sharing of friendship of which Cicero's De Amicitia had provided the precepts.21 With the passage of time, the friendship has endured, almost surpassing for them their loyalty to the nations which they lead. As their friendship is “rooted” in their childhood, so it will be seen as necessarily sustained by the truthfulness of their relationship. It is no accident also that Cesare Ripa in his Iconologia personified Friendship in terms of “a fair young blonde woman, simply draped in the white color of truth, upon which friendship is based. She points to her bosom, the seat of the heart.”22 … Without forcing Ripa's allegory onto the play, it is nevertheless curious that this drama should in its second scene focus the audience's attention upon the two friends, one of whom wishes the other to extend his visit, and upon the queen of the host. That queen, Hermione, will, of course, take her place in the revelation of truth in the last scene of the play. Yet it is enough to see the iconography of this scene in terms of a visual exposition of friendship and of Hermione's chaste devotion to her husband's wishes.

The growth of the friendship between man and man will, however, be cut off all too quickly. The friendship tableau will be replaced by another kind of emblematic scene—an illustration of jealousy that bears comparison with Othello. Leontes, watching but not hearing his wife and friend talking—she is attempting to convince Polixenes to stay longer in Sicily in order to please her husband—suddenly is struck by a kind of insanity that pierces him to the heart. The effect has been compared to the mental transformation of Macbeth (described in Macbeth I.iii.130-42);23 it is as if Leontes, like Macbeth, has suddenly been bewitched and cut off from even good sense. The mutation occurs in his mind and transforms him into a monster, with his new hatred being expressed in both face and gesture in spite of his efforts to hide what is within his heart. Leontes' sight has failed him: this dangerously deceitful sense, which is so strongly involved in male sexual fantasies and which hence is often deeply responsible for consequent feelings of guilt, here paradoxically traps him into believing more than would literally have been possible in the given situation—i.e., that his pregnant queen had been made with child by his friend very, very early in his nine-months' visit. Leontes' unwilling (for jealousy is not something that he chose freely) suspension of belief turns him into a tyrant, whose actions now will serve as the spring for the tragic action up to his conversion in Act III, when he finally is made to see the truth about his self-deception. At last in Act III he knows that he has been blinded by his passion, which has severed him from the devotion to truth that is so necessary for a ruler, husband, and friend.

In the interim between his blinding and the moment when, figuratively speaking, he receives his sight again, Leontes' inward rage and outward malice both display themselves. Fortunately, Camillo, whom he attempts to solicit to murder Polixenes, instead tells the guest of his danger—a danger that is grounded in the “sickness” that as a healthy man he has ironically communicated to his host. Camillo explains that the Sicilian king has become convinced “as he had seen't” that his guest has “touch'd his queen / Forbiddenly” (I.ii.415-17). The first act then ends with the establishment of a plan of escape for Polixenes and Camillo, whose new loyalties are based on his integrity and truthfulness. For the “rare” Hermione, however, there is no such easy escape. Act II shows Leontes as calumniator, convinced of her faithlessness now that Polixenes has slipped away. Accusing Camillo and calling him a go-between who must have served the guest in his affair with the queen, he expresses the fears of a paranoid person no longer capable of friendship of love:

There is a plot against my life, my crown;
All's true that is mistrusted. …


The words are ironic in their context, for indeed he is mistrusting all that is true. And his distrust makes him a dangerous man indeed. In contrast to Leontes' distraught demeanor, the queen, however, is the model of patience. The charges, of course, are totally beyond credibility.

Leontes, unable to rest either by night or day, is closely related to Shakespeare's other stage tyrants. Like Macbeth, he feels that through the unjust taking of life he can make himself whole and healthy of mind once more, and in the meantime he is unable to sleep. Not even the new-born Perdita can affect him in a natural or healthy way, and he orders her death, which is commuted to exposure in “some remote and desert place” (II.iii.175). The scene on stage is frightening. A king who thus destroys his own child is as guilty of crime as Herod, the archetypal child-murderer whose role in the slaying of Innocents was often graphically illustrated, as in a painted glass of c.1500 from Fairford, Gloucestershire.24 It is hard to see how Leontes, possessed as he is of the irrational belief that his queen is “disloyal,” can insure the “just and open trial” that he promises at the conclusion of the second act. “While she lives / My heart will be a burden to me,” he comments (II.iii.204-05).

The central scene of Act III will present “this sessions” in which Leontes will expect to “be clear'd / of being tyrannous” (III.ii.1-5). The tableau we see on stage is a symbolic court of law with the king as prosecutor and judge. Hermione, in the dock, protests her innocence with dignity, while Leontes presents a caricature of the tyrannous husband and king whose insane dreams have become the basis of his wild actions. Ultimately, in the context of this mad court of law wherein the law is being violated so grossly, she must call on the oracle of Apollo, the pagan source of truth which is appropriate to the romance form that lies beneath the structure of The Winter's Tale. Where all else fails, she will appeal to the divine revelation which the oracle will provide. And, contrary to Leontes' expectation, the oracle gives quite different testimony than the king had expected or desired:

Hermione is chaste; Polixenes blameless; Camillo a true subject; Leontes a jealous tyrant; his innocent babe truly begotten; and the king shall live without an heir, if that which is lost be not found.


Blasphemously, the tyrant Leontes charges the oracle with untruth—“There is no truth at all i' th' oracle” (III.ii.140)—and insists against reason that the “sessions shall proceed; this is mere falsehood” (III.ii.141). Providential retribution seems quick, however: a messenger with stunning immediacy reports that the prince and heir to the throne has died, and the queen first faints and then apparently quickly dies. Leontes' conversion to reason has not come soon enough to prevent disaster; the forces he has set in motion in this emblematic trial scene will seem to bear ill fruit.

Fully as emblematic in its structure is the next scene in the play in which Perdita is exposed on the desert shore of Bohemia. Not surprisingly, the heavens show their anger, and the storm that breaks upon the scene is symbolic of the terrible destruction that has been loosed by the ill-tuned music of Leontes' mad jealousy and tyrannical malice. The audience now is being confronted with what William Blissett has called “the hungry center of The Winter's Tale25 since Antigonus with his small burden is literally caught between shipwreck and a wild beast—a bear intruding on the stage. The tempest, as Blissett explains, illustrates time gone awry and demonstrating its most destructive aspect.26 But we are not quite at the play's center after all, for Perdita, that “Blossom” whom Antigonus has placed on the ground (III.iii.46), will in fact be spared and rescued by shepherds on a day that they will regard as “lucky” (III.iii.136). The true center of the drama, as previously noted, will only come at the beginning of Act IV when the audience sees Time turning his glass and reversing the fortunes of those in need of renewal.

As a source of renewal, Shakespeare turns to the ground on which Perdita has been exposed, to nature, and to a scene remarkably different from the treacheries of the court that have been exposed in Acts I-III of the play. As Adam's ultimate redemption was tied up with his working of the soil and his husbandry (see, for example, his penitent figure with spade in hand in the glass of Canterbury Cathedral),27 so also from the earth will come the renewal that will bring a successful conclusion at the close of The Winter's Tale. Quite appropriately, Soji Iwasaki has called attention to the printer's mark of John Knoblouch of Strassburg, which shows Truth emerging from the earth like a flower in a graphic illustration of Psalm 85:11.28 Perdita, Nature's child, is as closely associated with truth as her mother. Furthermore, as a daughter she is emblematic of renewal and growth—elements that are reflected in the linking of Perdita with Flora, the classical goddess of flowers who is often associated with Venus and the season of spring.29

In her dual role as queen of the sheep-shearing feast and as Flora, Perdita is a hostess who gives flowers to those in her presence, and in so doing she provides a traditional function associated with the flower goddess.30 Her perfect grace and natural royalty, of course, are what captivate Florizel, whose name indicates that he is an appropriate husband for Perdita in her aspect as Flora.31 Everything that is falsely artificial has been purged from her character, and she herself without question “shares / with great creating nature” (IV.iv.86-87). In the play, art is mended by Nature.32

For the careful scholar, it may therefore be disconcerting to turn to what the Renaissance mythographers have to say about Flora, who was, according to Abraham Fraunce, originally a “strumpet” of ancient Rome who left her wealth to the city and was for this reason made “a goddes of flowres.”33 Such a view of Flora was widely held in Shakespeare's time, and this explanation of her origin continued up to Dr. William King's An Historical Account of the Heathen Gods and Heroes (1710). In the visual arts, Flora as a courtesan thus is not surprisingly a fairly common subject.34 In a popular Elizabethan form, the text of John Wilbye's madrigal “Flora gave me fairest flowers” echoes the libertine tradition as it was united with pastoralism: “Smiling meadows seem to say: Come, ye wantons, here to play.”35 No ironic undercurrents seem present in Shakespeare's presentation of Perdita-Flora, however, and it would hence appear that the playwright intended a straightforward portrait of the young woman in a manner that would compare favorably with Spenser's lovely Pastorella in The Faerie Queene.

Very influential in Shakespeare's time was the account of Flora in Ovid's Fasti, V.183ff. Here Flora is depicted as one whose “lips breathed vernal roses.”36 She is the wife of Zephyr, and formerly was called (in Greek) by the name of Chloris. “I enjoy perpetual spring,” she explains. She is shown in the same scene with the three Graces, as in Botticelli's famous Primavera, a painting which may be recognized as illuminating some aspects of the Whitsun pastorals celebrated in Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale. Of course, it is not possible to suggest that Shakespeare had ever seen Botticelli's painting, but in certain ways the pattern of renewal traced forth by the painter is also the pattern of the play. Storm and destruction in the play are followed by spring with its festivities and its flowers. There are dances which suggest the integrative function of the festival in The Winter's Tale—dances which pattern themselves rudely after and also perhaps parody the perfection of the dance of the Graces. In Botticelli's painting, if Edgar Wind is correct, Flora is seen at the right separating herself from Chloris, who is behind her.37 At the left, the Graces inscribe the neo-Platonic pattern of descent, rapture, and return—precisely the pattern of renewal which will fill things and persons with renewed life—while Venus holds up her hand in blessing. So in the play the burned-out world of Sicilia with its heirless and grieving king is countered by the green countryside of Bohemia, where Nature re-activates human lives and brings them into proper focus through the power of love. Even when the old world of the court intrudes into the tableau to attempt to divorce Perdita and Florizel, the young lovers nevertheless will be able to overcome all potential barriers to a richer and fuller life in which the audience seems invited to participate imaginatively. Like Prosperina, who is mentioned in The Winter's Tale IV.iv.116, Perdita illustrates the rebirth of the green world within the context of the season of spring—a context which is echoed in the characters of the play. In her presence, even the roguish Autolycus is forced to reform.

The final tableau of the play is, of course, its most famous. Here, as we have seen, the revelation of Hermione's statue and of its true nature is to be regarded as reflecting Tempora filia veritas. There are, as we would expect, some problems with any simplistic application of this iconography, since Hermione is in fact the appearance of a standing polychrome statue (and not, therefore, the expected piece of funerary sculpture)38 placed on a pedestal or base. And here Time does not take her by the forearm, but rather the statue herself steps down and takes Leontes by the hand. This is done to the accompaniment of music, which provides the harmony against which the achievement of harmony in the royal family of Sicily in its relationship with the royal family of Bohemia will be concluded. Because the lost Perdita has been found, the prediction of the oracle now can be fulfilled: Hermione can be restored to her husband in a scene which is designed to stir wonder in the audience.39

The tableaux of the play illustrate how family and friends have been “dissevered” for sixteen years—a “wide gap of time” indeed—and now they are once more brought together and united. Reconciliation has, through the marvelous stagecraft of Shakespeare, been effected. In spite of the tragic elements in Acts I-III, the visual display in The Winter's Tale has been ultimately recreative in its function—and the recreative aspect has been health-giving both within the structure of the play and for the audience. However, from another perspective the play has also dealt directly with human experience—with illusion and truth at their deepest levels—in a way that has been more true than any abstract description of such events. Error has been overcome, and truth has been finally established. The spectacle and play performed before and after “this wide gap of time” separating Acts III and IV ultimately dissolve into music and dancing, which confirm what an insubstantial pageant this winter's tale has been made of. But as emblematic drama, it has also signified much more than has been on its surface presented for the audience to see and hear.


  1. Glynne Wickham, Early English Stages, 1300 to 1660 (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1963), II, Pt. 1, 155. See also my “Death in His Court: Iconography in Shakespeare's Tragedies,” Studies in Iconography, 1 (1975), 74-86.

  2. De Augmentis Scientiarum, V, 5, as quoted in E. N. S. Thompson, Literary Bypaths of the Renaissance (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1924), p. 32.

  3. Thompson, p. 33.

  4. See especially David M. Bevington, From Mankind to Marlowe (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1962), passim.

  5. See my “Death in His Court,” pp. 74-86. Considerable emphasis on the iconography of the Shakespearian play as staged will be found in John Doebler's Shakespeare's Speaking Pictures (Albuquerque: Univ. of New Mexico Press, 1974), which also contains an extended bibliography.

  6. See Gillian Cohen, The Psychology of Cognition (London: Academic Press, 1977), pp. 26-45.

  7. See E. P. Goldschmidt, The Printed Book in the Renaissance (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1950), p. 37. Quite typical is Ben Jonson's strong preference for text over the visual side of dramatic production—i.e., for what he regarded as the “soul” of the play over its “body.”

  8. Samuel Daniel, The Complete Works in Verse and Prose, ed. Alexander B. Grosart (1896; rpt. New York: Russell and Russell, 1963), IV, 16.

  9. On liturgical drama, see my “On the Uses of Iconographic Study: The Example of the Sponsus from St. Martial of Limoges,” Comparative Drama, 13 (1979-80), 300-19.

  10. See the study by V. A. Kolve, The Play Called Corpus Christi (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1966), pp. 8-32, and my edition of A Tretise of Miraclis Pleyinge (A Middle English Treatise on the Playing of Miracles) (Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1981).

  11. Except for The Winter's Tale for which I quote from the Arden edition (ed. J. H. P. Pafford [London: Methuen, 1963]), references to Shakespeare's plays are to the Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. B. Evans et al. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).

  12. See, for example, S. L. Bethell's otherwise very perceptive The Winter's Tale: A Study (London: Staples Press, n.d.), p. 89. The significance of Time as Chorus is defended by Nevill Coghill, “Six Points of Stagecraft in The Winter's Tale,Shakespeare Survey, 11 (1958) 35-36. See also the perceptive note by Raymond J. Rundus, “Time and His Glass in The Winter's Tale,Shakespeare Quarterly, 25 (1974), 123-25.

  13. The phenomenological groundwork for my discussion is to be found in Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method (New York: Seabury, 1975), pp. 91-119.

  14. Inga-Stina Ewbank, “The Triumph of Time in The Winter's Tale,Review of English Literature, 5 (1964), 83-100.

  15. The connection of an English woodcut showing Tempora filia veritas with the Harrowing is suggested by Fritz Saxl, “Veritas filia temporis,” in Philosophy and History: Essays Presented to Ernst Cassirer, ed. Raymond Klibansky and H. J. Paton (1936, rpt. New York: Harper and Row, 1963), p. 204.

  16. See also the woodcuts by Hans Burgkmair et al., The Triumph of Maximilian I, ed. Stanley Appelbaum (New York: Dover, 1964).

  17. Graphic Worlds of Peter Bruegel the Elder, ed. H. Arthur Klein (New York: Dover, 1963), p. 177.

  18. This detail apparently owes its origin to confusion between Chronos and Kronos-Saturn. See Erwin Panofsky, Studies in Iconology (1939; rpt. New York: Harper and Row, 1962), pp. 73-74.

  19. Coghill, p. 36.

  20. Donald Stauffer, Shakespeare's World of Images (New York: Norton, 1949), p. 296.

  21. Cicero's treatise was translated anonymously in Foure Severall Treatises: Conteyninge Discourses of Frendshippe, Old Age, Paradoxes and Scipio His Dreame (London, 1577). See also Laurens J. Mills, One Soul in Bodies Twain: Friendship in Tudor Literature and Stuart Drama (Bloomington, 1937).

  22. Cesare Ripa, Baroque and Rococo Pictorial Imagery: The 1758-60 Hertel Edition of Ripa's ‘Iconologia’, ed. Edward Maser (New York: Dover, 1971), No. 52; the text cites the 1603 edition in translation.

  23. Hallett Smith, “Leontes' Affectio,Shakespeare Quarterly, 14 (1963), 163-64.

  24. Herod holds a child in his left hand, and a sword in his right hand (Oscar Farmer, Fairford Church and Its Stained Glass Windows [Bath, n.d.], p. 38).

  25. William Blissett, “This Wide Gap of Time: The Winter's Tale,English Literary Renaissance, 1 (1971), 59.

  26. Blissett, pp. 58-59.

  27. Madeline Harrison Caviness, The Early Stained Glass of Canterbury Cathedral (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1977), fig. 6.

  28. Soji Iwasaki, “Veritas Filia Temporis and Shakespeare,” English Literary Renaissance, 3 (1973), 261; Saxl, pp. 202-03, fig. 3.

  29. Julius S. Held, “Flora, Goddess and Courtesan,” in Essays in Honor of Erwin Panofsky (New York: New York Univ. Press, 1961), I, 203.

  30. Held, I, 201-02.

  31. Edward William Tayler, Nature and Art in Renaissance Literature (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1964), pp. 129-30.

  32. See the classic essay on The Winter's Tale by G. Wilson Knight in The Crown of Life (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1947).

  33. Abraham Fraunce, The Third Part of the Countesse of Pembrokes Yvychurch (London, 1592), fol. 27r.

  34. Held, I, 213-17; II, 73-74.

  35. Edmund H. Fellowes, English Madrigal Verse, 1588-1632, revised and enlarged by F. Sternfeld and D. Greer (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967), p. 308.

  36. Ovid, Fasti, trans. James George Frazer (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1931), p. 275.

  37. Edgar Wind, Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance, revised ed. (New York: Norton, 1968), p. 115.

  38. Cf. Glynne Wickham, Shakespeare's Dramatic Heritage (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1969), pp. 264-65. See also David M. Bergeron, “The Restoration of Hermione in The Winter's Tale,” in Shakespeare's Romances Reconsidered, ed. Carol McGinnis Kay and Henry E. Jacobs (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1978), pp. 125-33, for the suggestion that the final scene of Shakespeare's play may have had some connection with Anthony Munday's Chruso-thriambos: The Triumphes of Golde, a civic pageant presented 29 October 1611. The reference to Julio Romano as the painter of the statue is discussed sensibly by Richard Studing, “‘That rare Italian Master’—Shakespeare's Julio Romano,” Humanities Association Bulletin, 23 (1971), 22-26, and see also the same author's “Spectacle and Masque in ‘The Winter's Tale’,” English Miscellany, 21 (1970), 55-80.

  39. See Rosalie L. Colie, Shakespeare's Living Art (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1974), especially pp. 280-83. In spite of the emphasis on the marvelous in the last act, however, time is not reversed: Hermione has all the wrinkles that she has developed in the sixteen years since the trial scene. See Martin Mueller, “Hermione's Wrinkles, or, Ovid Transformed: An Essay on The Winter's Tale,Comparative Drama, 5 (1971), 226-39.

Peggy Muñoz Simonds (essay date 1985)

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SOURCE: Simonds, Peggy Muñoz. “The Iconography of Primitivism in Cymbeline.Renaissance Drama 16 (1985): 95-120.

[In the following excerpt, Simonds links Belarius, Guiderius, and Arviragus to the medieval myth and emblem tradition of Wild Men. The innate virtue of these three is in stark contrast to the villainy of Cymbeline's court, she contends, and they are integral to the restoration of a purified Britain.]

In his recent article “The Pastoral Reckoning in ‘Cymbeline,’” Michael Taylor follows a long line of Cymbeline critics in mistaking a primitive setting in the Welsh mountains for a pastoral setting, and he finds Imogen's scene with the beheaded corpse of Cloten astonishingly “grotesque” within this ideal if “hard” pastoral world.1 Although Shakespeare does indeed use pastoralism in a number of his plays, sheep and shepherds are notably lacking in Cymbeline, to the despair of the heroine herself. Imogen yearns for the innocence and security of a pastoral world when she laments in Act I, “Would I were / A neat-herd's daughter, and my Leonatus / Our neighbour-shepherd's son!”2 Instead, the dramatist presents her with a cave and three self-proclaimed savages, or Wild Men, to contrast with the corrupt and superficially civilized world of the king and his courtiers, who use the pastoral song genre primarily as a means to seduce innocence.3 Violence and death are everyday aspects of this wilderness life, as Imogen soon discovers, despite the natural courtesy and courage she also finds in Wales.

My purpose in this essay is to discuss the significance of Shakespeare's carefully selected iconography of cultural primitivism and to relate it to the basic Christian theme of the play and to the Jacobean court it both flatters and satirizes. I will show here that the iconography of primitivism serves three major functions in Cymbeline. It ironically portrays the savage life as virtuous and instructive in contrast to life in a depraved court; secondly, it focuses our attention on Shakespeare's use of the literary convention of the hunt, which permeates much of the play's action; and, finally, it endows the newly reformed court of Britain with fecundity, strength, and justice, through its human representatives, the Wild Men.

First we must recognize, however, that although William Empson believed that any alternative world was “pastoral,” there is actually a sharp dichotomy between Wild Men and shepherds in iconography.4 Of course these figures may on occasion appear together in tragicomedy, as in fact they do in Guarini's Il pastor fido, which opposes a lustful satyr to a princely shepherd, and in Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale, which introduces a brief fertility dance by satyrs into a shepherds' festival. But in Cymbeline there are no shepherds, only shaggy hunters, and here the alternative world to the court is distinctly primitive. … This in itself may suggest a satiric or ironic social purpose underlying the events of the play, since wildness always symbolizes the lowest level of Renaissance society, or the extreme opposite from the power and glory of the king and his court.

As the word “pastoral” itself indicates, pastoral characters are shepherds and shepherdesses, and pastoral art concerns the lives of those who domesticate and protect animals from the savage aspects of nature. In contrast, “primitivism” denotes the actions of savages or hairy (sometimes leafy) Wild Folk who live what would usually be considered a subhuman, beastly existence in the wilderness, without any of the arts of civilization, sometimes without even the gift of human speech. The shepherds of the pastoral convention are often poets, musicians, and true lovers, while Wild Men were originally depicted in the Middle Ages as fierce, lustful rapists. Shepherds protect their flocks from foxes and wolves; the Wild Man is a hunter of savage beasts and is often described in terms of the predaceous animals he hunts. Predatory himself and often a cannibal, he is a natural enemy to the domesticated pastoral world. Indeed Shakespeare's innocent pastoral characters tend to be clowns, and their simplicity makes them easy dupes for the trickery of those who enter their Edenic haunts. Shakespeare's Wild Men, on the other hand, derive from the tougher, more radical tradition of postlapsarian primitivism, which depicts a moral and physical descent from the human state to that of the brute.5

But the figure is notably ambivalent in iconography. The Wild Man may, like Caliban, represent man's lower nature which must be controlled, or, during the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, he may represent what Timothy Husband describes as “a free and enlightened creature living in complete harmony with nature,” who is no longer “a symbol of all that man should eschew but, on the contrary … [a] symbol of all that man should strive to achieve.”6 In the latter role, he becomes a conventional and thus a safe way to satirize the rigid social hierarchy of the Jacobean age, even when he goes so far as to lop off the empty head of an ungentle prince in Cymbeline. Nevertheless, we should note that judging and executing erring courtiers was also quite within the accepted tradition of the Wild Man, as a manuscript illustration from a Book of Hours (c. 1500) clearly indicates. …


The first function of Shakespeare's inconography of primitivism in Cymbeline is to portray the wild life as virtuous and instructive in contrast to life in a corrupt court. Twenty years before the first scene opens, a malicious courtier had slandered Belarius to the king, who promptly exiled his formerly trusted adviser. Desiring immediate revenge for his dishonor, Belarius kidnapped the infant sons of Cymbeline and took them with him into a desolate exile in the Welsh mountains, where we first meet all three of them in Act III, scene iii, living in a cave.

They are simple worshipers of the goddess Natura and of the sun, Platonic symbol of the Good. By now their only clothes are those they have fashioned themselves from the skins of animals they hunt for food. Belarius is later described as having a long white beard, and the boys must be equally shaggy in appearance, since Arviragus complains of their state in terms clearly identifying them as ignorant and savage Wild Men: “We have seen nothing: / We are beastly: subtle as the fox for prey, / Like warlike as the wolf for what we eat” (III.ii.40-41). According to Hayden White, “In most accounts of the Wild Man in the Middle Ages, he is as strong as Hercules, fast as the wind, cunning as the wolf, and devious as the fox.”7

Cymbeline's other kidnapped son, Guiderius, calls their cave dwelling “A cell of ignorance” (III.iii.33), which further suggests the traditional medieval image of Wild Folk cut off from civilization, unable to read or write. However, Belarius, who knows “the art o' th' court,” sees their lives as pious rather than bestial: “This rock, and these demesnes, have been my world, / Where I have liv'd at honest freedom, paid / More pious debts to heaven than in all / The fore-end of my time” (III.iii.70-73). And he has tried consciously to raise the boys to a life of courtesy within nature.

Husband tells us that early medieval myths of the Wild Man describe him as a hairy hunter who often lives in a cave located on a desolate mountain or deep within the forest. His behavior tends to be brutish and violent, “not only against wild animals but also against his own kind.”8 In Cymbeline, Shakespeare's Guiderius displays just this natural aggressiveness in a prompt and ferocious way when he beheads the king's lustful stepson Cloten in Act IV, scene ii. In telling contrast to the hairy Guiderius, Cloten is decked out in elegant court garments he has stolen from Posthumus; yet he arrogantly calls the honest Wild Man a “thief” and “villain base” (ll. 74-75), clear evidence of the dramatist's implicit social satire. Guiderius, in turn, considers Cloten of no more value than a tailor's mannequin and coolly chops off his head, to the horror of the former courtier Belarius. The contrast in this scene between the two younger men represents an important symbolic inversion of the Wild Man topos, since in Cymbeline the savage is indeed a true prince, and Cloten is a crude courtly imposter who has obtained his social position at the top of the hierarchy only through his mother's marriage to the king.9

His opposites, the Wild Boys—despite their innate and still uncontrolled violence—are natural young noblemen, well-born but bred in the wilderness and innocent in their own lives of all courtly artifice.10 In Act III, scene vii, of Cymbeline, when the wandering Princess Imogen, disguised as a page, unexpectedly meets her shaggy and still unrecognized brothers in the mountains, she wishes they were indeed her father's lost sons:

                                                                                                                                                      Great men
That had a court no bigger than this cave,
That did attend themselves, and had the virtue
Which their own conscience seal'd them, laying by
That nothing-gift of differing multitudes,
Could not out-peer these twain.


They in turn instantly love her and accept her as a “brother,” although instinctively doubting her masculinity. Cloten, on the other hand, desires to rape her, much as Shakespeare's most famous Wild Man, Caliban, longs to ravish Miranda in The Tempest.

Unlike the “natural” young noblemen, Arviragus and Guiderius, their kidnapper Belarius is a Wild Man of a more sophisticated Renaissance variety, an educated exile from contemporary civilization.11 When he emerges from his cave in Act III, scene iii, he may well have reminded Shakespeare's audience of Emblem 37 in Andrea Alciati's widely read Emblemata. The inscriptio or motto of this emblem, “Omnia mea mecum porto” or “I carry everything I own with me,” derives from the Erasmian adage, “Sapiens sua secum bona fert” (“The wise man carries his goods with him”).12 It refers to that which we carry within us, such as learning and virtue. The adage is an allusion to Bias, one of the Seven Sages of the classical world, who left all his material goods behind him after a fire. The pictura in the 1551 edition of Alciati depicts a Wild Man dressed in skins which have been stitched together. In the background are a cave, trees, and the Scythian Sea, suggesting a reference to the De Germania of Tacitus and his ironic descriptions of the barbarians of the north as virtuous in contrast to the Romans of his own time. The subscriptio of the emblem reads:

The poor Hun, the most wretched inhabitant of Scythian Pontus, constantly has his limbs burnt livid with unending cold. He knows not the resources of Ceres, or the gifts of Bacchus, nevertheless he always wears precious clothing. For animal skins envelop him on all sides: Only his eyes are visible, every other part is covered. Thus he has no fear of thieves, thus he disdains the wind and rain: He is safe among men, and safe among the gods.13

Some editions of the Emblemata show the “poor Hun” as naked, a common variant of the Wild Man topos. …

Shakespeare's Belarius appears to be a Wild Man of this virtuous Erasmian type so wistfully celebrated by Alciati. He is a soldier-scholar, who carries his learning and virtue with him into the wilderness to escape the multiple evils of life at court. He assures Arviragus and Guiderius, who complain of their savage existence, that, “this life / Is nobler than attending for a check: Richer than doing nothing for a robe, / Prouder than rustling in unpaid-for silk: / Such gain the cap of him that makes him fine, / Yet keeps his book uncross'd: no life to ours” (III.iii.21-26). One may object, however, that Belarius is also a kidnapper. In this respect, Husband informs us that the mythical Wild Man did characteristically abduct children, “but often only to fulfill parental instincts.”14 And, in fact, Belarius had considerably better parental instincts than does Cymbeline, who is described by his daughter Imogen as like the tyrannous north wind which “Shakes all our buds from growing” (I.iv.37).

The audience witnesses in Act III, scene iii. of Cymbeline, on the other hand, an excellent model of the proper education of princes when the Wild Man Belarius, by pointing out examples in nature, trains his royal pupils against moral abuses arising from the unnatural hierarchy of the Renaissance social order. Even the mouth of their humble cave provides a lesson in natural piety: “Stoop boys: this gate / Instructs you how t'adore the heavens; and bow you / To a morning's holy office. The gates of monarchs / Are arch'd so high that giants may get through / And keep their impious turbans on, without / Good morrow to the sun. Hail, thou fair heaven!” (III.iii.2-7). These Wild Men are indeed comfortably “safe among the gods,” as Alciata had put it. The antithesis to such pious humility can be seen at Cymbeline's court, where “You do not meet a man but frowns; our bloods / No more obey the heavens than our courtiers / Still seem as does the king's” (I.i.1-3).

Defending the wild life in the kind of speech termed an argumentum emblematicum by Albrecht Schöne,15 Belarius also informs the princes that in the wilderness, “often to our comfort, shall we find / The sharded beetle in a safer hold / Than is the full-wing'd eagle” (III.iii.20-21). As H. W. Crundell has noted, this peculiar image originated with Aesop, was later elaborated upon by Erasmus, and then was used by John Lyly in both Euphues and Endimion before reappearing in Shakespeare's Cymbeline.16 However, Shakespeare and the educated members of his audience would probably have known as well Alciati's use of the eagle and the beetle in Emblem 169 of his Emblemata. Since Alciati's inscriptio reads “A Minimis quoque timendum” (“Even the smallest is to be feared”), the reference in Cymbeline should probably be understood as a warning by Belarius to the princes not to abuse their own future dependents as he himself has been abused by the tyrant Cymbeline. By extension, a gentle warning is also being sent by the playwright to his own patron, James I, who owned a copy of Alciati and could not possibly be offended by what had become a Renaissance commonplace taught to schoolboys.17

The subscriptio of Alciati's emblem tells us that,

The beetle is waging war and of his own accord provoking his enemy: And inferior in strength, he conquers through strategy. For without being recognized, he secretly hides himself in the feathers of the eagle, in order to seek the enemy's nest through the highest stars, and piercing the eggs, he prevents the hope of offspring from growing: in this way he goes away, having had vengeance for the dishonor he has suffered.18

Alciati's emblem sums up the situation in Shakespeare's play very well indeed, although we have no reason to consider it a direct source. In the tragicomedy, Cymbeline has unwisely dishonored Belarius, who in turn has stolen the king's male offspring from the palace (or nest) in order to keep them from becoming tyrants like their father and to avenge his own wounded honor. On the other hand, Belarius—unlike the beetle—does not prevent the boys from growing; instead he educates them in what he understands to be the universal laws of nature.

The pictura of this emblem in the 1534 Wechel edition of Alciati shows an angry eagle at the left, his tongue extended, looking up at the beetle in a tree. … The source of the emblem was Erasmus's adage “Scarabeus aquilam quaerit” (“The beetle seeks the eagle”). Although Erasmus retells an Aesopian fable, he adds the detail that the beetle actually pushed the eggs out of the eagle's nest. The meaning of the fable, he explains, is that no enemy is to be despised no matter how unfortunate.19 Later, in The Education of a Christian Prince, the Dutch humanist states that in making use of a fable such as the eagle and the beetle, “the teacher should point out its meaning: not even the most powerful prince can afford to provoke or overlook even the humblest enemy. Often those who can inflict no harm by physical strength can do much by the machinations of their minds.”20 Belarius as teacher cannot, of course, fully explain his emblematic argument in Cymbeline at this point, but he does remind the boys that “it is place which lessens and sets off” (III.iii.13), and he suggests that certain responsibilities go with high position. At once Guiderius unconsciously associates himself and his brother with the eagle rather than with the lowly beetle: “Out of your proof you speak: we poor unfledg'd, / Have never wing'd from view o' th' nest; nor know not / What air's from home” (ll. 27-29). The irony of this regal association by the Wild Boy would have been immediately apparent to the educated members of Shakespeare's audience. Belarius later proclaims, “'Tis wonder / That an invisible instinct should frame them / To royalty unlearn'd, honour untaught, / Civility not seen from other, valour / That wildly grows in them, but yields a crop / As if it had been sow'd” (IV.ii.176-181; emphasis added).

And life in the wilderness does indeed bring out the native virtue of the kidnapped princes, as Belarius has hoped it would. He comments on this result in a prayer to Natura:

                                                                                                                        O thou goddess,
Thou divine Nature; thou thyself thou blazon'st
In the two princely boys: they are as gentle
As zephyrs blowing below the violet,
Not wagging his sweet head; and yet, as rough,
(Their royal blood enchaf'd) as the rud'st wind
That by the top doth take the mountain pine
And make him stoop to th' vale.


Once more there is a close parallel between Belarius's nature imagery and the emblem tradition. Geoffrey Whitney's “Nimium rebus ne fide secundis” (“Be not too confident in prosperity”) in A Choice of Emblemes (1586) has the following subscriptio:

The loftie Pine, that on the mountaine growes,
And spreades her armes, with braunches freshe, & greene,
The raginge windes, on sodaine ouerthrowes,
And makes her stoope, that longe a farre was seene;
So they, that truste to muche in fortunes smiles,
Though worlde do laughe, and wealthe doe moste abounde,
What leste they thinke, are often snar'de with wyles,
And from alofte, doo hedlonge fall to grounde:
Then put no truste, in anie worldlie thinges,
For frowninge fate, throwes down the mightie kings.(21)

In Cymbeline Belarius compares the Wild Boys to the rude wind which makes the pine “stoop to the vale” right after Guiderius has described how he cut off the head of an excessively arrogant Cloten. Thus Cloten is the proud pine which does indeed “hedlonge fall to grounde” when the true heir to Cymbeline's kingdom meets him like the raging wind of fate.


Our recognition of the primitive mode through the presence of Wild Men in Cymbeline leads us directly to what may be the principal metaphor of the tragicomedy: the hunt of love. Shakespeare's savage hunters Belarius, Arviragus, and Guiderius “do” literally for survival what Posthumus, Imogen, Cloten, and even Iachimo do metaphorically throughout the play. In fact, the entire middle section of Cymbeline is devoted to hunts of various kinds—including a war hunt—in the mountains of Wales, and in this focus the play resembles Guarini's Il pastor fido, which contains what Bernard Harris calls a “great central episode of the boar hunt.”22 Although Harris has commented briefly on the presence of hunting imagery in Cymbeline,23 no one has yet, to my knowledge, analyzed the play specifically in terms of the chase. We should keep in mind, of course, that hunting was the favorite sport of Shakespeare's royal patron, James I.

Marcelle Thiébaux identifies the significance of the literary convention of the hunt as follows:

Metaphorically and symbolically … the chase becomes an imperative Journey by which a mortal is transported to a condition charged with experience: a preternatural region where he may be tested or placed under an enchantment; a transcendent universe; or the menacing reaches of the self. The act of the chase may reflect not only the compulsion arising from within his own nature to undergo change, but also an external force that imposes this necessity on him: that is, the god. For we are frequently aware of some power outside the hunter himself, with which his own will is made to coincide, both of these, driving, luring, compelling him.24

In Shakespeare's tragicomedy, the deity is very close indeed, and, not surprisingly, he finally appears to the hero and to the audience in the dream vision. As many students of Cymbeline have pointed out, the doctrine of the incarnation must in some way inform the play as a whole, since the Nativity of Christ was the only “historical” event of real importance to occur during the reign of Cymbeline.25 And, if the Nativity is indeed the hidden center of the play, then a morally fallen world must be properly prepared for such an event. The wilderness, which iconographically represents the fallen world, is an obvious setting for both physical and metaphysical hunts during a period of such preparation. This is so because the Wild Men who inhabit the wilderness are instantly recognizable symbols of postlapsarian humanity. According to Genesis 3:21, “Unto Adam also and to his wife did the Lord God make coats of skins, and clothed them” after the Fall.

Thiébaux tells us that four distinct types of metaphorical hunts occur in literature, although they frequently change and even dissolve into one another: “The sacred chase, the mortal chase, the instructive chase, and the amatory chase.”26 The quarry of a sacred chase lures the hero to a direct confrontation with a god (or a goddess, in the case of Actaeon), and may cause his conversion and/or his death. In the mortal chase, the hunter is led by the quarry as psychopomp from the world of the living to the world of the dead. In the instructive chase, the protagonist undergoes an initiation of some sort, during which he passes “from a condition of ignorance to one of knowledge or self-knowledge.”27 And, finally, in the amatory chase the hunter is lured by the quarry into the nets of a passionate love. All of these forms of hunting occur in Cymbeline, with the peculiar twist that in every instance the character thinks he is on one kind of chase, only to discover in the end that he has been on an entirely different type of hunt. In all cases, the ultimate quarry is love: love of God, love of knowledge, love of beauty, love of a spouse, or even ordinary lust for power.

To begin with a literal chase, the three Wild Men in Cymbeline must of course hunt for their food. But Belarius insists that they do this in the courtly form of a ritualized sport, thus bringing the chivalric rules of the chase and all of its attendant metaphorical meanings into the play. In Act III, scene iii, Belarius exhorts the Wild Boys to the chase with the shout, “Now for our mountain sport, up to yond hill!” (l. 10). Arviragus, however, yearns for military pursuits instead and complains that “Our valour is to chase what flies” (l. 42). He would much rather face a worthy foe in battle than kill a deer for supper, although hunting was actually considered an ideal way to train the best fighting men.28 Belarius cuts off the boys' discontent with a reminder of the ritual nature of their hunt and with a satirical comment on the sinister aspects of a refined life at court:

                                                                                                              But up to th' mountains!
This not hunter's language; he that strikes
The venison first shall be the lord o' th' feast,
To him the other two shall minister,
And we will fear no poison, which attends
To place of greater state. I'll meet you in the valleys.


The whooping music of horn and hounds then becomes an integral part of the theatrical performance, prompting occasional interpretations by Belarius, who remains on stage: “Hark, the game is rous'd!” (l. 98) and, finally, “The game is up” (l. 107).

This literal chase—to the astonishment of the hunters—ends as a sacred chase, since divinity hunts down men with as much persistence as men hunt for deer. Thus, while the Wild Men pursue a stag on the mountain top, the true quarry takes shelter in their deserted cave. When the hunters return home carrying their deer, Belarius announces ceremoniously, “You, Polydore, have prov'd best woodman, and / Are master of the feast: Cadwal and I / Will play the cook and servant: 'tis our match” (III.vii.1-3). But the weary Guiderius replies, “There is cold meat i' th' cave, we'll browse on that” (l. 11; emphasis added). With his use of the word “browse,” Guiderius transforms the successful hunters themselves into three deer, who are then captured or captivated by their mysterious intruder. When Imogen, disguised as the page Fidele, suddenly emerges from the cave to face them, the startled Belarius exclaims, “Behold divineness / No elder than a boy” (ll. 16-17). This seems to be an obvious allusion to Amor or Cupid, the winged hunter of men. Such an unexpected confrontation with the “divine” beauty of Imogen-Fidele has an instant civilizing effect on the Wild Men, who piously invite her to share their humble meal.

Of course I do not mean to imply here that Imogen is a type or personification of Christ; rather I believe she is a soul figure on her own painful quest for love in the wild mountains of Wales, and—in this most Platonic of Shakespeare's plays—her beauty and goodness seem to reflect for many of the characters in Cymbeline something of the sacred quality of the Love-god soon to be born. For example, when Arviragus first looks at Imogen, he understands at once the essence of Christ's ethical teaching: “He is a man, I'll love him as my brother” (III.vii.44). Further echoes of the Christian myth occur when Imogen-Fidele sickens, apparently dies, and is resurrected. Moreover, she has previously called herself “Th' elected deer” (III.iv.111), which can refer to Christ as the quarry of man's desire but is also a frequent symbol of the human soul pursued by God.29

As for the wild hunters, they see Imogen as a winged creature untimely brought to earth. “The bird is dead,” mourns Arviragus (IV.ii.197). Then, after a brief funeral ceremony for both Imogen and the beastly Cloten, who has been judged unworthy of the new era to come and executed by Guiderius, the three Wild Men go off on another type of hunt. This patriotic war hunt takes place on the battlefield, where they chase after the invaders of their native land and at last reveal their true princely mettle to the courtly world.

In contrast to the earlier sacred chase of the Wild Men, the courtier Cloten embarks on a chasse d'amour which soon becomes a mortal chase. Lusting to “penetrate” Imogen, as the hunter penetrates the stag with his arrow or lance, Cloten first unsuccessfully attempts to gain access to her bedchamber through bribery: “'Tis gold / Which buys admittance (oft it doth) yea, and makes / Diana's rangers false themselves, yield up / Their deer to th' stand o' th' stealer” (II.iii.66-69). When Imogen runs away from the court, the frustrated poacher says, “I will pursue her / Even to Augustus' throne” (III.v.101-102).

But soon afterward, Cloten meets Guiderius in the mountains, where the vicious hunter from court becomes the Wild Boy's prey in a mortal hunt. As Thiébaux points out,

The encounter with the quarry or the struggle to which the quarry has conducted the hero may result in the dissolution of his former or human identity, perhaps the loss of his life. The hunter himself becomes the hunt's object; he, not the quarry, is sacrificed. Failing to survive the crisis to which the hunt has brought him, he is annihilated in the act.30

Guiderius lops off the arrogant Cloten's head with his victim's own sword, only to find the head ludicrously empty. Thiébaux informs us that in literature, “Details of the quarry's dismemberment may correspond to the hero's conquest of [a] former self, which he is now enabled to cast from him.”31 Although, in this case, the casting away of the empty head is performed by the Wild Boy, the dismemberment of Cloten does clearly resemble the “breaking up” of a deer after the hunt, since cutting off the quarry's head was part of the established ritual. Indeed Turbervile's Booke of Hunting (1576) states that after the prince slits open the animal's belly, “we vse to cut off the Deares heades. And that is commonly done also by the chiefe personage. For they take delight to cut off his heade with the woodknyues, skaynes, or swordes, to trye their edge, and the goodnesse or strength of their arme.”32 The brains were then usually given to the hounds as a reward, but of course Cloten had none to spare.33

Iachimo, the second poacher in the play, also sets off in pursuit of “ladies' flesh,” although he is really on a hunt for the riches he hopes to gain by seducing Imogen and winning his wager with Posthumus. But once again the hunter becomes the hunted. After scheming his way through flattery into Imogen's bedchamber, Iachimo ignores the warning iconography of Diana bathing, which is depicted on a bas-relief over the fireplace. He continues to the bed, where he boldly gazes down on beauty bare. However, to his astonishment, the sight of the sleeping princess makes him acutely aware of his own evil and of its ultimate results for his soul: “I lodge in fear; / Though this a heavenly angel, hell is here” (II.ii.49-50). Many commentators have pointed out Iachimo's likeness in this scene to the voyeuristic hunter Actaeon. Since this myth was frequently employed during the reign of Queen Elizabeth to warn courtiers against excessive “presumption,” as Leonard Barkan has shown,34 Shakespeare may well have intended a similar warning against intrusion on the privacy of Princess Elizabeth when he evokes the image of Actaeon profanely peeking at the royal Diana in Cymbeline. But there are also Platonic suggestions in this scene of the moral effect of beauty on the beholder. Although Iachimo is not at once punished, as is Actaeon, or even deflected from his wicked plot, he is indeed subtly changed by the experience. At the end of the play, he admits to Cymbeline that “I was taught / Of your chaste daughter the wide difference / 'Twixt amorous and villainous” (V.v.193-195), a lesson in feeling he had not expected to learn.

Imogen herself sets out for the wilderness at first on an amatory hunt for her banished husband. Then Pisanio makes her aware that she is also the quarry for another hunter when he shows her the letter from Posthumus ordering her murder for adultery. Her first reaction is despair: “Prithee, dispatch,” she cries out to Pisanio. “The lamb entreats the butcher. Where's the knife?” (III.iv.97-98). At this moment, she closely resembles the medieval iconographic figure of “the driven soul” as a “harried stag” pursued by the vices of wrath and jealousy (Posthumus), envy and greed (Iachimo), and vanity and lust (Cloten).35 She turns at bay to face Pisanio, who refuses to obey his master's written order to kill her. “Why hast thou gone so far,” she asks, in the language of the hunt, “To be unbent when thou hast ta'en thy stand, / th' elected deer before thee?” (III.iv.109-111). Convinced of her innocence, Pisanio suggests that she disguise herself as the boy Fidele and continue alone on her love hunt for Posthumus in Wales. Imogen is not like the fleeing wounded stag of Emblem 47 by Hadrianus Junius, which has an inserted Petrarchan motto: “De diulimi struggo, et di fuggir mi stanco,” or “I am consumed with anguish, and I exhaust myself with flight”. …36

At this point, Imogen's amatory hunt is transformed into an instructive chase, during which she is initiated into some of the mysteries of love. First she learns to understand the powers of her own beauty for either good or evil. When they encounter her beauty in masculine disguise, the Wild Men immediately vow to befriend her, offering all they have; but Cloten, who has seen her in female clothing, literally loses his head over her, since he desires not to serve beauty but to possess it selfishly. She learns, in addition, to love deeply—to love not only Posthumus, despite his now obvious imperfections, but all suffering mortality as well, no matter what their social rank or their degree of sinfulness. The princess in disguise soon discovers that, although “man's life is a tedious one” (, she can enjoy serving as a cook for humble but good savages: “Gods, what lies I have heard! / Our courtiers say all's savage but at court; / Experience, O, thou disprov'st report” (IV.ii.32-34). And she observes in a similar vein that empires “breed monsters” while “sweet fish” are found in small rivers (IV.ii.35-36), another instance of hunting imagery. The comment is also a satirical reminder to the audience of the dangers inherent in King James's ambitious dreams of founding a new Augustan empire in Britain. Most significantly, however, in mistaking the dead Cloten for her beloved Posthumus, she learns that all men are essentially alike and all are to be pitied in the end.

When Imogen takes medicine for her love sickness in Act IV, scene ii, she continues to behave like the pierced stag which traditionally seeks for dittany to cure its wound. Otto van Veen based his emblem of the remedy-seeking stag on earlier emblems by Symeoni (1562) and Camerarius (1595). Under the motto “No help for the louer,” the verse reads,

The hert that wounded is, knowes how to fynd relief,
And makes by dictamon the arrow out to fall,
And with the self-same herb he cures his wound withall
But love no herb can fynd to cure his inward grief.(37)

After taking the drug, prepared as poison by the Queen but made harmless by Cornelius, Imogen falls into a counterfeit death. She later awakens to confront not only real death lying beside her but also the first victim of her own beauty, Cloten. Although love is a positive force for good, at the same time it can be mortally dangerous. Thinking that she has at last found her own quarry, Posthumus, the grief-stricken Imogen daubs her face with the dead man's blood. The scene may indeed be “grotesque,” as Taylor and others complain, but it is also entirely appropriate to the primitive world of this play. By smearing her face with her quarry's blood, Imogen performs a familiar hunter's initiation rite called “blooding.” According to tradition, the hunter of wild beasts is ritually daubed after his first kill with the blood of his victim, thereby acquiring its spirit as well as a heightened awareness of the close interrelationship between the hunter and the hunted. For example, in Shakespeare's “Venus and Adonis,” when the divine huntress Venus sees her slain “deer” Adonis, she “stains her face with his congealed blood” (l. 1122). William Faulkner describes a similar rite of “blooding” more literally in his stories “The Bear” and “The Old People.”

The irony in Cymbeline is that the dead man is not Posthumus at all but the would-be rapist Cloten. Nevertheless, Imogen's heartbreak over the bleeding corpse of her hated pursuer is, when properly performed, a very moving dramatic experience for the audience. Her embrace of the corpse appears to symbolize on a metaphysical level the soul's incredible fusion with the gross body. It is a visual stage emblem of the shocking love union between beauty and the beast which lies at the heart of all human existence and which also lies behind the mystery of the divine incarnation so soon to take place.

In contrast to Imogen, her husband Posthumus deliberately sets out right from the beginning on an instructive chase when he consents to the unholy wager with Iachimo. He initiates a metaphoric hunt for forbidden knowledge about the nature of love. Instead of having faith in his bride's sworn love for him, he wants public proof of it, which is theologically analogous to demanding proof from God that he is to be saved. According to St. Paul in Ephesians 5, the union of matrimony is directly comparable to the redemptive union of Christ with his congregation; both are mysteries and both must be taken on faith. Therefore, when the profane hunter Posthumus impiously seeks to penetrate the sacred mystery of Imogen's love, he is permitted only false knowledge of infidelity and a bloody scrap of cloth to indicate falsely his quarry's death. Like Cloten, Posthumus has understood love only as a simple matter of sexual possession rather than as a holy lure to self-sacrifice.

Although Posthumus's subsequent conversion at the sight of the bloody token sent by Pisanio is often criticized as too sudden and unconvincing, it is in fact another venerable convention in the literature of the hunt and is certainly not intended by the dramatist to be analyzed in terms of realism. In Cymbeline the shock of seeking a death symbol—the bloodsoaked veil which separates life from death—enlarges the hero's capacity to love uncritically in imitation of a forgiving Christ, and once again the hunter becomes the hunted. As Arthur Kirsch has said of the hunter Silvio, who accidentally wounds his loving pursuer Dorinda in Il pastor fido, “Her suffering by his hand transforms him, and the arrow he has loosed upon her leaves its shaft in his heart. He is the happy prey of his own hunt.”38 But Posthumus's repentance does not immediately bring him happiness. Instead it drives him to begin a new chase, this time a mortal hunt, which—after his capture by the British—transmogrifies into yet another unexpected sacred chase. It is significant that Posthumus's deliberate search for a death of atonement leads him directly in Cymbeline to a vision of divinity.

But first the forces of evil must be overcome. Searching the battlefield for his own death in penitential exchange for the presumed death of Imogen, Posthumus easily defeats the evil Iachimo in a dumb show, after which he helps the three Wild Men turn back the invading forces of Rome. He tells others of the latter event in hunting language, since battles were also considered a form of the chase.39 The Wild Boys, as Posthumus reports, halted the British retreat with the cry, “‘Our Britain's harts die flying, not our men: / To darkness fleet souls that fly backwards; stand, / Or we are Romans, and will give you that / Like beasts which you shun beastly’” (V.iii.24-27). Accordingly, the British ceased running and began, Posthumus says, “to grin like lions / Upon the pikes o' th' hunters” (ll. 37-38). The enemy then flew from the fury of the Wild Boys like “Chickens, the way which they stoop'd eagles” (l. 42). However, Posthumus himself is unable to find his own quarry—that “ugly monster” death (V.iii.70)—on the battlefield.

Still grimly determined to complete a mortal hunt, he resumes his Roman armor in order to attract British revenge against an invader: “Fight I will no more, / But yield me to the veriest hind that shall / Once touch my shoulder” (V.iii.76-78). In another of Shakespeare's imaginative reversals of the chase, the hunter Posthumus consciously agrees to become the quarry of the hind. But once again the hero fails to find death, even after he is captured by the British. Instead, like Imogen, he only sleeps. His ensuing dream vision, reuniting him with his deceased family and with his divine Creator, spectacularly encompasses three different worlds at once: his own, the underworld, and the heavens. As I have argued elsewhere, the descent of Jupiter in Act V, scene iv, would probably have been interpreted by an alert Jacobean audience as an implicit reference to the historical descent of the Christian deity, who could not otherwise be mentioned or personified on a public stage in England.40 Thus Posthumus's hunt, unconsciously a sacred chase from the very beginning, ends with an astonishing theophany and with an unmistakably Christian answer to his instructive chase for forbidden knowledge of love and salvation. According to Jupiter, “Whom best I love I cross, / To make my gift, / The more delay'd, delighted” (V.iv.101-102). This statement suggests that the true quarries of God's love hunt and those who share with Christ the agonies of the cruel capture and crucifixion of the “elected deer” on Calvary, the ultimate consummation of the sacred chase.

Before man's redemptive quarry can be born in Bethlehem, however, the major characters in Cymbeline must complete their hunts for love in the wilderness and help bring a momentary peace to the world. According to the motto of an emblem by Shakespeare's Dutch contemporary Otto van Veen, “The chasing goeth before the taking.” The verse states, in words much like those of Shakespeare's Jupiter, that,

Before the deer bee caught it first must hunted bee,
The Ladie eke pursu'd before shee bee obtaynd,
Payn makes the greater woorth of ought thats thereby gayned,
For nothing easily got we do esteemed see.(41)

The idea, says the emblematist, derives from Pindar. Van Veen's pictura illustrates the divine hunt of love in which Cupid and his hounds of desire eagerly pursue a deer in flight, the symbol of an anguished human soul. …


Finally, the great denouement scene (Act V, scene v) of Cymbeline begins with a heraldic tableau which makes striking use of the Wild Man topos and helps bring the tragicomedy to a happy close. After winning his war against the Romans, thanks to Belarius and the two Wild Boys, Cymbeline places the Wild Men next to him onstage with the words, “Stand by my side, you whom the gods have made / Preservers of my throne” (ll. 1-2). Now, Husband tells us that Wild Men began appearing in heraldry as supporters of family shields at the end of the fourteenth century and soon became popular figures in this role.42 The coat of arms of the Earls and Dukes of Atholl (now Murrays but descended from the Stewart family or the royal house of Scotland) is an excellent example of the two characteristic uses of the Wild Man in heraldry. First, he appears as an emblem within the coat of arms. Husband suggests that through this use of the figure, “The two hundred or more European families who incorporated the wild man in their coats-of-arms may … have wished to … display their hardiness, strength and fecundity.”43 Second, he appears as a supporter of the shield, probably as a type of protective talisman.44 Thus, by surrounding himself with the Wild Men who have almost single-handedly saved both the king and Britain from the Romans, Cymbeline draws to himself their strength, their fertility, and their loyalty. Furthermore, Shakespeare has here literalized the king's heraldic metaphor “Preserves of my throne,” since the two Wild Boys are actually Cymbeline's true sons and will indeed transmit his royal succession to the future of Britain. Therefore, despite the previous criticism of the British court we have noted in passing and the implied warnings to the monarch of dangerous corruption in his palace, Shakespeare is careful to end his tragicomedy on a note of Jacobean affirmation. As Frances Yates has suggested, a compliment to James I, who also had two sons and a daughter, may well be intended in the play.45

In fact, the possibilities are very high that Shakespeare was indeed flattering the court in the heraldic moments of Act V, scene v, since about one-fourth of all Scottish noble families employed Wild Men in their coats of arms. There are seventeen such devices illustrated in the plates accompanying Wood's The Peerage of Scotland, and many of these families were closely associated with the life of King James.46 However, I believe the most likely specific candidate for the honor was Alexander, seventh Lord Livingston, who was created the Earl of Linlithgow by King James “at the baptism of Prince Charles on December 25, 1600.”47 Lord Livingston was also one of the commissioners appointed by Parliament to negotiate the union between England and Scotland.

Since we know that the three rustics who defended a narrow lane against invading Danes in the legendary past of Scotland were ancestors of the Hay family, the parallel heroism of Belarius, Guiderius, and Arviragus dramatized in Cymbeline seems to be an obvious compliment to Lord John Hay, a courtly favorite of the king, as Glynne Wickham has argued.48 The iconographical problem here is that there are absolutely no Wild Men in the Hay coat of arms. Nevertheless, it seems that Alexander Livingston, Earl of Linlithgow, was married to Lady Helenor Hay, daughter of the 7th Earl of Errol. Through this union, a female member of the Hay family did acquire a new coat of arms with one Wild Man as emblem above the shield and with two Wild Men as supporters, thus giving us the necessary three Wild Men seen in the play. … Moreover, one of the charters granting the Livingstons more land in Scotland and dated 13 March 1600, “makes honourable mention of the great care and fidelity bestowed by the Lord Livingston and his lady in the education of the King's children, and the expence incurred in maintaining them and their servants.”49

This fact appears to throw some light on Belarius's saucy demand that the king “pay me for the nursing of thy sons” (V.v.323). He then delivers the Wild Boys to their father with glowing praise:

Here are your sons again, and I must lose
Two of the sweet'st companions in the world.
The benediction of these covering heavens
Fall on their heads like dew, for they are worthy
To inlay heaven with stars.

(ll. 349-353)

According to Wood, the Livingstons primarily had the care of Princess Elizabeth, and “they discharged that trust so much to the satisfaction of King James VI [of Scotland], that, when they delivered her safe at Windsor, in 1603, they obtained an act of approbation from the King and council.”50 In Cymbeline, Imogen is restored to her father at the same time that he recovers his lost sons.

The venerable figure of the wild soldier Belarius as a true defender of Britain in this final heraldic tableau of the play has a contemporary iconographic counterpart as well. The image of a Wild Man labeled “A Britaine” dominates the emblematic title-page … of John Speed's The History of Great Britaine (1611). The ancient savage towers over the other four soldiers representative of Britain's military ancestry: a Roman, a Saxon, a Dane, and a Norman. Here again James is reminded of the native worth of his people, who—if they are welcomed at court—can help to preserve the throne and maintain peace in the land. Although the Wild Man in cultural history was originally a lawless figure like Caliban, by Shakespeare's time he was also a positive heraldic figure who could be trusted to maintain law and order. Indeed two of them were used in 1610 as part of the pageant offered by the city of Chester to honor Prince Henry. Instead of behaving in a primitive and lustful manner, these Wild Men essentially performed the role of St. George in pantomime. They fought against evil by engaging in battle with “an artificial Dragon, very liuely to behold,” who pursued “the Sauages entring their Denne, casting Fire from his mouth, which afterwards was slaine, to the great pleasure of the spectators, bleeding, fainting, and staggering, as though he endured a feeling paine, euen at the last gaspe, and farewell.”51 In religious iconography, the Wild Man also faces the dragon as a symbol of the natural strength and fortitude available to defeat evil. … To take one example, he performs this function in a spandrel on the porch entrance of St. Michael's in Peasenhall, Suffolk. … Or we can see him poised as a guardian pinnacle, in conjunction with a crowned lion representing the monarchy, on the battlements of the north porch of St. Mary's in Mendlesham, Suffolk. …

But we must also recall that the Wild Man, however strong and fertile, still remained for theology a symbol of fallen humanity. According to Bernheimer, since the Wild Man was not created wild by God but fell from grace and descended into brutishness as the result of his own actions, “the state of wildness was not usually regarded as irrevocable, but as amenable to change through acculturation.”52 Thus we find that the Wild Man and his vegetable counterpart the Green Man were also permitted inside English churches from the very earliest times. The great cathedrals of Ely, Exeter, and Norwich, for example, are extraordinarily rich in Green Man iconography, with roof bosses in the gates and cloisters at Norwich serving as sorrowful reminders of still unredeemed nature, even within the church itself.53 Therefore, inside many churches, the Wild Man and the uncrowned lion seem to represent that aspect of fallen nature which must be overcome and controlled by the word of God, especially when they appear together on the stems of baptismal fonts. … Above them, on the exterior of the basin, are generally carved the four Evangelists and their symbols, as representations of the saving power of the Gospels. …

For this reason, the Wild Men in Cymbeline must—for their own salvation, as well as for that of the kingdom—be removed from the cave of ignorance (called a “prison” by Guiderius, in what appears to be a Platonic allusion to the prison of the body or nature) and be reintegrated with a now purified court and with its formal religious celebrations. Their redemption is indeed essential to the redemption of Cymbeline's entire kingdom. In Shakespeare's dramatic context, the Wild Boys may symbolize the true defenders of the reformed church in Jacobean Britain, since they almost single-handledly drive off the “Roman” invaders of the island kingdom, rescue the captured ruler, and are finally revealed as the rightful heirs to the English throne.

Thus Shakespeare's primitive Wild Men—Belarius, Guiderius, and Arviragus—serve three thematic functions in Cymbeline. First, their wholesome (if violent) lives within nature are an implicit negative criticism of the dangerous excesses of a luxurious life at court. Secondly, their ritual vocation of hunting both underlies and informs the major strands of action within the play. And, thirdly, they are positive heraldic supporters of both a reformed Church and a reformed State; hence—by extension—they are supporters of the dual functions of James I, sovereign of what he hoped would soon become the United Kingdom of Great Britain.


  1. ShS [Shakespeare Survey], XXXVI (1983), 97. Taylor argues rather unconvincingly that there is always some sort of “reckoning” in the pastoral mode, which helps to explain this “gruesome” scene. Although it is true that pastoralism includes the sad truth that “All greenness comes to withering,” we do not ordinarily witness the kind of savagery in pastoral poetry that we see in Cymbeline and, for that matter, in King Lear. Moreover, the opposing modes of pastoralism and primitivism may occur together in the mixed dramatic genre of tragicomedy, as is iconographically clear from the title page of The Workes of Ben Jonson.

  2. All quotations from Cymbeline are from the Arden Shakespeare, ed. J. M. Nosworthy (London, 1979).

  3. G. M. Pinciss also has pointed out the presence of Wild Men in Cymbeline. However, since he insists that the play is written in the pastoral mode, he sees the savages as merely symbolic of the natural in contrast to the art of the court. See “The Savage Man in Spenser, Shakespeare, and Renaissance English Drama,” in The Elizabethan Theatre 8, ed. George R. Hibbard (Port Credit, Ont., 1982), pp. 69-89.

  4. See Some Versions of the Pastoral (London, 1950).

  5. See Arthur O. Lovejoy and George Boas, Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity (New York, 1973), p. 7.

  6. The Wild Man: Medieval Myth and Symbolism (New York, 1980), p. 13.

  7. “The Forms of Wildness: Archaeology of an Idea,” in The Wild Man Within: An Image in Western Thought from the Renaissance to Romanticism, ed. Edward Dudley and Maximilian E. Novak (London, 1972), p. 21.

  8. Husband, The Wild Man, pp. 2-3.

  9. Derek Traversi notes that Cloten is “a court parody of the truly ‘natural’ man, enslaved to his base passions.” See Shakespeare: The Last Phase (Stanford, Calif., 1955), p. 49.

  10. They may therefore have a partly Celtic origin in the myth of Perceval of Wales, who was called “le valet sauvage” by Chrêtien de Troyes. According to Richard Bernheimer, “the very fact that a man was brought up in the woods may confer upon him a certain incorruptible quality which alone enables him to resist temptations to which others succumb, and thus attain aims inaccessible to them.” See Wild Men in the Middle Ages (Cambridge, Mass., 1952), p. 19.

  11. As the type of educated Wild Man unjustly thrust into the wilderness, Belarius seems to derive topically from the biblical Ishmael: “and he will be a wild man, his hand will be against every man, and every man's hand against him” (Gen. 16:12).

  12. Margaret Mann Phillips, The “Adages” of Erasmus: A Study With Translations (Cambridge, Eng., 1964), p. 134.

  13. See Andrea Alciati, Emblemata cum commentariis (1621; rpt. New York and London, 1976), pp. 203-206. All translations of Alciati's emblems in this essay have been graciously provided by Virginia W. Callahan.

  14. Husband, The Wild Man, p. 3.

  15. See Peter Daly, Literature in the Light of the Emblem (Toronto, 1979), p. 140.

  16. In “Shakespeare, Lyly, and Aesop,” N & Q [Notes and Queries], CLXVIII (January-June, 1935), 312.

  17. See T. W. Baldwin, William Shakespeare's Small Latin & Lesse Greeke (Urbana, Ill., 1944), I, 535.

  18. Alciati, Emblemata, p. 709.

  19. Phillips, Erasmus, p. 262.

  20. See Desiderius Erasmus, The Education of a Christian Prince, trans. Lester K. Born (New York, 1936), p. 147.

  21. (Leyden, 1586), p. 59.

  22. “‘What's past is prologue’: ‘Cymbeline’ and ‘Henry VIII,’” in Later Shakespeare, Stratford-upon-Avon Studies 8 (London, 1966), p. 212.

  23. Ibid., p. 216.

  24. The Stag of Love: The Chase in Medieval Literature (Ithaca and London, 1974), pp. 57-58.

  25. See Homer D. Swander, “Cymbeline: Religious Idea and Dramatic Design,” in Pacific Coast Studies in Shakespeare, ed. Waldo McNeir and Thelma N. Greenfield (Eugene, Ore., 1966), pp. 248-262.

  26. Thiébaux, The Stag of Love, p. 58.

  27. Ibid.

  28. Ibid., p. 49.

  29. See Michael J. B. Allen, “The Chase: The Development of a Renaissance Theme,” Comparative Literature, XX (1968), 306-307.

  30. Thiébaux, The Stag of Love, p. 57.

  31. Ibid.

  32. (1567; rpt. Oxford, 1908), p. 134.

  33. See Peggy Muñoz Simonds, “Some Courtier Topoi in Cymbeline,RenP [Renaissance Papers] (1982), 97-112. This essay discusses the significance to the play of Alciati's Emblem 189. Under the motto “Mentem, non forman, plus pollere” (“The mind, not the form, matters”), Alciati depicts a fox holding an empty head in his paws. According to the verse, “A fox entering the property room of a stage manager, came upon a human head polished by a craftsman, so elegantly fashioned that it seemed only to lack breath, and to be alive in other respects. When that one took the mask into his hands, he said: ‘O what a head is this! but it has no brains.’” The source is an adage of Erasmus based on one of Aesop's fables.

  34. See “Diana and Actaeon: The Myth as Synthesis,” English Literary Renaissance, X (1980), 334-335.

  35. Thiébaux, The Stag of Love, p. 44.

  36. Emblemata (Antwerp, 1565), p. 53. Junius's verse (translated for the author by Roger T. Simonds) reads as follows: “Why, Stag, pierced by the Cretan reed [= arrow], / do you give free rein to headlong flight? / This is the lover's luck, whom flight stirs up: / Too grievous a wound drives him out of his mind.” See also The Heroical Devises of M. Claudius Paradin (1591). Scholars' Facsimiles and Reprints # 391 (Delmar, N.Y., 1984), pp. 354-355: “A Hart stroke thorough with an arrow, & eating of a branch or leafe of Dictanus (which is an hearbe growing abundantly in Candia, or the Iland of Crete, which being eaten of a hart, his wounds are immediately healed) with this inscription, Esto tienne su remedio, y non yo, that is, the heart here hath helpe, but my wounde is incurable, may bee a figure or simbole of love that can never he healed: alluding to that verse of Ovid in his Metamorphosis, wherein Phoebus bewraieth his love toward Daphnes:

    Wo to me that haggard love,
                        which sets our mindes on fire,
    Cannot be healed by hearbes or rootes,
                        nor druggie potions dire.
  37. Amorum Emblemata or Emblemes of Love (Antwerp, 1608), p. 154.

  38. Jacobean Dramatic Perspectives (Charlottesville, Va., 1972). p. 12.

  39. See Thiébaux, The Stag of Love, pp. 49-50.

  40. See “Jupiter, His Eagle, and BBC-TV,” Shakespeare on Film Newsletter X, no. 1 (December 1985), p. 3. Both Dante and Petrarch used Jupiter as a symbol of the Christian deity, who is still often evoked euphemistically as “Jove” in upper-class English speech.

  41. Amorum Emblemata, p. 131.

  42. Husband, The Wild Man, p. 186.

  43. Ibid., p. 185.

  44. See Richard Bernheimer, Wild Men in the Middle Ages: A Study in Art, Sentiment, and Demonology (Cambridge, Mass., 1952), pp. 177-178.

  45. Shakespeare's Last Plays: A New Approach (London, 1975), pp. 41-61.

  46. See John Philip Wood, The Peerage of Scotland, 2d ed., 2 vols. (Edinburgh, 1813). Among these families, Walter Stewart, Lord Blantyre, had a coat of arms supported by both a lion and a Wild Man. He “was bred up along with King James VI of Scotland under George Buchanan,” and he later became a commissioner for the treaty of union with England (I, 213). Edward Bruce, Earl of Elgin and Kincardine, with two savages supporting his shield, was sent in 1600 to England by James “to congratulate Queen Elizabeth on her suppression of the Essex rebellion” (I, 515). On the accession of James to the English throne, Bruce accompanied his sovereign south where he became a privy-councillor and master of the rolls for life. Perhaps the most exotic of the Scottish peers, with two Wild Men as supporters of his shield, was Sir Robert Gordon of Lochinvar, Viscount of Kenmure, who was something of a Wild Man himself. After Sir Robert had made a reputation by plundering his neighbors' cattle, burning their houses, and even taking them prisoner on occasion, James VI sent out a force to arrest him. But “he deforced his Majesty's officers, making the principal eat the warrant.” His father and friends managed to obtain a pardon for him, after which he became one of the king's gentlemen of the bedchamber. Later, at a royal tournament, “Sir Robert Gordon was one of the three successful champions to whom prizes were delivered by Princess Elizabeth” (II, 126-127). It seems likely that any of these noble families could have felt honored by Shakespeare in the heraldic tableau of Act V, scene v, and perhaps the dramatist hoped they would all see themselves celebrated as preservers of the king's throne.

  47. Ibid., II, 127.

  48. See “Riddle and Emblem: A Study in the Dramatic Structure of Cymbeline,” in English Renaissance Studies: Presented to Dame Helen Gardner on her 70th Birthday (Oxford, 1980), pp. 112-113.

  49. Wood, The Peerage of Scotland, II, 127.

  50. Ibid.

  51. Quoted by Robert Hillis Goldsmith, “The Wild Man on the English Stage,” MLR [Modern Language Review], LIII (1958), p. 485.

  52. Bernheimer, Wild Men in the Middle Ages, p. 8.

  53. See Kathleen Basford, The Green Man (Ipswich, 1978), p. 19.

The research for this paper was done while the author held an NEH Fellowship for College Teachers in 1982. An early version of the essay was read that same year at the meetings of the South Atlantic Modern Language Association in Atlanta, Ga.

Sara Hanna (essay date 1991)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7900

SOURCE: Hanna, Sara. “Christian Vision and Iconography in Pericles.Upstart Crow 11 (1991): 92-116.

[In the following excerpt, Hanna traces Pericles's spiritual evolution in terms of his increasing awareness of good and evil and his eventual understanding of what may be gained by patience and perseverance. She finds in the play a coherent system of emblems and spectacles developed from Christian and biblical sources that mark the hero's progress from darkness to light.]

Vision is an especially complex subject in Pericles, very closely bound up with the play's medieval dimension. To some extent the very heroism of Pericles can be defined through the progress of his vision. Pericles appears as a chivalric hero, a young knight on a quest. While he is much more than an allegorical figure, we may see him in the medieval and Spenserian tradition as a knight of patience who must learn the virtue in question through severe trials.1 Scholars have associated him with the Everyman protagonist of the morality plays and with the trials, sufferings, and miraculous recoveries of saints in legends and miracle plays. Influence from the medieval religious plays also appears in the parabolic qualities of language and events throughout the play and in the overall Christian scheme of patient suffering leading to ultimate spiritual reconciliation.2 Whether we see Pericles as knight, Everyman, or saint, his adventures present life as a spiritual journey; and at important stages of development the hero's mode of vision changes, growing more profound.

The most influential theory of knowledge in the Middle Ages comes from St. Augustine's commentary on Genesis, Book XII of De Genesi ad litteram, which defines three stages of vision as man progresses into fuller knowledge of God.3 Francis X. Newman summarized these stages in his discussion of Dante's use of the Augustinian scheme in The Divine Comedy:

The first of these is the visio corporalis, the literal sight of the eye or, more generally, knowledge by means of the external senses. The second is the visio spiritualis or imaginativa, knowledge by means of the imagination. In “spiritual” vision we do not see bodies themselves but images that have corporeal shape without corporeal substance. … The third and highest of the classes of vision is intellectualis, the direct cognition of realities such as God, the angels, caritas, etc., which have neither corporeal substance nor corporeal shape. Whatever man knows he knows in one of these three ways, but Augustine is particularly interested in how we know God. In this regard he asserts that man can know God by means of any of the three visions.4

As Newman demonstrates, Dante's progression from Hell through Purgatory to Paradise is not only from near darkness to brilliant light but also from heavy corporeality through progressive dematerialization as the pilgrim approaches a paradisiacal, unmediated vision of God. Even the lowest form, corporeal vision in Hell, can engender in the pilgrim knowledge of God through beholding Hell's parodic inversion of the cross and the Trinity embodied in the winged, three-headed Satan. Augustine chose St. John's visionary mode in the Apocalypse to illustrate the use of images in spiritual or imaginative vision and St. Paul's experience of being “caught up into paradise” (2 Cor. 12:4) to exemplify incorporeal, intellectual vision. Boethius' theory of knowledge in The Consolation of Philosophy uses a similar progression into higher forms of perception, although it posits a fourth type beyond human capability. In Chaucer's translation of this work, the four types are defined as wit (the senses), imagination (invented images), reason (incorporeal apprehension), and intelligence (divine knowledge).5 While it would be excessive to claim for Pericles the religious vision experienced by the apostles, there is, nonetheless, a clear progression in his vision from corporeal through imaginative to quasi-paradisiacal and from darkness through half-light to radiance.

It has long been recognized that Pericles creates powerful visual effects with a series of dynamic tableaux as we follow the adventures of the hero and his family throughout the Mediterranean world. Iconographic studies have explored some of the ways the play achieves its immense visual power. Mary Judith Dunbar examined the play's use of traditional motifs in stage properties, verbal images, and complex stage images, showing how the dramatic context alters these commonplace motifs by giving them new force and fuller significance. Bruce Smith demonstrated how pageants in Pericles and other late plays suggest a higher plane of reality, a metaphysical realm that is sometimes more arresting than the human action. Henry Green discovered the probable sources in emblem books of several devices of the knights at the court of Pentapolis, and William S. Heckscher and Gerald J. Schiffhorst have studied portrayals of Patience in the visual arts of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance that may have inspired Shakespeare's celebrated personifications of Patience in Twelfth Night and Pericles.6 These studies have effectively demonstrated how specific types of iconography (emblems, paintings, pageants, sculpture) contribute to the dynamic visual art of the play.

Yet there is another type of iconographic study to which Pericles lends itself, namely an examination of how certain of its visual features come together to create a coherent iconographical subtext. I think particularly of the studies of Chaucerian iconography by V. A. Kolve and Gail McMurray Gibson.7 Kolve uncovers a fascinating dimension of meaning in The Legends of Good Women through study of the medieval Christian iconography Chaucer associates with his pagan figures of Cleopatra and Alcestis, and Gibson demonstrates how Resurrection functions as a submerged ironic icon in the secular Shipman's Tale. Something similar to the Chaucerian iconographic techniques appears in Pericles, the most consciously and thoroughly medievalized play in the Shakespearean canon; in fact, the iconography is so coherent and so compelling that it reveals a fundamental unity in the play's vision. While Pericles ostensibly presents a pagan milieu, it draws upon Christian iconography and biblical conceptions of patience to define the progress of the hero's vision.


In the opening chorus Gower takes care to establish perspectives—temporal, moral, and visual—on the events we are about to witness. Already “ancient” (I. Ch. 2)8 to a Renaissance audience, this quaint medieval poet insists on the much greater antiquity of his tale, giving the audience the impression of looking far back through time. F. D. Hoeniger has traced the device of using the poet as presenter to the medieval miracle plays, and Bruce Smith has noted its affinities with the presenter of contemporary Renaissance pageants.9 Both possibilities point toward the mystery of the visual show and reflect the need for some type of interpretation. We also see in Shakespeare's Gower that favorite pastime of medieval narrative poets, unearthing pagan tales and allegorizing or moralizing them to fit them into a Christian framework. The historical Gower, obviously fascinated with this old tale of incest, found a place for it in his Confessio Amantis to illustrate the seventh deadly sin, lust or lechery. The Shakespearean Gower sustains the role of medieval moralist when revealing the sin of Antiochus and his daughter. Toward the end of the opening chorus Gower emphasizes visuaI perspective, pointing toward “yon grim looks” of the dead suitors (I. Ch. 40). They pose the first paradox of vision in the play: dead eyes, looks that cannot see, watch over all.

The scene Gower introduces functions somewhat as an emblem with the poet providing its motto or key, Sin framed by Death. That, however, is only the first stage of interpretation, an allegorical direction, not a final solution to the mystery. The ancient poet is only a mediator. Interpretation of events devolves finally upon the more sophisticated audience of later times; as Gower expresses it at the end of his opening chorus:

What now ensues, to the judgment of your eye
I give my cause, who best can justify.

(I. Ch. 41-42)

The legalistic terminology suggests an audience of jurors trying a case. In the preceding line the “grim looks” of the suitors “testify” to the crimes of Antiochus. Thus, while their dead eyes frame the action on stage, our active eyes frame the stage, judging its characters and events. And the disparity between what we see (already influenced by Gower's perspective) and what Pericles sees creates the initial tension of the opening scene.

Pericles comes to the court of Antiochus determined to risk his life to win a beautiful wife. The choric Gower has already prepared the audience to expect a phenomenal beauty through his description of her as “So buxom, blithe, and full of face / As heaven had lent her all his grace” (I. Ch. 23-24); and Shakespeare continues to emphasize her ravishing face through the first two scenes. When Pericles first sees her, he finds “Her face the book of praises, where is read / Nothing but curious pleasures” (I. i. 16-17). Antiochus presents the temptation: “Her face like heaven, enticeth thee to view / Her countless glory” (I. i. 31-32). And Pericles explains to Helicanus later: “Her face was to mine eye beyond all wonder” (I. ii. 75). This unusually strong emphasis on “her face” may recall for us that other source of painful adventures in the Mediterranean world, “the face that launch'd a thousand ships.” Overwhelmed by the lady's beauty, Pericles falls victim to naïve error, first in his assumption that beauty necessarily entails virtue:

See, where she comes apparell'd like the spring,
Graces her subjects, and her thoughts the king
Of every virtue gives renown to men!

(I. i. 13-15)

But the greater error involves succumbing to the tyranny of the senses, allowing corporeal vision to dictate action. In a bold visual metaphor Antiochus warns Pericles that “without desert because thine eye / Presumes to reach, all the whole heap must die” (I. i. 33-34). To paraphrase, if you presume to look on her without deserving to, you will die. My paraphrase, however, lacks the suggestiveness of the synecdoche, eye for man, which poses the real danger: the sensual eye can usurp rational powers and dominate a man. The rather grotesque image of a presumptuous, reaching eye captures the fatal temptation at Antioch.

Immediately after, Antiochus directs Pericles' attention to the dead suitors, “Yon sometimes famous princes,” and paints a detailed portrait of their ghastly faces with “speechless tongues,” “semblance pale,” and “dead cheeks” (I. i. 33-40). When recounting this incident to Helicanus in the next scene Pericles explains, “against the face of death / I sought the purchase of a glorious beauty” (I. ii. 71-72). The audience has been prepared through Gower's medieval vision to see an emblematic quality in the opening scene. The emblem takes on fuller significance through the drama itself—face of death and face of sinister beauty yoked together by a tyrant of immense power—a relationship that Milton represented later when pairing Sin and Death as the incestuous offspring of the devil. Milton's allegory of the genesis of Death stems in part ultimately from a biblical passage:

But every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed. Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin; and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death.

(James 1:14-15)

Shakespeare, too, may have had this passage in mind. The general outlines of the visual scene, an incestuous pair and the death's heads, are of course present in the sources for the tale. But Shakespeare has filled in the sketch, moving it toward emblem through strong emphasis on the faces of sin and death and on the immense power of the tyrant. In the audience, if not in the pagan hero, this parodic inversion of the Trinity or the Holy Family can in an Augustinian manner engender knowledge of God.

It is also noteworthy that the allegory of Lust, Sin, and Death occurs in that book of the New Testament which is most fully devoted to the subject of patience. The Epistle of James begins with an explanation of patience (1:2-15), culminates in an exhortation to patience (5:7-8), and recalls “the patience of Job” (5:11), who in the Old Testament was repeatedly described as “the perfect and upright man” (Job 1:1; 1:3; 2:3). James explains that “the trying of your faith [amid temptations] worketh patience,” and he exhorts, “let patience have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing” (James 1:2-4). While the young Pericles is obviously a man in whom patience hath not yet had her perfect work, he implies in the course of the opening scene that perfection is his ideal goal. On discovering the incest of Antiochus and his daughter, Pericles sees the daughter as a castle of sin from which his “thoughts revolt” (I. i. 79), producing an apothegm on the ideal man:

For he's no man on whom perfections wait
That, knowing sin within, will touch the gate.

(1. i. 80-81)

This small metaphor coheres with the drama's larger scenic emblem, a Castle of Sin framed by Death.

For Pericles and the audience there is one more term in the visual paradoxes of the opening scene, which Antiochus does not see. Just after Antiochus warns Pericles by pointing to “yon sometimes famous princes” (I. i. 35), he observes that these heads have no covering but “yon field of stars” (I. i. 38), thereby initiating the important constellatory imagery of the play. For Antiochus the stars are only backdrop. However, when Pericles first grasps the meaning of the riddle, the stars take on new significance as the eyes of heaven:

                                                                                          … but, O you powers
That gives heaven countless eyes to view men's acts:
Why cloud they not their sights perpetually,
If this be true, which makes me pale to read it?

(I. i. 73-76)

Thus framing the scene ultimately is still another visual paradox, eyes that seem not to see, but do.

The opening scene also enacts a variation on the fall of man with its imagery of garden, celestial tree, forbidden fruit, and viper. But Shakespeare conceives the hero's change not as a fall into sin but as an advance into consciousness of good and evil, as a sudden shift from naïve sensual vision that sees no evil to a blinding of the sensual eye, producing insight into the depths of depravity, the darkness and “sin within” (I. i. 81). Understanding the riddle destroys the tyranny of the senses. Suddenly Pericles perceives the significance of the scene, but that perception takes the form of symbolic blindness in Pericles' famous identification of himself with the mole in the fallen garden:

                                                                                                    … The blind mole casts
Copp'd hills towards heaven, to tell the earth is throng'd
By man's oppression; and the poor worm doth die for't.

(I. i. 101-03)

Near the end of the scene Pericles defines his extreme peril in less cryptic terms:

                                                            … wisdom sees, those men
Blush not in actions blacker than night,
Will shew no course to keep them from the light.

(I. i. 135-37)

But the price of wisdom, of seeing into darkness, is the temporary loss of the visual splendor of the world.


Darkness clings to the hero's vision through the next two acts. Back in Tyre Pericles finds no relief from fear. Increasing dread of what Antiochus may do to his kingdom in order to destroy him preys on his mind:

Why should this change of thoughts,
The sad companion, dull-ey'd melancholy,
Be my so us'd a guest, as not an hour
In the day's glorious walk or peaceful night,
The tomb where grief should sleep, can breed me quiet?
Here pleasures court my eyes, and my eyes shun them.

(I. ii. 2-7)

While dull melancholy arises from seeing future consequences, it also produces in the hero that greater vision of a provident ruler looking out for the welfare of his subjects. Thus Pericles flees from Tyre to save his people, carries grain to Tharsus to relieve the famine, flees from Tharsus to save himself, and wrecks off the coast of Pentapolis. Here at the nadir of his fortunes, when he is resigned to death, Pericles overhears a witty conversation among fishermen that suggests the need for perseverance in faith.10 One fisherman compares rich misers to whales “who never leave gaping till they swallow'd the whole parish, church, steeple, bells, and all” (lI. i. 33-34). Another insists that as belfry he would keep ringing his bells until the whale cast up the whole church. It is perhaps the fisherman's wit, combined with the providential gift from the sea of his father's armor, that awakens new faith in Pericles and leads him to present himself at Simonides' court as a knight of hope.

In a pioneering study of Shakespeare's use of the emblem tradition, Henry Green found close parallels between emblems in books popular in Shakespeare's day and the devices and mottos on the shields of the first five knights at the tournament in Pentapolis.11 However, for Pericles' device of “a wither'd branch / that's only green at top” (II. ii. 43-44) with its motto “In hac spe vivo” (In this hope I live), Green found no close correspondence; and only one possible source for this emblem has been suggested to date. Alan R. Young discovered an impresa used for a tournament at Whitehall by Sidney in the attire of a desert knight, consisting of a tree half dead and half alive. The poem accompanying this device reveals that Sidney is expressing hope for favor from Queen Elizabeth after his absence from court; as Young puts it, the device “suggests that his fortunes lie in the balance.”12 Simonides interprets Pericles' device in a similar fashion, assuming that it means Pericles hopes to improve his fortunes through Thaisa. Young also notes that borrowings in Pericles from the Arcadia suggest that Shakespeare had Sidney in mind and that Shakespeare might have seen Sidney's device at the Shield Gallery in Whitehall. Gerald Schiffhorst has discovered a similar analogue to Pericles' device, the emblem of Victrix Patienti Duri, which portrays a “bare tree with branches green only on top,” from Gabriel Rollenhagen's Nucleus Emblematum Selectissimorum (Utrecht, 1611-13).13 While these proposals of source and analogue for Pericles' device are certainly plausible, I think we can come closer to the branch with a green tip (rather than a tree) by pursuing Green's and Schiffhorst's lines of thought on the device a bit further.

In the book Shakespeare probably consulted for the devices of three of the first five knights, Claudius Paradin's Heroicall Devises (1591), Green found two emblems somewhat similar in conception to Pericles', both presenting green shoots rising from something dead, in one instance bones, in another a sepulchre. … The mottos for these two emblems, “Spes altera vitae” (Another hope of life) and “Sola vivit in illo” (She only lived in him), according to the explanations that accompany the emblems, express the hope of resurrection.14 Green naturally did not seek a source for the device in emblem books later than the composition of Pericles (1607-08). There is, however, one emblem from a later book, George Wither's Collection of Emblemes (1635), that corresponds exactly to Pericles' device, presenting a green shoot rising from a withered one with the motto: “When Hopes, quite frustrate were become, / The Wither'd branch did freshly bloome”. … In this book the author has added his own mottos and verses to emblems previously published by Rollenhagen (1611-1613); and several of these emblems derive from earlier times. Wither gives the biblical pedigree for this one, Aaron's rod that budded, which serves as a type for the cross of Christ:

For, I, who by Faith's eyes have seene,
Old Aarons wither'd Rod grow fresh and greene;
And also viewed (by the selfe-same Eyes)
Him, whom that Rod, most rightly typifies,
Fall by a shamefull Death, and rise, in spight
Of Death, and Shame, unto the glorious height.
          Ev'n I, beleeve my Hope shall bee possest,
          And, therefore, (ev'n in Death) in Hope I'l rest.(15)

Even without Wither's verses, the small scenes behind the branch associate the emblem with resurrection, the scene to the left (the cross with its side branches rising from the sepulchre) revealing the significance of the front branch. While I have not found this kind of branch used as a symbol of resurrection in emblem books prior to the composition of Pericles, its typological precursor, Aaron's rod, appears in Paradin's Heroicall Devises. … In the pagan context of the play Pericles' device and motto can suggest simply a hope for renewal; yet they do present the hero through the very special biblical emblem of new life rising from a dead branch, which for a Christian audience may contain association with resurrection.16

Pericles' vision of Simonides' court suggests that Shakespeare is continuing to explore the Christian implications of the emblem. At the banquet following the tournament we find Pericles still sunk in “melancholy” (lI. iii. 54, 91) and Simonides determined to cheer him up. One moment during this scene stands out in defining a new stage of vision on the hero's part. We have seen Pericles looking at and behind the visual show at Antiochus' court. Now we see him looking at and beyond the spectacle of Simonides' court in a type of visionary imagination arising from dark melancholy:

Yon king's to me like to my father's picture,
Which tells me in that glory once he was;
Had princes sit like stars about his throne,
And he the sun, for them to reverence;
None that beheld him but, like lesser lights,
Did vail their crowns to his supremacy; …

(lI. iii. 37-42)

The opening “yon” echoes those gestures at Antiochus' court that directed our gaze beyond its immediate scope towards the death's heads on the battlements: “yon grim looks” and “yon sometimes famous princes,” set against the background of “yon field of stars.” The ugly images of death that framed the action of Antiochus' court acted as memento mori, reminding the hero of human frailty and mortality. In Pericles' vision of Simonides' court Shakespeare creates the opposite effect, a picture of human nobility that even death cannot destroy: “yon king” reminds Pericles of his dead father, yet the courts of both noble kings present an image of eternal splendor.

Pericles' initial vision of this court of king and princes in the configuration of the sun surrounded by stars (ll. 39-40) may owe its inspiration to Christian iconography. While at first glance the emblem seems merely an image of harmony in the heavens, it is from a naturalistic point of view quite the opposite, a phenomenon rarely to be observed in the natural world. In Paradin's Heroicall Devises Shakespeare may have seen an emblem that the author calls “a starre garland, or crowne round about the sunne,” which appeared in the reign of Augustus Caesar. … Paradin takes this natural wonder as a portent of the birth of Christ, “the true light, and true sonne of righteousness,” and gives it the motto: “This age knoweth God aright.”17 Pericles' image of stars around the sun may thus suggest the second stage in the Augustinian scheme, spiritual or imaginative vision; and the last two lines in the description of Simonides' court, in which the “lesser lights” take off their crowns (ll. 41-42), support this possibility through association with St. John's visionary mode.

Few devotional images would have greater iconic power for a Renaissance audience than the type of heavenly court Pericles envisages, since it presents a variation on a central Christian icon that most people would have seen or read about: St. John's vision of the divine court in the Apocalypse. This subject inspired some of the greatest art from the early Middle Ages through the Renaissance, appearing in paintings, bas reliefs, mosaics, tapestries, and illuminations, and throughout churches and cathedrals on altars, walls, portals, and stained-glass windows. The composition of the icon generally contains the same elements in the same configuration: the central figure of God enthroned in the sky with light radiating from his face (a sun aureole), surrounded by four beasts, seven candles, and twenty-four elders, either wearing “crowns of gold” (Rev. 4:4) or “cast[ing] their crowns before the throne” in a gesture of reverence (Rev. 4:10). Of the hundreds of magnificent representations of this subject from medieval and Renaissance art, Dürer's woodcut … is especially effective in capturing the moment Pericles emphasizes, when the lesser kings “vail their crowns” (lI. iii. 42) to the supremacy of the greater, and in expressing the visionary mode so clearly in the relationship between the earthly castle, the divine court, and the visionary in the foreground of the circular court. While Pericles deprecates his own position at Simonides' court, comparing himself to “a glow-worm in the night” (lI. ii. 43), we can nonetheless see in this simile an advance over his position as blind mole at Antiochus' court.

At the allegorical level in the play the scenic emblem of the diabolical court (Sin framed by Death) thus gives way to that of the divine court (Virtue Crowned), and in the ensuing drama Shakespeare presents variations on the image of crowned virtue at key moments. In the scene following Pericles' vision of Simonides' court, Helicanus urges the knights of Tyre to spend another year seeking out Pericles and tells them that success in this venture will mean: “You shall like diamonds sit about his crown” (lI. iv. 53). When Pericles first finds Marina, he sees her as “a palace / For the crown'd Truth to dwell in” (V. i. 121-122). After the final reconciliation at the temple of Diana in Ephesus, Gower sees the whole family as an example of “Virtue … crown'd with joy at last” (Epilogue, 5-6).


The changes in the vision of Pericles in the first two acts were all in some sense bound up with death—the dead suitors at Antioch, the prospect of the slaughter of his subjects at Tyre, and the memory of his dead father at Pentapolis. Yet the darkening of sensual vision that accompanied these threats and thoughts of death also precipitated more profound forms of vision—insight at Antioch, foresight in Tyre, and visionary imagination in Pentapolis. The last three acts sustain and amplify this conjunction of vision and death through presenting several striking variations on a single scenic configuration: characters looking on the grave of another. The opening scenes of the last three acts all contain such a spectacle. Act III moves from Pericles committing the coffin of Thaisa to the sea to Cerimon standing over the coffin at Ephesus; Act IV, from Marina at the graveside of her nurse to Pericles at the funerary monument of Marina; Act V, from Marina entering the tomb Pericles has made for himself to Pericles' perception of Marina as “Patience gazing on kings' graves” (V. i. 138).

While tempests dominate the scenes of death, the scenes of recovery from near death stress the opposite, namely an ordering of time and action through music and ceremony and the advent of light. The scene of Thaisa's awakening takes place in the early morning hours, and the most striking image, the moment when Thaisa opens her eyes, draws a part of its power from contrast with the imaginative pre-dawn obscurity. Cerimon, bending over the coffin of Thaisa, gives us a minute, even precieux description of this moment:

Behold her eyelids, cases to those
Heavenly jewels which Pericles hath lost,
Begin to part their fringes of bright gold.
The diamonds of a most praised water
Doth appear to make the world twice rich.

(llI. ii. 100-04)

This description is also significant to the whole pattern of visual imagery in the play. Act I emphasized dead eyes and distant stars watching over all; Act II moved from dull, clouded eyes to glimpses of heavenly harmony, crowns of diamonds and stars; the tempest opening Act III blotted out any perception of constellatory harmony, but this moment of awakening recovers elements of it in the “heavenly jewels” and “diamonds” of Thaisa's eyes.

The scene of Pericles' recovery brings out the full significance of that virtue the hero must achieve on his spiritual journey, patience. This powerful scene traces in slow motion the full range of aural and visual perception in the hero, from silence to the music of the spheres and from blindness to revelation. We begin in darkness and negation with Pericles' refusal to hear, speak, or see. Marina's song, like the music at Thaisa's wakening, prepares the way for recovery, although it seems to have no effect on Pericles. Marina then introduces herself with a dynamic visual image:

                                                                                                    … I am a maid,
My lord, that ne'er before invited eyes
But have been gaz'd on like a comet; …

(V. i. 84-86)

Neither this challenge to see nor the ensuing recitation seems to win Pericles' attention, and we can imagine Marina glancing down, contemplating whether to proceed (V. i. 94-96). But her words “fortunes” and “parentage” have struck a sympathetic chord in him, leading to the moment when he first looks up and invites her to look upon him: “Pray you, turn your eyes upon me” (V. i. 101). In a first influx of vision Pericles perceives Marina's physical qualities, those royal and divine traits that remind him of Thaisa, “As silver-voic'd; her eyes as jewel-like / And cas'd as richly” (V. i. 110-11). For the audience this description provides the fourth variation on a significant emblem. When Pericles understood the incest of Antiochus and his daughter in the opening scene, he described the daughter as “a casket stor'd with ill” (I. i. 78). In Act III we watched Cerimon opening the casket of jewels that Pericles had put in Thaisa's coffin and the coffin itself to reveal the “heavenly jewels” of Thaisa's eyes. Now we see the “jewel-like” eyes of Marina bringing life into the tomb of Pericles.

When Marina hesitates to tell her tale for fear it will sound like lies, Pericles begins to see her as a spiritual presence:

                                                                                                    … for thou look'st
Modest as Justice, and thou seem'st a palace
For the crown'd Truth to dwell in.

(V. i. 120-22)

In addition to reinforcing the images of crowned virtue associated with the courts of Pericles' father, of Simonides, and of Pericles in Act II, the emblem of truth, reversing the image of Antiochus' daughter as a castle, shows virtue within rather than sin. It may also draw iconic power from association with the medieval allegorical motif of the beleaguered castle, as in The Castle of Perseverance. Another medieval iconographical tradition that may have contributed to Shakespeare's conception of the allegory in this scene is the Parliament of Heaven, which features the four daughters of God (Truth, Justice, Mercy, and Peace) arguing over the soul of man in the court of heaven.18 While Pericles first sees in Marina the two sterner daughters, Justice and Truth, the functions of the two gentler daughters, Mercy and Peace, merge in his next lovely allegorical emblem of her:

                                                                                                    … yet thou dost look
Like Patience gazing on kings' graves, and smiling
Extremity out of act.

(V. i. 137-39)

Pericles' whole spiritual journey culminates in this vision of his daughter. G. Wilson Knight's commentary on this emblem suggests a significant parallel with Pauline thought:

We remember Viola's ‘Patience on a monument smiling at grief’ (Twelfth Night, lI. iv. 116); but these lines hold a deeper penetration. The whole world of great tragedy (‘kings' graves’) is subdued to an over-watching figure, like Cordelia's love by the bedside of Lear's sleep. ‘Extremity,’ that is disaster in all its finality (with perhaps a further suggestion of endless time), is therefore negated, put out of action, by a serene assurance corresponding to St. Paul's certainty in ‘O death, where is thy sting?’ Patience is here an all-enduring calm seeing through death to everliving eternity.19

I could only wish that Knight had cited the sequel to Paul's comment on death, namely “O grave, where is thy victory?” (1 Cor. 15:55), since graves are such a dominant feature in the play.

It is, in fact, Paul who gives us the most farsighted conception of patience in the New Testament through connecting the endurance of persecutions and tribulations with the hope of eternal life. The following passages, selected from many of Paul's observations on this subject, demonstrate the essential connection between patience, hope, and vision:

To them who by patient continuance in well doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life.

(Rom. 2:7)

… but we glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience; and patience, experience; and experience hope.

(Rom. 5:3-4)

For we are saved by hope, but hope that is seen is not hope: for what a man seeth, why doth he yet hope for? But if we hope for that we see not, then do we with patience wait for it.

(Rom. 8:24-25)

How Christian philosophy and iconography inform the medieval pagan world of the play we see especially in the Pauline quality of the two principal emblems associated with Pericles, the device representing Hope on his shield at Pentapolis and the image of Marina as Patience, both of which contain intimations of eternal life.

While no exact parallels for Shakespeare's emblem of Patience have been found in the visual arts, William S. Heckscher has studied similarities in conception from medieval and Renaissance art, especially in funerary sculpture and in emblems that show Patience or Fortitude seated on cubes or stones.20 Both types capture the monumental quality of Shakespeare's emblem. Closest to Shakespeare's conception is the figure of Patience in Cesare Ripa's Iconologia (1603), although the lady is not exactly smiling. … Other conventional emblems of Patience show a woman manacled, chained, yoked, or stocked. This tradition finds expression in the second edition of Ripa's Iconologia (1611), which features a lady bearing a yoke and manacles, her slight smile qualified by the tragic cast of her eyes. … Still other emblems of ladies near sepulchres suggest tragic loss, even Grief on a monument in Geoffrey Whitney's representation of a woman mourning for Ajax. …21 Shakespeare's figure of Patience thus gains power not so much from similarities with current emblems as from transformation of the conventional concepts of patience as a form of bondage and death as an occasion for sorrow.

The emblem of Patience draws together the whole complex of paradoxes associated with vision in the play, all of which involve confrontations with death, ways of looking upon death. Perspective on this emblem is particularly significant. In the dark hold of Pericles' ship, we watch Pericles looking at Marina and imagining her in the act of “gazing on kings' graves.” The complex perspective gives the impression of looking deeply into darkness, of seeing through to spiritual truth; and that truth itself is a type of vision: patience is not just the passive submission of conventional emblems but an active power, a way of seeing that can transform, “smiling extremity out of act.” Here we have perhaps the prime example in Shakespeare's works of what E. H. Gombrich has defined as a symbolic icon, namely an allegorical image that raises the mind from vision to a revelation of higher reality.22

The religious quality of the recognition scene between Pericles and Marina has often been noted. Andrew Welsh likened the influence of Marina to the operation of grace on the deadliest sin, despair or the medieval wanhope.23 The allegorizing of Marina's virtues in this scene may also recall Spenser's House of Holiness, where the hospital of Patience and the instructions of Fidelia, Speranza, and Charissa heal the despair of the Red Crosse Knight. Hoeniger noted the archetypal quality of Pericles' religious experience, a pattern found in several figures from the Bible, in the Red Crosse Knight, and in St. John of the Cross, for whom a period of utter darkness and negation is an integral phase of man's journey to spiritual light.24 In Pericles this pattern has been repeated with increasing intensity throughout his spiritual journey, each new phase of vision arising from some form of darkness—the symbolic blinding of Act I, the dull melancholy of Act II, and the dark despair of Act V. The whole process takes the form of incremental vision leading to revelation, with Patience an emblem of the most profound vision man can achieve without divine intervention. As Pericles hears the music of the spheres and sinks into sleep in a final darkening of the senses, Diana appears in a dream vision to direct him to Ephesus. This theophany epitomizes the paradoxes associated with vision throughout the play: the most exalted visions arise not just from darkness but from states of being close to death.

The reasons why Shakespeare chose Ephesus for the final setting have not yet been fully examined. J. Wilcock has pointed out that Shakespeare drew local color for the Ephesian setting of The Comedy of Errors from the Bible, the motif of sorcery from the Acts of the Apostles, and the theme of wifely obedience from the Epistles to the Ephesians.25 More recently James Sanderson has noted that Ephesus is “a particularly appropriate setting for a play elaborating the theme of patience,” since the letters of St. Paul describe it as “a place of social discord and unrest.”26 Yet a portrait of Ephesus even more relevant to the theme of patience emerges in St. John's Revelation, where we are presented with a series of portraits of cities, the seven cities of Asia addressed at the beginning and the vision of the New Jerusalem evoked at the end. The first city Christ addresses is Ephesus, and the virtue for which he commends the Ephesians most strongly is patience (Rev. 2:2-3). The importance of patience may be seen by the fact that it is also the last virtue for which Christ praises any of the cities (Rev. 3:10). Directly after that final commendation we hear the first mention of the New Jerusalem. In this sequence we can see the patience of Ephesus as a sort of first step toward a vision of the heavenly city.

The final scene of Pericles thus allows us to understand the whole play as a type of antique sacred drama, a spiritual pilgrimage culminating in religious vision. While the recognition scene at sea between Pericles and Marina emphasized natural, emotional restoration, the scene at Ephesus suggests a foreshadowing of ultimate spiritual reconciliation. This scene with its setting in a sacred temple, its atmosphere of miracle, and its imagery of silver, rich jewels, and stars, offers an earthly proximation to the heavenly cities envisaged by St. John, Dante, and the Red Crosse Knight. Here the hero's mode of vision undergoes a final change. He is no longer the outsider, trying to solve the riddle of Antiochus' court, or the sideline visionary, seeing in Simonides' court an image of divine harmony, but a participant in miraculous events. While it would be stretching matters to identify Pericles' experience with Augustine's highest mode of vision, direct cognition of divine reality, it is, nonetheless, similar in type to St. Paul's experience of being caught up into paradise. The audience's mode of vision has also changed, from that of jurors to that of witnesses to a religious event.

Bruce Smith has suggested that the references to Diana's altar combined with Pericles' direct address to the goddess may imply some visual representation of the goddess on stage, some emblem that would draw together the play's main themes. Smith has proposed a statue of the goddess based on a Cavalieri print, a robed figure with the usual symbols of a crescent moon on her head and an arrow in her hand.27 Emphasis in the play's imagery falls on the silvery, ethereal qualities of the goddess, on “Celestial Dian, goddess argentine” with her “silver bow” (V. i. 246-48) and the “silver livery” (V. iii. 7) worn by her devotees. In fact, the final scene suggests an image of pure radiance—a silver icon of the goddess surrounded by Thaisa, Marina, and a group of virgins, all in silver garb.

If we imagine for a moment only the slightest alterations in this scenic emblem, changing the dominant color from silver to gold and the crescent moon on Diana's head to a halo, we would have an icon such as Christians portray on altars and elsewhere in Morations, Assumptions, and Coronations of the Virgin. Christian paintings may provide an interesting suggestion for staging the final scene. The Morations always feature the sepulchre, containing the Virgin's body with suggestions of her spirit rising; the Assumptions keep the sepulchre but show the body rising, usually surrounded by haloed angels. … One way to catch this metaphysical drift in the staging of the final scene would be to give the altar the shape of a sepulchre with the silver statue of the goddess rising behind it.28 The center of Shakespeare's final scenic emblem, the united family with Marina kneeling before Thaisa and Pericles, may recall the sacred event portrayed in Coronations of the Virgin. While many Coronations omit the Father, Dürer, who typically gets everything in, suggests the whole process from sepulchre to crown in his Coronation, and, like Shakespeare, emphasizes the union of the whole family. …

Pericles thus shows something of a divine comedy's progress through earthly versions of inferno and purgatory to paradise. Through the hero's spiritual journey the audience sees striking variations on the hieratic configuration of the divine court, from the diabolical castle of sin framed by death's heads, which suggests a crown of death, through the secular courts in Pentapolis and Tyre, which reflect divine harmony in their jewelled and constellatory crowns, to the religious temple at Ephesus, which in its silvery radiance presents a more ethereal variation on the divine court.

Gower in his epilogue treats the whole play as an emblem and gives us his final allegorical interpretation of the family: “Virtue preserved from fell destruction's blast, / Led on by heaven and crown'd with joy at last” (Epilogue, 5-6). As always in the play the allegorical emblem is open-ended and provocative, suggestive of higher spiritual truth. While the crown of joy may remind us of the crowned Holy Family in Coronations of the Virgin, it might also recall the “crown of life,” which James presents as the reward of patient virtue:

Blessed is the man that endureth temptation: for when he is tried, he shall receive the crown of life, which the Lord has promised to them that love him.

(James 1:12)

St. John's Revelation also mentions “the crown of life” (Rev. 2:10) in conjunction with patience:

Because thou hast kept the word of my patience, I also will keep thee from the hour of temptation, which shall come upon all the world, to try them that dwell upon the earth. Behold, I come quickly: hold fast which thou hast, that no man take thy crown.

(Rev. 3:10-11)

Gower's final lines then expand the central concept of patience to include the whole audience: “So on your patience evermore attending, / New joy wait on you! Here our play has ending” (Epilogue 17-18).


  1. On the theme of patience in Pericles see John F. Danby, Poets on Fortune's Hill (London: Faber & Faber, 1952), pp. 95-106; F. D. Hoeniger, introd., Pericles, Arden ed. (London: Methuen, 1963), pp. lxxix-lxxxviii; Donald Stauffer, Shakespeare's World of Images (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1966), pp. 266-78; and Gerald J. Schiffhorst, “Some Prolegomena for the Study of Patience, 1480-1680,” The Triumph of Patience, ed. Gerald J. Schiffhorst (Orlando: University Presses of Florida, 1978), 1-31. This last book also contains important essays on medieval and Renaissance conceptions of patience in literary works and visual arts by Ralph Hanna III, Elizabeth D. Kirk, Priscilla L. Tate, and Albert C. Labriola.

  2. For influences of medieval religious plays on Pericles, see G. Wilson Knight, The Crown of Life (1947; rpt. London: Methuen, 1948), pp. 32-75; F. D. Hoeniger, introd., Pericles, pp. lxxxviii-cvi; and Howard Felperin, Shakespearean Romance (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1972), pp. 13-29, 143-176.

  3. Saint Augustine, Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum, ed. Josephus Zycha, 28 (1), 379-435.

  4. Francis X. Newmann, “St. Augustine's Three Visions and the Structure of the Commedia,Modern Language Notes, 82 (1967), p. 59. Newman also documents the influence of the Augustinian scheme in the Middle Ages, pp. 60-61.

  5. Geoffrey Chaucer, The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, ed. F. N. Robinson, 2d ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957), p. 379.

  6. Mary Judith Dunbar, “‘To the Judgment of Your Eye’: Iconography and the Theatrical Art of Pericles,Shakespeare, Man of the Theatre, ed. Kenneth Muir et al. (London: Associated University Presses, 1983), pp. 86-97; Bruce R. Smith, “Pageants into Play: Shakespeare's Three Perspectives on Idea and Image,” Pageantry in the Shakespearean Theatre, ed. David M. Bergeron (Athens, Georgia: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1985), pp. 220-246; Henry Green, Shakespeare and the Emblem Writers (London: Trübner, 1970), pp. 156-86; William S. Heckscher, “Shakespeare in His Relationship to the Visual Arts: A Study of Paradox,” Research Opportunities in Renaissance Drama, pp. 13-14 (1970-71), 5-71; and Gerald J. Schiffhorst, The Triumph of Patience, pp. 13-24. Although Priscilla Tate's essay in The Triumph of Patience,Patientia Triumphus: The Iconography of a Set of Engravings,” pp. 106-37, does not deal with Pericles, its analysis of a set of engravings from 1555-59 is certainly relevant to the study of the play's iconography.

  7. V. A. Kolve, “From Cleopatra to Alceste: An Iconographic Study of The Legend of Good Women” and Gail McMurray Gibson, “Resurrection as Dramatic Icon in the Shipman's Tale,” both in Signs and Symbols in Chaucer's Poetry, eds. John P. Hermann and John J. Burke (University, Alabama: Univ. of Alabama Press, 1981), pp. 130-178, 102-112.

  8. Quotations from Pericles are from the Arden edition of the play, ed. F. D. Hoeniger (London: Methuen, 1963).

  9. Hoeniger, introd., Pericles, p. lxxxvi; Smith, “Pageants into Plays,” p. 238.

  10. For a fuller analysis of the fishermen's scene and the redemptive pattern it initiates in the play, see Maurice Hunt, ‘“Opening the Book of Monarch's Faults: Pericles and Redemptive Speech,” Essays in Literature, 12 (1985), 155-70.

  11. Green, Shakespeare and the Emblem Writers, pp. 156-86.

  12. Alan R. Young, “A Note on the Tournament Impresas in Pericles,Shakespeare Quarterly, 36 (1985), pp. 453-456.

  13. Schiffhorst, Triumph of Patience, p. 14.

  14. Claudius Paradin, The HeroicalI Devises of M. Claudius Paradin, trans. P. S. (1591; rpt. Delmar, New York: Scholars' Facsimiles & Reprints, 1984), pp. 59-60, 320-21.

  15. George Wither, A Collection of Emblemes 1635 (Menston: Scholar Press, 1968), p. 217.

  16. This interpretation of Pericles' device follows Rosemund Tuve's concept of “double chivalry,” by which an allegorical image has reference both to the moral life of man in this world and to his spiritual destiny, Allegorical Imagery: Some Medieval Books and Their Posterity (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1966), pp. 3-55.

  17. Paradin, Heroicall Devises, pp. 199-200.

  18. For a full study of the Parliament of Heaven, see Samuel Chew, The Virtues Reconciled: An Iconographic Study (Toronto: The University of Toronto Press, 1947).

  19. Knight, Crown of Life, p. 65.

  20. Heckscher, “Shakespeare in His Relationship to the Visual Arts,” pp. 35-56.

  21. Geoffrey Whitney, A Choice of Emblemes 1586, ed. John Horden (Menston: Scholar Press, 1969), p. 30. See also his emblem of Thetis by Achilles' coffin, p.193.

  22. E. H. Gombrich. “Icones Symbolicae: The Visual Image in Neo-PIatonic Thought,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 11 (1948), 163-92.

  23. Andrew Welsh, “Heritage in Pericles,Shakespeare's Last Plays, ed. Richard C. Tobias and Paul G. Zolbred (Athens, Ohio Univ. Press, 1974), pp. 106-07.

  24. Hoeniger, introd., Pericles, p. lxxxv.

  25. J. Willcock, “Shakespeare and Ephesus,” Notes and Queries, 12 (1916), p. 345.

  26. James L. Sanderson, “Patience in The Comedy of Errors,Texas Studies in Literature and Language, 16.4 (1975), p. 610.

  27. Bruce R. Smith, “Sermons in Stone: Shakespeare and Renaissance Sculpture,” Shakespeare Studies, 17 (1985), pp. 16-17.

  28. Such a configuration showing a lady standing on a block of stone also ties in with the typical representations of Patience, usually seated on a cube or stone. Schiffhorst has discovered an emblem from Rollenhagen and Wither relevant to the standing image, which shows a crowned Constancia standing on a rectangular block with the motto in Wither, “They, after suffring, shall be crown'd, / In whom, a Constant-faith, is found,Triumph of Patience, p. 19.

Peggy Muñoz Simonds (essay date spring 1995-96)

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SOURCE: Simonds, Peggy Muñoz. “‘Sweet Power of Music’: The Political Magic of ‘the Miraculous Harp’ in Shakespeare's The Tempest.Comparative Drama 29, no. 1 (spring 1995-96): 61-90.

[In the following excerpt, Simonds focuses on analogies between Prospero and Orpheus, the mythical demigod who employed music and eloquence to civilize brutish men and induce harmony in his kingdom.]

In a recent paper critical of the logical discrepancies between “new historicist” theory and practice, Robin Headlam Wells argues that a true historical approach to The Tempest would focus on the mythological topos of Orpheus as the conventional prototype of Prospero rather than on modern views of colonialism and demonized otherness.1 In response to this important suggestion, I shall discuss here the conflation of two such traditional topoi in Shakespeare's tragicomedy: (1) the benevolent and thus successful ruler as Orpheus, a magician in control of Nature and the poetic civilizer of barbaric peoples, and (2) the ideal commonwealth as a melodious and fruitful garden. Since my iconographic materials will be taken from the political discourses of the Renaissance itself, and not from Foucault or Greenblatt, they will help to historicize Shakespeare's tragicomedy rather than theorize it in the usual postmodern fashion. Moreover, I reject the fallacious either-or logic of Foucault who implies that artistic works like The Tempest must be either for or against state power.

Instead I shall suggest that Shakespeare is primarily interested in neither royalist propaganda nor revolution but in reform during an Age of Reformation, and that he indicates in this play precisely those aspects of Renaissance kingship that must be corrected if the monarchy is to survive. Prospero's long exposition in Act I of his personal failure to govern Milan well lists a number of them: negligence, lack of interest in the work of government while immersing himself completely in his hobby, handing over the real power to others, ignoring the ordinary people over whom he rules, and, above all, refusing to consider and provide for the future of his family and his dukedom. It is well known that James I of England was guilty of many of these same faults, especially that of putting his hobby of deer hunting ahead of the welfare of the nation while delegating royal authority to courtiers such as the notorious Duke of Buckingham.

In the present iconographic study of The Tempest and its politics, I shall refer to relevant musical imagery in Renaissance emblems and in woodcuts of royal and civic pageants, both of which provide useful analogues but are probably not sources for Shakespeare. I offer visual materials here primarily as evidence of a general cultural interest in the figure of Orpheus and of his political symbolism in Renaissance Europe, and with the hope that these pictures and their verses will supply at least a partial explanation of how an early seventeenth-century English audience might have understood the political aspects of the tragicomedy.

Although Orpheus is never directly mentioned in the text, critics often observe that, as Shakespeare's most musical play, The Tempest contains many of his best songs. It also contains a musical masque featuring an elaborate stage dance, numerous poetic references to the techniques of music, and an unusual number of sound effects (from whistles, thunder, roars, barking dogs, and howls of pain contrasted to exquisite serenades from unseen musicians). David Norbrook, brilliantly discussing much of this stage dissonance in terms of political language and rhetoric, has argued that in this play “the boundless voice of the elements and of social transgression is pitted against the name of king, the arbitrary language of power.”2 Although Norbrook is quite correct in calling our attention to the political linguistic resonances of the tragicomedy, his analysis glosses over the fact that the magician Prospero controls through his daemon3 Ariel the voice of the elements which drowns out the name of king and contains the comic howls and drinking songs of social transgression that serve as the bass line of the musical composition of The Tempest as a whole. Indeed, from the initial noisy shipwreck to the last scene of the play, the symbolic island in The Tempest (which could be a fantasy version of England itself) resonates with the competing vocal and stringed music of harmonious Apollo, representing rational order and measure, and the irrational pipe and tabor music and sheer racket of discordant Dionysus/Pan, symbolizing both passion and freedom. A resolution to the cacophony is finally achieved by Prospero in Act V, scene i. At this point the Boatswain returns to the stage to proclaim that the previously split and sinking ship (of state) is now as “tight and yare, and bravely rigg'd as when / We first put out to sea” (V.i. 224-25).4 Also, in contrast to Norbrook, I shall emphasize in the present essay the harmonist elements of Shakespeare's text rather than its political discords. Both are present—working together like the differing vocal and/or instrumental lines in the polyphonic music of the Renaissance.


In the iconography of Renaissance emblem books and civic pageants, Orpheus symbolized for Europeans the ideal ruler of a commonwealth that also resembled a peaceful, well-cultivated, and fruitful garden. When the mythical Orpheus is unable to control his own passions of desire or grief, he is indeed drowned out by the discordant music of the Dionysian maenads and dismembered by them. However, Shakespeare makes certain that this catastrophe does not happen in The Tempest by making no references in the play to Prospero's sexual past or present.5 Nonetheless, the threat of political and personal disaster is always dramatically present in the play until Caliban and his drunken cohorts are tamed and until Caliban learns the difference between a self-restrained ruler and a drunken sot. Throughout The Tempest, the master of poetic language and of Ariel's musical magic as well is the magician Prospero, Shakespeare's Renaissance analogue to Orpheus, who has been said to haunt all of the final plays.6 The multifaceted figure of Orpheus the Civilizer was, of course, very useful for Renaissance poets, philosophers, and politicians as a popular fictional representative of qualities ranging from art itself, to the love of humanitas, and finally to the idea of political harmony among all the social classes in a well ordered state.

As Charles Segal observes, the demi-god Orpheus began his career in ancient Greece as a magician much like Prospero, an enchanter (from the Latin canere—to sing) who persuaded others to act in concord through the magic of his song and his poetic rhetoric.7 According to Segal,

Orphic song can embody that universal harmony which unites man with nature, the unifying concord of the cosmos that finds expression in the song that moves birds, beasts, stones, and trees in rhythmic responsion to its own beat and tune. Orpheus' music can express man's participation in that cosmic harmony and also recreate it in the shaped, human terms of art.8

Such music can also quell ordinary human dissension, as when we see Orpheus calm the quarreling Argonauts with his lyre and his song in the poetic account of Jason's voyage by Apollonius of Rhodes. As Apollo's son, Orpheus is an eloquent peacemaker, but when he personally crosses a psychological boundary into the Dionysian realm of the passions after the death of Eurydice, he succumbs to poetic furor or frenzy and apparently loses his magical power to restore the dead Eurydice to life. His loss of self control is fatal to his beloved but paradoxically vital to his art, which derives from the frenzy of poetic inspiration. For this reason, no doubt, we see the magician Prospero constantly fighting himself in Shakespeare's complex tragicomedy in order to master his own baser passions (ranging from irascibility and impatience to violent thoughts of vengeance) as well as the daemonic spirits who serve him in his attempts to secure a good future for Miranda and to regain his dukedom.9 We should also remember, however, that Orpheus was thought to be the first priest and prophet of the wine cult of chthonic Dionysus, who is as obviously celebrated in The Tempest as is his brother celestial Apollo. Cosmic harmony depends on the music of both Apollo/Orpheus and Pan/Dionysus, as Robert Fludd indicates in his engraving of “The Temple of Harmony” … from Utriusque Cosmi Historia,10 and Prospero regulates both with the help of Ariel, whose name (although biblical) suggests Air (the melody) and music as breath or pneuma.

The magical powers of Orpheus, like those of Shakespeare's Prospero, allowed him in antiquity to charm even the winds and the seas, as the chorus leader announces in a Greek ode by Pindar: “I shall imitate in my songs … that siren-sound which silences the Zephyr's swift winds when Boreas, shivering with the storms' strength, rushes upon us with his blasts and stirs up the wave-swift sea.”11 Shakespeare echoes this power over the sea in the famous Orphic “Song” of his Henry VIII: “Every thing that heard him play, / Even the billows of the sea, / Hung their heads, and then lay by” (III.i.9-11). The occult spells of Orpheus are equally praised by Pausanius, who hails him as “wondrously skilful at magic” like Amphion, who built the stone walls of Thebes with his music. Pausanias' conflation of Orpheus with Amphion continues as a commonplace throughout the Renaissance. However, Shakespeare chooses to announce this central Orphic theme of the artist as the builder of cities and of civilization ironically in The Tempest by having his entirely unmusical villains Antonio and Sebastian make fun of Gonzalo's conflation of Tunis with Carthage in Act II, scene i: “His word is more than the miraculous harp. … He hath rais'd the wall, and houses too” (ll. 87-88). The seven strings of this miraculous harp (sometimes a lute or a lyre) represent both the harmony of the spheres and the harmony of a well-organized society of men and women living together in mutual rhythm and in tune with nature and the cosmos.12 Antonio and Sebastian sneer at this possibility, and it is true, of course, that musical instruments do constantly need to be retuned, as does the human psyche itself.13

Shakespeare and other Renaissance poets also conflated Orpheus with the mythic poet-musician Arion. As Arion was tossed overboard by thieving mariners to die in the waves, so Prospero and his infant daughter were placed in a rotten wine butt and thrown into the sea by his rebellious and ambitious brother Antonio, aided by King Alonso of Naples. Emblem X in Book I of A Collection of Emblemes by George Wither on the Arion topos … makes the meaning of such retold stories quite clear. Under the motto “An Innocent no Danger feares, How great soever it appeares,” Wither writes the following explanatory verse:

When some did seeke Arion to have drown'd,
He, with a dreadlesse heart his Temples crown'd;
And, when to drench him in the Seas they meant,
He playd on his melodious Instrument;
To shew, that Innocence disdayned Feare,
Though to be swallow'd in the Deeps it were.
Nor did it perish: For, upon her Backe
A Dolphin tooke him, for his Musick's sake:
To intimate, that Vertue shall prevaile
With Bruitish Creatures, if with Men it faile.

In his final verse, the emblematist insists that virtue will always save innocent poets from the world's malice.

Arion-like, the Malice of the World,
Hath into Seas of Troubles often hurl'd
Deserving Men, although no Cause they had,
But that their Words and Workes sweet Musicke made.
Of all their outward Helps it hath bereft them;
Nor meanes, nor hopes of Comfort have been left them;
But such, as in the House of Mourning are,
And, what Good-Conscience can afford them there.
Yet, Dolphin-like, their Innocence hath rear'd
Their Heads above those Dangers that appear'd.
God hath vouchsaf'd their harmelesse Cause to heed,
And, ev'n in Thraldome, so their Hearts hath freed,
          That, whil'st they seem'd oppressed and forlorne;
          They Ioyd, and Sung, and Laugh'd the World to

Much as Arion was thrown overboard with his musical instrument, the defeated Prospero was given his magical books by Gonzalo to take along in the wine butt, and these in turn allowed the magus to free Ariel (the daemonic spirit of music and poetry) from a tree on the island15 and ultimately to overcome his enemies.

No real distinction was made either in antiquity or in the Renaissance between the cosmic aspects of Orphic music and human politics. They were one and the same, or ideally should be, as Exeter observes in Shakespeare's Henry V:

For government, though high and low, and lower,
Put into parts, doth keep in one consent,
Congreeing in a full and natural close,
Like music.


In fact, James Daly reminds us in his excellent analysis of “Cosmic Harmony and Political Thinking in Early Stuart England” that the ideal of “Cosmic harmony never allowed anything to exist in isolation, since everything from the firmament to the humblest parts of the human body reflected the same analogical principles.”16 The place of Orpheus within this system was that of a numinous figure of political rhetoric or eloquence who would persuade through magical song rather than force others to behave well.17

However, Shakespeare obviously had some doubts about the ability of music and poetry to achieve this high ideal, since Lorenzo observes in The Merchant of Venice that certain people (such as Antonio and Sebastian) are simply tone deaf and cannot be persuaded by reason's measure:

The man that hath no music in himself
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night,
And his affections dark as [Erebus]:
Let no such man be trusted.


Not surprisingly, Prospero as a Jacobean Orpheus finds it necessary to use the negative persuasion of pinches and cramps as well as the positive charms of sweet harmony to temper the rebellious humors of such primitives as Caliban, who is eventually redeemed, and his drunken cohorts Stephano and Trinculo in The Tempest. Vigilance is the only answer in the case of the born traitors and entirely tone deaf Antonio and Sebastian, who can never be trusted. Thus, the ruler of a harmonious state must ideally practice both the active and the contemplative modes of life, rather than retreat into his study as Prospero had previously done in Milan. As Richard Hooker puts it, “Where the King doth guide the state and the lawe the King, that commonwealth is like an harpe or melodious instrument, the stringes wherof are tuned and handled by one hand.”18

Yet, while the king plays the melody or air on the harp, Caliban, or others like him, must be persuaded by any means possible to bear the burden—or the bass musical accompaniment—of the daily workings of human society.19 According to the Oxford English Dictionary (s.v “Burden,” IV):

Apparently, the notion was that the bass or undersong was “heavier” than the air. The bourdon usually continued when the singer of the air paused at the end of the stanza, and (when vocal) was usually sung to words forming a refrain, being often taken up in chorus. … As the refrain often expresses the pervading sentiment or thought of a poem, this use became coloured by the notion of “that which is carried” by the poem: its “gist” or essential contents.

On the other hand, Shakespeare also points out that rulers are expected to work as hard at the business of good government as others work at more humble occupations such as cooking, washing up after meals, and bringing in firewood. In fact, we never see the watchful Prospero at rest in The Tempest, although Miranda and Caliban believe that he takes a nap every afternoon in his cave.

In addition to his magical powers, Orpheus was also understood to be a civilizer of barbaric peoples through his eloquence. According to John Warden, “The locus classicus is Horace Ars Poetica 391ff: Orpheus the first poet is the first to soften the hearts of the ‘stony and beastly people’ and set them on the path to civilization. His instrument is his eloquence (for Boccaccio the lyre is ‘oratoria facultas’).” Warden adds that “Humanism represents the moral action of the word fashioning the raw materials of primitive man into a civilized member of a community.”20 This fundamental logocentrism of Orpheus is reflected by Shakespeare in Prospero's determined efforts to teach Caliban human language, which the wild man then uses primarily for cursing.

Not always, however. We must remember that Caliban speaks some of the finest poetry in the entire play in order to praise the musical qualities of his island to Stephano and Trinculo and to calm their fears:

Be not afeard, the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometimes voices,
That if I then had wak'd after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again, and then in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I wak'd
I cried to dream again.


Caliban not only responds to music's charms but he has also learned from Prospero the importance of an education in words. He reminds his fellow rebels to “Remember / First to possess his books; for without them / He's but a sot, as I am” (III.ii.91-93). Learning is apparently the one factor that makes the difference between ruler and servant, according to the wild man. However, if Caliban considers Prospero to be a “tyrant” (III.ii.42) because of the magician's efforts to restrain the wild man's sexuality and self-indulgence, the drunken Trinculo is far more realistic about the results of unrestrained Dionysian celebrations when he observes, “They say there's but five upon this isle: we are three of them; if th' other two be brain'd like us, the state totters” (III.ii.5-7).

Since Orpheus was famous for the taming of wild men, the presence of a barbaric creature like Caliban in The Tempest is further evidence of the play's Orphic tendencies. Caliban is an iconographic example of the traditional European wild man.21 He is compared to a fish by Trinculo mainly because of his bad smell, although the comparison is a just one when we also consider the monster's unrestrained lust, believed to be a typical characteristic of most such imaginary wild men living a solitary life in nature. The fish, of course, is an ancient symbol of the phallus, while one type of acknowledged wild man in art is the lustful ithyphallic satyr commonly associated with Dionysus/Bacchus. An example of this figure in iconography and his musical association with wind instruments—pipes or recorders—appears in Edward Topsell's The History of foure-footed Beastes …, where we read that

The Satyres are in the Islands Satiridae, which are three in number, standing right ouer against India on the farther side of Ganges; of which Euphemus Car rehearseth this history: that when he sayled into Italy, by the rage of winde and euill weather they were driuen to a coast vnnauigable, where were many desart Islandes inhabited of wilde men, and the Marriners refused to land vpon some Islands, hauing heretofore had triall of the inhumaine and vnciuill behauiour of the inhabitants; so that they brought vs to the Satirian Islands, where we saw the inhabitants red, and had tayles ioyned to their back not much lesse then horsses. These, being perceiued by the Marriners to run to the shippes and lay hold on the women that were in them, the ship-men for feare, tooke one of the Barbarian women and set her on the land among them, whom in most odious and filthy maner they abused, not onely in that part that nature hath ordained, but ouer the whole body most libidinously, whereby they found them to be very bruit beasts.22

This richly illustrated book, which emphasizes the primitivism and innate beastliness of wild men, was easily available both to Shakespeare and his audience.

Topsell has much more to say about satyrs, including the “fact” that they were hunted with dogs in Saxony (as in The Tempest). He relates that after one male satyr was captured, “he was brought to be tame, and learned to go vpright, and also to speake some wordes, but with a voice like a Goat, and without all reason: he was exceeding lustfull to women, attempting to rauish many of what condition soeuer they were, and of this kinde there are store in Ethiopia.23 As a member of this fictitious family of ithyphallic wild men, Caliban cannot control his lust for Miranda, in contrast to the civilized and restrained sexual behavior of Ferdinand under Prospero's watchful paternal eye.

Many Renaissance emblems praise the magical power of music and reiterate the significance of Orpheus to the Renaissance as a figure of eloquence capable of taming all kinds of brutes, including wild men. Henry Green has shown that the verses of such emblems are very similar to the comments on music and Orpheus which we find in The Merchant of Venice, Two Gentlemen of Verona, and Henry VIII.24 We might begin here with Pierre Coustau's 1560 emblem “Sur la harpe d'Orpheus” or “La force d'Eloquence”. … The picture shows Orpheus playing his harp and leading men and beasts out from the forest toward a city that boasts a tall obelisk.25 Green translates the French verse as follows:

                    On the Harp of Orpheus
                    The Power of Eloquence.
With sound gentle and very melodious
Of an instrument Orpheus caused to move
Rocks and pastures from their place and home.
                    It is eloquence having force and power
To steal the hearts of all his learning shows,
It is the orator who by strength of eloquence
First brings even under influence
Brutal people, and from fierceness
Gathers them; and who to benevolence
From fierceness then reclaims.(26)

Nicholas Reusner's 1581 emblem on “The Power of Music and Poetry” conflates Orpheus and Amphion in the verse, but his woodcut … depicts only the harpist Orpheus sitting under a tree and charming the birds and animals with his song. The Latin verse (in translation) tells us that

Orpheus tamed terrible tigers, raging lions and wild birds also by his singing.
Amphion, likewise, moved stones with the sound of his alluring lyre, when he built Thebes without using his hands.
That is, he civilized rustic spirits and wild men, and he instructed ignorant people by his art.
He moved them with friendly enticements and eloquence, and he taught them to follow law and justice.
Thus Music, like divine Poetry, has great strength through the harmonious cooperation in its measures.
If you have a voice, sing! If the spirit moves you, dance the song. But fit the song to life, give thanks to God.
Minds are charmed by the songs, ears by the singing. Each stream flows from heavenly fountains.(27)

Geffrey Whitney's Orpheus emblem entitled “Orphei Musica” offers more of the same observations. …

As Orpheus brings art to nature, so in The Tempest the magus Prospero brings the arts of civilization to an island once ruled by nature alone and attempts to endow it with the divine harmony dramatized in the wedding masque. In this performance for Miranda and Ferdinand, reapers of cultivated fields dance with forest nymphs. Like music and poetry, dance was believed to reflect through its ordered patterns the sacred harmony of the spheres. Sarah Thesiger reminds us of Sir Thomas Elyot's observation in The Boke of the Governour that dancing is excellent exercise and that it symbolizes Prudence and matrimony as well as the Aristotelian notion of the mean. “The mean is seen as the concord to two qualities, or of two dancers symbolizing two qualities, rather than as a somewhat paradigmatic quality in itself.”28

In contrast to Orphic harmonies of the Apollonian variety on the island, Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo perform the wild music of Dionysus or Bacchus with drunken songs and capers, and they make a religion of intoxicating wine in II.ii. The farcical action of kissing the book, or the bottle in this case, is actually a parody of Christian eucharistic ritual, which itself derives from the earlier Dionysian and Orphic mysteries. However, the sober emblematist Whitney prints a disapproving Bacchus emblem “In statuam Bacchi” on the page directly opposite his Orpheus emblem, just as Shakespeare himself contrasts Prospero's Apollonian art with the parodic Dionysian songs of the clowns. Under the woodcut of a fat Bacchus playing pipe and tabor …, Whitney writes:

The timelie birthe that Semele did beare,
          See heere, in time howe monsterous he grewe:
With drinkinge muche, and dailie bellie cheare,
His eies weare dimme, and fierie was his hue:
          His cuppe, still full: his head, with grapes was
          Thus time he spent with pipe, and tabret sounde.(29)

The fiery hue of Bacchus reminds us not only of the effect of wine on one's capillaries but also of the fiery passions that wine helps to liberate from rational control. Another name for Dionysus or Bacchus was, of course, Liber (Free).

In The Tempest, Ariel enters immediately after the controlled Apollonian dance in the masque to report on the drunkards to Prospero. He tells his master that although “they were red-hot with drinking” (IV.i.171), he managed to lead them to their punishment with the only kind of music they could understand:

                                                                      Then I beat my tabor,
At which like unback'd colts they prick'd their ears,
Advanc'd their eyelids, lifted up their noses
As they smelt music. So I charm'd their ears
That calf-like they my lowing follow'd through
tooth'd briers, sharp furzes, pricking goss, and thorns,
Which ent'red their frail shins.


While satirizing the Dionysian aspects of human life in this particular instance, Shakespeare was well aware that men and women need both gods—Apollo and Dionysus—in their lives. In fact, the classical view of human nature describes humanity as possessing both intellect and discordant passions, or, as the Renaissance would have it, angelic minds and beastly bodies. The perennial question was and still is, as Theseus puts it in A Midsummer Night's Dream, “How shall we find the concord of this discord?” (V.i.60).

Despairing of ever improving Caliban “on whose nature / Nurture can never stick” (IV.i.188-89), Prospero then subjects him and his fellow bacchanalians to the Dionysian ritual of the hunt. To the cacophony of barking and baying dogs set on by Prospero and Ariel, the roaring rebels are driven off stage to suffer the kind of ultimate chaos meted out in tragedy to King Lear on the heath. There is no concord to be heard as yet, although in the previous “glistering apparel” scene Caliban has finally shown the first signs of using his human capacity for reason. While Stephano and Trinculo grab for the fancy clothing Ariel has hung on the lime tree to tempt them from rebellion into common thievery (as even today rebels are often distracted from their political ends by the attractions of looting), Caliban sees through the trick and identifies the garments as mere outer appearances. He rudely says to his new king Stephano, “Let it alone, thou fool, it is but trash” (IV.i.224), leading us to believe that there is hope for him after all.

As suggested above, the magician Orpheus was often depicted in the visual arts as the ruler through musical eloquence of a peaceful garden in which the lamb could safely lie down with the lion. For example, such an ideal kingdom was sculpted in plaster bas relief on the major chimneypiece at Haddon Hall in Derbyshire. … In apparent contrast to this hopeful vision of political concord, Prospero's island is filled with dangerous creatures, from snakes to murderous rebels within the very highest and the very lowest social groups. Antonio and Sebastian plot to murder Alonso, King of Naples, and his advisor Gonzalo; while Caliban and his “civilized” European cohorts intend to murder Prospero and rape Miranda. Meanwhile, the ordinary workers of this world, or the mariners, are safely locked in sleep below hatches in their foundered ship, which is probably as good a way as any to describe what we now call “middle class complacency.” Despite its fantasy qualities, Prospero's island is thus real rather than ideal. Yet, with the help of Ariel's music and his own magical spells, Prospero manages to maintain at least some control over all the discordant elements—including his own passionate desire for revenge—until he has achieved his ends. This, along with the merciful treatment of wrongdoers or clemency, is what was expected of a good king in the Renaissance.

Indeed, the emblem tradition concerned with Orpheus includes the notion of clemency as necessary for harmonious rule. Under the motto “Peragit Tranquila Potestas” (“Use power peacefully to get things done”) and the usual picture of Orpheus taming the animals and trees …, Julius Wilhelm Zincgreff writes the following epigram:

La clemence d'vn Roy conduit tout aisement
Le plus barbare peuple, & doucemente le force,
Et mene ou bon luy semble; autrement par la force
Il n'en viendra iamais à son contentement.

(The clemency of a king leads the most barbarous populace quite easily and gently forces and leads it where good appears to it; otherwise, by force it will never arrive at its contentment.)30

In other words, persuasion and mercy rather than force will help to achieve an harmonious and happy kingdom.


Shakespeare imaginatively combines garden imagery with musical references throughout The Tempest. This conflation begins with Prospero's narrative of his deposition by his brother in Milan. While Prospero was in his study, Antonio, he says,

                                                  Set all hearts i' the' state
To what tune pleas'd his ear, that now he was
The ivy which had hid my princely trunk,
And suck'd my verdure out on't.


This commonplace of the parasitic ivy winding itself about the ruler, who is described here as a tree trunk, and thus destroying its host, is the antithesis of the fruitful association of the elm and the vine. The latter topos was often employed in poetry to symbolize marriage. It could also represent the metaphor of a fruitful spousal relationship between a benevolent prince and his people, as Shakespeare uses the elm and vine image to represent the relationship between Duncan and Banquo in Macbeth.31 Deriving from Catullus' Carmen LXI, the elm and ivy topos, in contrast, symbolizes an illicit love (see Comedy of Errors II.ii.174-81) that ultimately kills the male tree.32 Indeed, an alert gardener is needed in the ideal kingdom to prevent such disasters by constantly weeding his garden and pruning his trees (see Richard II III.iv).

Thomas Combe's The Theater of Fine Devices contains an emblem on the destructiveness of ivy compared to the similar destructiveness of ungrateful kinsmen like Antonio. … This is an English translation of Guillaume de la Perrière's Emblem 82 in Le Théâtre de bons engins of 1539. Under the motto “Ungratefull men breed great offence, / As persons void of wit or sence,” the woodcut illustrates ivy winding up and around an oak tree. According to the verse.

The Oke doth suffer the yong Ivie wind
Vp by his sides, till it be got on hie:
But being got aloft, it so doth bind,
It kils the stocke that it was raised by.
So some proue so vnthankfull and vnkind
To those on whom they chiefly do rely,
          By whom they first were called to their state,
          They be the first (I say) giue them the mate.(33)

Combe advises checkmating such people, which is exactly what Prospero finally does to his greedy and ungrateful brother.

Of course, gardens may be either green or withered in iconography. Shakespeare seems to imply in The Tempest that the garden's appearance depends on our own perspective or our own willingness to love it and care for it, since the optimistic Gonzalo sees Prospero's island as green and fertile, while Antonio and Sebastian perversely describe it as withered.

Here is every thing advantageous to life.
True, save means to live.
Of that there's none, or little.
How lush and lusty the grass looks! How green!
The ground indeed is tawny.


Adrian takes the middle point of view: “Though this island seems to be desert … Uninhabitable and almost inaccessible … Yet … It must needs be of subtle, tender, and delicate temperance” (II.i.35, 38, 40, 42-43). The word “temperance” refers not only to moderation but also to the state of being in tune musically. As we know, Queen Elizabeth, during her coronation celebrations, witnessed a pageant depicting the change from a withered garden to a green garden kingdom by the very fact of her royal presence. The topos thus signifies the communal hope for regeneration and renewal under a benevolent and temperate ruler.

In The Tempest, the courtly characters not only are psychologically “amazed” by the wonders of the island but are also required to walk endlessly through an actual maze, always a popular component of the formal Renaissance garden and an excellent image for the complexities of political life at a Renaissance court. Moreover, according to James J. Yoch, Jr., “The familiar gardening and literary image of the labyrinth forms an important part of Prospero's plot to transform his enemies. Each sloughs off his old life by coming to a strange landscape and a different part of the island.”34 The exhausted Gonzalo finally complains that “My old bones aches. Here's a maze trod indeed / Through forth-rights and meanders” (III.iii.2-3). The maze image is later repeated by Alonso:

This is as strange a maze as e'er men trod,
And there is in this business more than nature
Was ever conduct of.


Indeed Prospero's garden kingdom, as well as being a primitive wilderness, is as complicated as the intricate dance of the reapers and nymphs in the wedding masque; both are the products of an Orphic civilization within nature.

Royal entries and civic pageants are also pertinent to our understanding of the iconography in The Tempest since many pageants presented Orpheus surrounded by birds and animals in an enclosed garden. For example, in 1515 the city of Bruges welcomed the young Prince Charles of Spain, who was to become Emperor Charles V, with exactly such a pageant. The woodcut of this scene depicts two wild men with clubs (one of which was decorated with the rooster of vigilance) standing outside a garlanded fence in front of the pageant. The wild men wear wreaths on their heads and around their waists. The entire series of pageants for this celebration was designed by local rhetoricians, who hoped that Charles would help the city economically and allow the people to live in a peaceful and harmonious kingdom like that of the musician Orpheus.35

The 1550 entry of Henry II of France into Rouen featured a street show of Orpheus and the Nine Muses, all playing musical instruments.36 A 1562 woodcut of a Spelen van Sinne … shows another civic pageant illustrating Orpheus enchanting the animals. It is stated in the accompanying poem “De Pioen Bloeme van Mechelen” that Orpheus and the animals represent “princely harmony.”37 A similar pageant welcomed Mary Tudor and Philip II of Spain into London in 1564. This was the third pageant, which was constructed at the end of Ironmonger Lane in Cheap:

In the height wherof was one playing on a harpe, who signified the most excellent musician Orpheus, of whom and of Amphion we reade in the fables of old poetes; where also were nyne faire ladyes playing and singing on divers swete instrumentes, signifying the nine Muses. And not farre from them were men and children decked up like wilde beastes, as lions, wolfes, foxes, and beares. So that the moste swete strokes, noyse, and soundes of Orpheus, with the nyne Muses playing and singinge, in the sayd pageant, and also the counterfeated beastes daunsing and leaping with Orpheus harpe and the Muses melodye, exhilarated and rejoysed their majesties very much.38

Many years later, on Princess Elizabeth's wedding night, 14 February 1613, she and her bridegroom the Prince Palatine were entertained by Thomas Campion's The Lord's Masque in which Orpheus appeared to bring both sexual-poetic frenzy and the harmony of the spheres into their marriage. The Tempest was also performed during the celebrations of this important Protestant wedding.

Seventeenth-century civic pageants in honor of London's Lord Mayor by Thomas Middleton and Thomas Heywood employed the same Orphic topos in respect to civic government in England and for the same reasons that it had been used for earlier royal entries.39 The importance of all such shows (except for the court masque) is that, since they were paid for by the guilds and merchants, they represented the political aspirations of the middle class so noticeably absent from the action in The Tempest. As Ferdinand comments of the ordered sexuality in the wedding masque shown him by Prospero, “This is a most majestic vision, and / Harmonious charmingly” (IV.i.118-19). However, it was actually offered to Prince Ferdinand and to the audience by an actor-playwright named William Shakespeare, one of “the middling sort” in England at that time, rather than by a representative of majesty like Ferdinand himself.

If a melodious garden was the political ideal of Renaissance Europe, the reality always fell short of perfection because not everyone had a musical ear or was willing to work cooperatively at performing the composition. A good musical performance, after all, depends on playing in tune, coming in at the right time, observing the measure, not drowning out other parts, etc. As Prospero suggests throughout The Tempest, discipline and hard work are thus both necessary in the ideal harmonious kingdom, in contrast to Gonzalo's utopia where no one works and Nature generously provides for all.40 For this reason, Prospero trains Ferdinand for both kingship and marriage by making him carry burdens. A loving Miranda wants to help the young prince carry logs in what is probably Shakespeare's most subversive scene in this play. Ferdinand protests that “I had rather crack my sinews, break my back, / Than you should such dishonor undergo, / While I sit lazy by” (III.i.26-28). To this Miranda replies, “It would become me / As well as it does you” (III.i.28-29). Everyone must work both in a civilization and in the microcosm of a happy marriage as they are presented in The Tempest.

Of course, marriage itself is another traditional Renaissance topos referring to the king's relationship, which must be loving, restrained, and harmonious, with his nation. This is undoubtedly why Shakespeare contrasts the Ferdinand-Miranda love scenes with the drunken and quarrelsome cacophony of the rebels' scenes. As Donna Hamilton has argued in her provocative study of The Tempest as a constitutionalist rewriting of the imperialist Aeneid, Shakespeare through emphasizing the Neoplatonic “idea of service” also “makes central to the play a dialectic on the relationship between bondage and freedom. … Instead of mystifying absolutism, he mystifies the other choice—the constitutional relationship between subject and ruler that depends on reciprocity, on meum et tuum.41 Indeed Ferdinand agrees to marry Miranda “with a heart as willing / As bondage e'er of freedom” (III.i.88-89), a reference to the Petrarchan conceit of the lover's willing bondage to his beloved. As the two parties agreeing to a marriage contract, Ferdinand and Miranda will then exemplify the mutual bearing of burdens and loving cooperation proper to the marriage between an ideal king and his subjects.

In The Tempest, Prospero symbolizes not only the powerful magic of Orpheus, a rough magic he relinquishes when he drowns his book, but also the industry or Art necessary to lead others well and to correct or improve Nature in his realm. Whitney depicts this political art based not on magic but on hard work in his emblem “Industria naturam corrigit” (“Industry corrects nature”) in which Mercury (often a symbol of Intellect) repairs a lute, while in the background a bearded man plays on a lute and a woman dances. … Both activities symbolize harmony, as we have previously seen. Whitney's verse reads as follows:

The Lute, whose sounde doth most delighte the eare,
          Was caste aside, and lack'de both stringes, and
Whereby, no worthe within it did appeare,
Mercvrivs came, and it in order settes:
          Which being tun'de suche Harmonie did lende,
          That Poëttes write, the trees theire toppes did bende.

It is interesting to notice the conflation here of Mercury as industry with Orpheus and his magical control over nature. The emblem continues with an expression of the same kind of hope Prospero feels for the court party after the punishment and the training to which he has exposed them.

He had no hope, however, for the civilizing of Caliban, would-be rapist and murderer, and apparently incurable rebel. Whitney says otherwise:

Euen so, the man on whome doth Nature froune,
Whereby, he liues dispis'd of euerie wighte,
Industrie yet, maie bringe him to renoume,
And diligence, maie make the crooked righte:
          Then haue no doubt, for arte maie nature helpe.
          Thinke howe the beare doth forme her vgly

In any case, the point of this English emblem is that politics is much more a matter of art than it is of force, which is nature's untaught way and invariably provokes more violence in response.

Of Caliban, Prospero bitterly complains in the play that he is

A devil, a born devil, on whose nature
Nurture can never stick; on whom my pains,
Humanely taken, all, all lost, quite lost;
And as with age his body uglier grows,
So his mind cankers.


But this same Caliban, after his painful experience as the roaring quarry of an instructional hunt by Prospero and Ariel, and after sobering up in a foul pond of horse piss, changes his savage manner. The wild man suddenly appears to be reformed, despite his fears of further punishment, as does his social opposite King Alonso at the top of the hierarchy. Instead of further punishment, Prospero merely orders Caliban to clean up the cave (symbolically a place of transformation), which is the first actual work that Caliban seems willing to do.

Ay, that I will; and I'll be wise hereafter,
And seek for grace. What a thrice-double ass
Was I to take this drunkard for a god,
And worship this dull fool!


Civilized at last, or so we hope, even Caliban's quality of speech has now changed radically back to blank verse to match his master's final decision, also stated in blank verse, to overcome his own baser passions through a noble act of clemency:

Though with their high wrongs I am strook to th' quick,
Yet, with my nobler reason, 'gainst my fury
Do I take part. The rarer action is
In virtue than in vengeance.


This final success of Prospero as a type of Orpheus in bringing harmony to his garden kingdom, controlling his own passions, and civilizing the wild man is, of course, only an illusionary vanity of Shakespeare's theatrical art. Yet it is also the artistic reflection of an ever recurring human dream.43


  1. Robin Headlam Wells, “The Tempest: New Historicism and the Director,” in Shakespeare from Text to Stage, ed. Patricia Kennan and Mariangela Tempera (Bologna: Editrice Bologna, 1992), pp. 51-61. In particular, Wells points out that “Post-structuralist historicism says it wants to return literature to its cultural context. But instead of showing me what is unique about The Tempest's political vision, these critics are showing me how it reveals a trans-historical truth about the way power works, something that, provided we have read our Nietzsche and our Foucault, we already knew before we reread the play. Instead of inserting the text into history, these critics are taking it out of the cultural history of its own time” (p. 55).

    See also Wells' important book Elizabethan Mythologies: Studies in Poetry, Drama and Music (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1994), pp. 63-80, which appeared after my essay was completed. Wells and I have obviously been working along similar lines in respect to Orpheus and Shakespeare for a number of years. See “The Tempered Music of Orpheus” in my Myth, Emblem, and Music in Shakespeare's “Cymbeline” (Newark: Univ. of Delaware Press, 1992), pp. 334-63.

  2. David Norbrook, “‘What cares these roarers for the name of king?’: Language and Utopia in The Tempest,” in The Politics of Tragicomedy, ed. Gordon McMullan and Jonathan Hope (London and New York: Routledge, 1992), p. 21. This is an interesting and provocative essay containing insights that we must take seriously.

  3. I use the term “daemon” in the sense of Plato and Ficino as a word referring to a higher intellectual spirit that serves the magician as his intermediary.

  4. All quotations from Shakespeare are from The Riverside Shakespeare, gen. ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), and are cited parenthetically in my text.

  5. Mythological figures were often used by Renaissance artists symbolically for certain aspects of their personalities, while other aspects were suppressed. For example, Jupiter was a famous lover of mortal women and boys, but there is certainly no suggestion of this in his thunderous appearance as a god of justice and providence in Shakespeare's Cymbeline. Likewise, Ganymede could symbolize either homosexuality or the love of the soul for God and wise counsels. Alciati clearly chooses the former meaning in his Emblem 4, while other writers and artists emphasize the latter.

  6. See David Armitage, “The Dismemberment of Orpheus: Mythic Elements in Shakespeare's Romances,” Shakespeare Survey, 39 (1986), 123-33.

  7. See Charles Segal, “The Magic of Orpheus,” in Orpheus: The Myth of the Poet (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1989), pp. 1-35.

  8. Ibid., p. 9.

  9. In this effort Prospero is the direct opposite of Shakespeare's tragic hero Hamlet, who struggles to arouse himself to passion and thus to an irreligious act of vengeance.

  10. Robert Fludd, Utriusque Cosmi Historia (Oppenheim: Johan-Theodore de Bry, Typus Hieronymi Galleri, 1617-19), p. 168.

  11. Quoted in Segal, Orpheus, p. 12.

  12. See John Hollander, The Untuning of the Sky: Ideas of Music in English Poetry, 1500-1700 (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1961), p. 44. Other important studies of the harmonist theory to which I am greatly indebted include Leo Spitzer, Classical and Christian Ideas of World Harmony (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1963); Catherine M. Dunne, “The Function of Music in Shakespeare's Romances,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 20 (1969), 391-405; and S. K. Heninger, Jr., Touches of Sweet Harmony: Pythagorean Cosmology and Renaissance Poetics (San Marino: Huntington Library, 1974). See also Peggy Muñoz Simonds, “‘Killing care and grief of heart’: Orpheus and Shakespeare,” Renaissance Papers (1990), pp. 79-90.

  13. There is an interesting reference to the problem of achieving personal and social harmony in the Hermetica XVIII: “On the soul hindered by the body's affections.” The passage begins with the observation that “If someone promises to bring harmony out of a piece of music played on many instruments, his effort will be laughable if during the performance discord among the instruments hinders his zeal. Since weak instruments are altogether unequal to the task, inevitably the spectators will jeer at the musician” (Hermetica, trans. Brian F. Copenhaver [Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1992], p. 63). Hermes' advice to kings facing this problem is to “tune the inward lyre and adjust it to the [divine] musician” (p. 64) who never loses control over his instrument, the world lyre.

  14. George Wither, A Collection of Emblemes (London, 1635), p. 10.

  15. This story of Ariel's liberation may remind us of a famous riddle on the making of a musical instrument from a tree. After the cruel ax has killed the tree, once again the wood sings with new life as an instrument: “Viva fui in sylvis sum dura occisa securi / Dum vixi facui mortua dulce cano” (“I was alive in the woods: I was cut down by the cruel axe. While I lived I was silent: In death I sweetly sing”). The idea derives from the myth of Hermes, who changed a tortoise shell into a lyre and gave it to Apollo to calm his anger. Shakespeare seems to be playing with this ancient tradition of upward metamorphosis in his creation of Ariel. At least Shelley apparently thought so when he wrote his poem “With a Guitar, to Jane” in which Ariel tells the above story of transformation and song after death to Miranda.

  16. James Daly, “Cosmic Harmony and Political Thinking in Early Stuart England,” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, 69 (Oct. 1979), 21.

  17. According to John Hollander, “The association of Orpheus with abstract eloquence and concurrently with the power of actual secular music can be seen very early” (Untuning of the Sky, p. 63), and Robin Headlam Wells quotes the English rhetoricians George Puttenham and Thomas Wilson on the association of Orpheus with political persuasion instead of force (“The Tempest: New Historicism and the Director,” pp. 57-58).

  18. Richard Hooker, Of the Lawes of Ecclesiastical Politie, The Works of Richard Hooker, ed. W. Speed Hill (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1977-82), IV, 342. Wells explains that “It has to be one hand that plays the harp of state, because, if you live in a universe governed by the rule of analogy, it follows with inescapable logic that, ‘As one God ruleth the world, one master the family … so it seemeth no less natural that one state should be governed by one commander” (“The Tempest: New Historicism and the Director,” p. 59).

  19. For a full discussion of this musical accompaniment, see Joan Hartwig, “Cloten, Autolycus, and Caliban: Bearers of Parodic Burdens,” in Shakespeare's Romances Reconsidered, ed. Carol McGinnis Kay and Henry E. Jacobs (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1978), pp. 91-103.

  20. John Warden, in “Orpheus and Ficino,” Orpheus: The Metamorphoses of a Myth, ed. John Warden (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1982), pp. 89-90.

  21. I am in complete agreement here with the conclusions of Alden T. Vaughan and Virginia Mason Vaughan in Shakespeare's Caliban: A Cultural History (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1991), pp. 60-72. See also Frank Kermode, ed., The Tempest, 5th ed. revised, Arden Edition (London: Methuen 1954), pp. xxxviii-xxxix.

  22. Edward Topsell, The History of foure-footed Beastes (London: William Jaggard, 1607), p. 13.

  23. Ibid., p. 15.

  24. Henry Green, Shakespeare and the Emblem Writers (London: Trübner, 1870), pp. 273-74.

  25. Pierre Coustau, Le Pegme (Lyons, 1560), p. 389.

  26. Green, Shakespeare and the Emblem Writers, p. 272.

  27. Nicholas Reusner, Emblemata (Frankfurt, 1581), p. 129 (Emblem 21); translation by Roger T. Simonds.

  28. Sarah Thesiger, “The Orchestra of Sir John Davies and the Image of the Dance,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 36 (1973), 283.

  29. Geffrey Whitney, A Choice of Emblemes (Leiden: Christopher Plantin, 1586), p. 187.

  30. See Julius Wilhelm Zincgreff, Emblematum Ethico-Politicorvm (Heidelberg: Johan Theodore de Bry, 1619), Emblem 51. The English translation is by Roger T. Simonds.

  31. I explain the embrace between Duncan and Banquo as analogous to the elm and vine topos in my Myth, Emblem, and Music in Shakespeare's “Cymbeline,” p. 267, as follows: “‘Noble Banquo,’ [Duncan] says, ‘That hast no less deserv'd, nor must be known / No less to have done so, let me infold thee / And hold thee to my heart.’ Accepting his role as the fruitful vine supported by the elm, Banquo gracefully replies, ‘There if I grow, / The harvest is your own’ (I.iv.27-33). In the tragedy of Macbeth, the subject must accept the submissive role of a wife to the royal husbandman.”

  32. Peter Demetz supplies an excellent survey of these contrasting topoi in “The Elm and the Vine: Notes Toward the History of a Marriage Topos,” PMLA, 73 (1958), 521-32.

  33. Thomas Combe, The Theater of Fine Devices (London, 1593 and 1614), Emblem 82.

  34. James J. Yoch, Jr., “Subjecting the Landscape in Pageants and Shakespearean Pastorals,” in Pageantry in the Shakespearean Theater, ed. David M. Bergeron (Athens, Georgia: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1985), p. 209. Yoch also points out that Prince Henry had the figure of Orpheus placed in his garden at Richmond (p. 213), and that “Prospero uses positive elements from Medea's great speech (Metamorphoses, 7.191-214) about her control over the landscape to reveal his similar powers and, surprisingly, to announce his plan to surrender them (V.1.33-57)” (p. 212). Yoch argues persuasively that the drama is organized around the theme of royal restraint.

  35. For the woodcut, text, and a complete description of the pageant series, see Sydney Anglo, La tryumphante Entree de Charles Prince des Espagnes en Bruges 1515 (Amsterdam: Theatrum Orbis Terrarvm, n.d.).

  36. For the woodcut, text, and a complete description of this entry, see Margaret M. McGowan, L'Entrée de Henri II à Rouen 1550 (Amsterdam: Theatrum Orbis Terrarvm, n.d.)

  37. Spelen van Sinne: Volscoone moralifacien … zijn (Antwerp: M. Willem Silvius Drucker, 1562), sig. Gggi. I am indebted to Elizabeth McGrath and Paul Taylor of the Warburg Institute Library for this reference.

  38. Quoted in Sydney Anglo, Spectacle, Pageantry, and Early Tudor Policy (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969), p. 333. Some Protestants resented the imagery of this pageant, however, interpreting the charmed animals as Philip's image of the beastly English people captivated.

  39. See David Bergeron, English Civic Pageantry 1558-1642 (London: Edward Arnold, 1971), pp. 190-92.

  40. Caliban, of course, supplies the answer to Gonzalo's dream of a Golden Age of leisure by pointing out in prose the hard work of primitive life: “I prithee let me bring thee where crabs grow; and I with my long nails will dig thee pig-nuts, show thee a jay's nest, and instruct thee how to snare the nimble marmazet. I'll bring thee to clust'ring filberts, and sometimes I'll get thee young scamels from the rock” (II.ii.167-72). Survival skills are needed to live off the land. Stephano immediately makes him their leader but, at the same time, he insists, “Here! bear my bottle” (II.ii.175-76).

  41. Donna Hamilton, Virgil and “The Tempest” (Columbus: Ohio State Univ. Press, 1990), p. 93.

  42. Whitney, A Choice of Emblemes, p. 92. The same emphasis on reason and hard work and the same woodcut appear earlier in the 1564 Emblemata by Johannes Sambucus.

  43. I am indebted to Stephen Orgel, David Evett, and Robin Headlam Wells for their useful questions and suggestions.

Rhonda Lemke Sanford (essay date 1998)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8182

SOURCE: Sanford, Rhonda Lemke. “A Room Not One's Own: Feminine Geography in Cymbeline.” In Playing the Globe: Genre and Geography in English Renaissance Drama, edited by John Gillies and Virginia Mason Vaughan, pp. 63-85. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1998.

[In the following excerpt, Sanford links the Renaissance connection between women's bodies and geography—evident in the iconography of Elizabeth I—to the wager plot in Cymbeline. She compares Iachimo's cataloguing of Imogen's bedchamber and the mark on her breast (II.ii) to the work of a mapmaker and likens his improvisational report of what he observed (II.iv) to a tale told by a traveler returned from distant lands.]


In the literature of travel and exploration, the language of desire is frequently used to advertise new discoveries enticingly. Columbus described the New World alluringly as “a land to be desired, and, seen, it is never to be left.”1 Similarly, Sir Walter Raleigh described Guiana invitingly as “a Countrey that hath yet her Maidenhead, neuer sackt, turned, nor wrought.”2 These short excerpts reflect the abundance of sexual references in the literature of exploration, where the land is frequently figured as a woman to be ravished and the pun on the word country to refer to women's genitals (as in Hamlet's “country matters” (3.2.116)) was commonplace. In America, colonies named for queens are dubbed “Maryland” and “Virginia”—the latter coinage cleverly eliding the name of the monarch, emphasizing instead the virgin state of both queen and land (both of which presumably have yet their maidenheads), thus inviting seduction(s) far away that seem infeasible, and by now quite unlikely, at home). Tellingly, even colonies named after kings are feminized: Carolina for Charles and Georgia for George. The land thus feminized, discovery, exploration, invasion, and conquest are frequently figured as seduction, penetration, and rape. Iconographically, Jan Van der Straet's etching of Americo Vespucci standing erectly over a recumbent, nude, and female “America” illustrates vividly the initiation of what Michel de Certeau calls the “colonization of the body by the discourse of power.”3 Annette Kolodny, too, aptly captures the sexual innuendo involved in this colonization in the title of her book on the American pastoral, The Lay of the Land.4

Topographic images of women go beyond travel and exploration narratives and iconography of the New World, showing up in both the cartography and the literature of Renaissance England. In this essay, I will examine the pervasiveness of the image of the land gendered as feminine and the explorer-cartographer as masculine along with the attendant prevalence of the imagery of sexual congress and rape to characterize the act of surveying and of mapping. I will demonstrate a link between the portrayal of Imogen in Cymbeline with iconography of Elizabeth I and show how the scene in which Jachimo invades Imogen's chamber enacts the process of mapping and represents the action of rape. I will also show how Jachimo deviates from his intended mapping project and finally abandons this project altogether to concoct a traveler's tale that ironically turns out to be more convincing than the intended map. Finally, I will show the consequences of the “soil of rape”5 on Imogen and on “Britain” using feminist and postcolonial theory.

In the English Renaissance, some of the most prominent images of woman-as-land-to-be-conquered are cartographic images of Queen Elizabeth I. A Dutch engraving of 1598 features Elizabeth as Europa; her head is Spain, her breast (singular, since she is portrayed as an Amazon) is in France; her right arm is Italy; and her left sword-wielding arm is England (armed against the papal invasion off her coast). Juxtaposed on several countries, Elizabeth's body thus becomes vulnerable to attack at many places—every cartographic inlet provides an orifice for invasion, or rape, as the name Europa reminds us. Similarly, the famous portrait of Elizabeth I by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger (commonly referred to as the Ditchley portrait) shows Elizabeth standing on the map of England; in this iconography, Elizabeth the monarch becomes England the country, or island. Here, woman figured as island is as vulnerable to attack as woman figured as continent as we can see the tiny ships sailing under Elizabeth's skirt; this incursion, either commercial or, more menacingly, military, may remind us of Lucrece, the “late-sack'd island” of Shakespeare's poem, with blood flowing around her (The Rape of Lucrece 1740). In Cymbeline, Imogen's reference to herself as “Britain” (1.6.113) and Jachimo's comment that she is “fasten'd to an empery” (1.6.120) recall the Ditchley portrait.6

But the iconography of Queen Elizabeth's person associated with mapping does not stop with islands and countries. On the cosmographic scale, in a woodcut from John Case's “Sphæra Civitatas,” Elizabeth's portrait looms above and embraces an outdated Ptolemaic universe in which the outermost sphere is Elizabeth's name and the concentric circles (representing the officers of the Court of Star Chamber) make invasion a matter of degrees, implying greater and greater intimacy within this “map” of the royal body. On a smaller scale, the emblem of the ideal woman in the Renaissance is the hortus conclusus, the enclosed garden—also the emblem of the Queen's virginity and of England the island.7

Also inscribing the royal body, I would argue that poems such as John Davies' Hymnes of Astræa represent a move to a different sort of mapping of the monarch. Describing the Queen in the formulaic manner of the acrostic—a form in which latitude and longitude seem implicit—certain features are highlighted, which taken cumulatively, might represent a map of Elizabeth's terrain. For example, in “Hymne III: To the Spring,” the first E in the recurring acrostic ELISA BETHA REGINA tells us that “Earth now is greene”; the B - E - T of Betha gives us “Blasts are mild, and seas are calm, / Every meadow flowes with balme, / The earth wears all her riches”—much like the jewel-encrusted Elizabeth of many of her portraits. Thus, we have at least a partial delineation of a map inscribed in the monarch's name, the letters of which may be seen as the cross-reference points of that map. In “Hymne XII: To her Picture” the poet chastises the painter for his “rude counterfeit”; a better rendering would have “each lyne, and each proportion right” as would an accurate map; Davies' insinuation here is of course that a poem is a better means of mapping (or portraiture) since the poet must feel by writing these lines that he indeed did get “each lyne, and each proportion right” in his metrics, his diction, and in this particular sequence of poems, in his inscription of each line within the body politic represented by the name of the monarch. Words, in fact, supplant pictorial representation in this mapping of the monarch and are powerful enough to bring this poet to something of a sexual climax in “Hymne XXIII” in his “delightful paine”; and to images of ejaculation in the middle of “Hymne XXVI.”8

Just as Davies's acrostics divide the monarch's name in order to describe her, Donne's “Elegy 13: Love's Progress” divides a less regal woman's body while describing it. The poet, figured as a sailor, makes a voyage on his mistress' body, describing her from the top down in geographic terms. Her brow, when smooth, is a “paradise” for the lover but when furrowed can “shipwreck” him. The lover's face is mapped out in terms of meridians and compass points: “The nose like to the first meridian runs / Not 'twixt east and west, but 'twixt two suns” (47-48). Later, the cheek is a “rosy hemisphere” and the “swelling lips” are the “Islands Fortunate” where the lover “anchors” for “they seem all” (49-55). The poet continues with his voyage on the woman's body past the “Sestos and Abydos of her breasts” (61) and sails “towards her India, in that way / Shall her fair Atlantic navel stay” (65-66); here, the genitals are equated with exotic locales and are, of course, the real goal of this navigatory inventory.9 In fact, after leading us through an inventory from the head down, where the lips seem all (and hint at the genital labia), the poet suggests that we “consider what this chase / Misspent, by thy beginning at the face” (71-72). The better route for “love's progress” would be from the bottom up: “rather set out below” (73)—since there would be fewer distractions along the way before arriving at this “first part that comes to bed” (80).

Composing a poem with certain cross references to a woman's name or “incorporating” an itemized list of geographical features into a poem may seem like an innocuous pastime, but Nancy Vickers discusses how the French poetic Blasons anatomiques du corps femenin (1543), which divides the woman's body while describing it, can be dangerous.10 In such poems as The Rape of Lucrece, where breasts are at first “a pair of maiden worlds unconquered” (408), description leads to competitive desire, rape, and eventual death. Vickers discusses how descriptions of women can be dangerous:

The canonical legacy of description in praise of beauty is, after all, a legacy shaped predominantly by the male imagination for the male imagination; it is, in large part, the product of men talking to men about women. In Lucrece, occasion, rhetoric, and result are all informed by, and thus inscribe, a battle between men that is first figuratively and then literally fought on the fields of woman's “celebrated” body.


Likewise, in the hands of a character such as Jachimo in Cymbeline, the activity of description in a boasting game between men destroys the reputation of a princess just as surely as the enticing tales of the New World prompted its conquest. Having provided a bit of background on the common association of women's bodies with geography in the Renaissance, I would like to explore the dangers of describing women in terms of cartography and travelers' tales using the specific case of Shakespeare's Cymbeline. Like Columbus, Raleigh, and Donne, Shakespeare figures the woman Imogen as a country to be conquered, and Jachimo's penetration and mapping of her chamber represents his attempt at conquest.11 Because Jachimo's actual failure of physical penetration of Imogen's body would effect his loss of the boasting game in which he is involved, he must fabricate false evidence of conquest based on his penetration of Imogen's bed chamber in order to win the game. Since the evidence Jachimo initially presents to Posthumus is a mental map, I would like to frame the first part of my discussion of Jachimo's description in terms of Renaissance cartography.12


Because the mapping of England was a huge political project in Elizabethan England, the commissioning of a map was a manifestation of power. Because of their uses in defense, land ownership, travel, and colonization, the accuracy of maps was taking on greater import; thus, new maps included claims to greater accuracy than their predecessors had provided. In the boasting game central to Cymbeline, Posthumus's “map” of his wife, Imogen as chaste is being questioned for its accuracy. If Posthumus is wrong about his wife, Jachimo's proposed map will correct or replace Posthumus's own inaccurate or outdated map of Imogen. In fact, Jachimo and Posthumus are engaged in a contest similar to that of Elizabethan cartographers over the accuracy of their maps. Consider, for example, the case of William Camden's Britannia (1594) and of Ralph Brooke's “A Discoverie of certaine errours published in the much-commended Britannia” (1594), followed by another edition “to which is added Mr. Camden's answers to this Book.”13 Like these Renaissance mapmakers, Jachimo, in his initial encounter with Imogen, extols his own skills and proclaims his corrections of previous inaccuracies as he rhapsodizes on Imogen's qualities:

What, are men mad? Hath nature given them eyes
To see this vaulted arch and the rich crop
Of sea and land, which can distinguish 'twixt
The fiery orbs above, and the twinn'd stones
Upon the number'd beach, and can we not
Partition make with spectacles so precious
'Twixt fair and foul?


Here, Jachimo chastises the absent Posthumus for not seeing clearly what a prize Imogen is. Posthumus and other men may have eyes with which to appreciate the “vaulted arch” of heaven, the ability to comprehend the geographic features of “sea and land,” the “fiery orbs” of the stars, as well as other features of the landscape, but they (and especially Posthumus) seem unable to truly appreciate that bit of geography with which Jachimo is now faced. Jachimo, as mapmaker, intends to “make partition”—he will use his own cartographic vision, his “spectacles” to chart “twixt fair, and foul,” to draw boundaries and to capture the essence of Imogen within those boundaries.

Jachimo's vocation of mapmaker at Posthumus's behest requires that he gather certain information, certain knowledge about his “new found land,” to steal blatantly from Donne's “Elegy 2.”14 Thus, when Jachimo enters Imogen's chamber via a trunk, he postures himself as both explorer and rapist: he compares himself to “Tarquin … ere he waken'd / The chastity he wounded” (2.2.12-14) as he arrives in something like a bark and begins to explore both the sleeping Imogen and her chamber.15 As he describes Imogen in typical Petrarchan terms—her eyes are “enclosed lights, now canopied / Under these windows, white and azure lac'd / With blue of heaven's own tinct” (21-23)—he nearly forgets himself in his desire for a kiss and he must remind himself of his mission:

                                                                                But my design!
To note the chamber, I will write all down:
                                                                                [Takes out his tables.]
Such, and such pictures; there the window; such
Th' adornment of her bed; the arras, figures,
Why, such and such; and the contents o' th' story.


Jachimo's use of the words design, note, and write as well his locating certain features as reference points (“there the window”) all figure in the mapmaking process, but with all of his sketchy “such and suches” we may begin to wonder how accurate a mapmaker Jachimo really is. Actually, Jachimo seems merely to be sketching notes for a map he intends to draw in greater detail later; the poetry, too, suffers here, marking the move from poetic description to notetaking.

While Jachimo begins by jotting notes about Imogen's chamber and her more accessible features, a change takes place when he realizes that more compelling evidence would be “some natural notes about her body” which would enrich his “inventory” (28-30). The actual transformation of Jachimo's mission takes place, however, when the word voucher (39), usually taken to mean written proof, is used to describe Imogen's cinque-spotted mole. In an ironic sense, Jachimo himself becomes a voucher who realizes he need no longer sketch out his proof and that the usual tools of mapmaking are superfluous to this assignment. The text inscribed on Imogen's body is converted to an oral transmission of a traveler's tale rather than the written proof of the map he intended to draw when he first took out his “tables.” In fact, once he realizes the potency of this voucher, he abandons his “design” of writing, declaring, “No more: to what end? / Why should I write this down that's riveted, / Screw'd to my memory?” (42-44). Jachimo is certain that he can “vouch” for Imogen's supposed inconstancy with this evidence. Not coincidentally, this moment of recognition coincides with textual allusions to rape and sexual fulfillment as Jachimo notices that Imogen's book is marked “where Philomele gave up” (46), reinforcing his earlier rape allusion to “our Tarquin”; and he realizes he has had “enough” (46), underscoring the sexually satisfying nature of his invasion.16 As he sees the “dragons of the night” (48), he reenters his trunk. He leaves Imogen's chamber with the rudiments of his intended map but also with the sexual fodder for a traveler's tale he will relate with embellishments later. Jachimo's ocular survey or voyeuristic rape might again remind us of the sexual anticipation in Donne's “Elegy 2: To His Mistress Going to Bed”:

Licence my roving hands, and let them go
Behind, before, above, between, below.
O my America, my new found land,
My kingdom, safeliest when with one man manned,
My mine of precious stones, my empery,
How blessed am I in this discovering thee.
To enter in these bonds is to be free,
Then where my hand is set my seal shall be.


In an ironic way, Jachimo's reentry into the trunk sets him free from the temptation he might have felt, along with Donne's poetic persona, to let his hands rove “behind, before, above, between, [and] below.” Oddly, though, Jachimo has what he came for—he too has a “new found land.” His eyes have “discovered” her “behind,” “above,” and so on, and his mouth can report her attributes with embellishments. Being back in the trunk renders Jachimo free from being discovered himself—allows him or “licenses” him to tell of the “voyage upon [Imogen]” (1.4.158) that he has figuratively made as satisfaction of his wager with Posthumus. Jachimo's ambiguous statement that he lodges in fear, “though this a heavenly angel, hell is here” (2.2.49-50), might refer to his fear before he reenters the trunk that either Imogen's beauty or the “hell” of her vagina might tempt him—an interesting twist on Donne's more blatantly sexual “to enter in these bonds is to be free.”17

The nature of Jachimo's penetration as a figurative rape is reinforced ridiculously in the next scene when another kind of penetration is planned by Cloten to win the love of Imogen (2.3). Here, Cloten plans to “give her music a' mornings,” because “they say it will penetrate” (11-13). As if to reinforce the idea of penetration, the stage direction, “Enter musicians,” follows with further rather suggestive directions from Cloten: “Come on, tune. If you can penetrate her with your fingering, so; we'll try with tongue too. If none will do, let her remain; but I'll never give o'er” (14-16). If the music does not penetrate, he accuses music itself of being a vice, the “voice of unpav'd eunuch … can never amend” (27-31). Several uses of the words come and arise and references to being “up” both late and early make clear the sexual nature of this attempted penetration; the double figuring of castration in “unpav'd eunuch” makes it clear that this penetration does not “come off,” a point restated by Cloten to Cymbeline: “I have assail'd her with musics, but she vouchsafes no notice” (39-40). In an odd way, too, this “penetration” reflects the move from the written to the oral (“fingering” to “tongue”) that Jachimo enacted in Imogen's chamber.

Meanwhile, upon Jachimo's return to Rome, he reports of the night he had “in Britain” (2.4.45), and as he amplifies his “knowledge” of Imogen (51), he replicates the move from the written inventory for the intended map to the oral transmission of the traveler's tale first inspired within Imogen's chamber. Some of the details of Jachimo's “map”—for example, the tapestry of “proud Cleopatra, when she met her Roman” (70)—are dismissed by Posthumus as possible hearsay Jachimo may have gathered, even in Rome. This dismissal also seems to be an ironic allusion to other mapmakers having explored “Britain,” and Mediterranean mapmakers were famous for their portolan maps of England;18 thus, Jachimo must provide greater detail. He realizes that “more particulars / Must justify [his] knowledge,” as he goads Posthumus with sexual innuendo in an obvious pun on “knowledge” (78-79). As Jachimo describes the “chimney,” the “chimney piece,” and “chaste Dian” (80-82) with likely implications of vagina, mons veneris, and hymen), he has set forth some compass points for his map. By establishing the chimney as the south, we might position the Cleopatra tapestry on the north (since it is of a directly opposing theme to that of “chaste Dian”). Delineations of north and south, however, do not satisfy Posthumus who says that “This is a thing / Which you might from relation likewise reap, / Being, as it is, much spoke of” (2.4.85-87). These lines might prompt us to ask just who would be speaking “much” about the details of Imogen's private chamber—how many others might have “reaped” there. This reference that figures Imogen as land to be cultivated and harvested seems to echo the discussion of Cleopatra by Enobarbus and the Romans: consider Agrippa's comment that “She made great Caesar lay his sword to bed; / He ploughed her, and she cropp'd” (Antony and Cleopatra 2.2.227-28). Besides the more usual sense of harvesting, the OED lists one “obscure” verb meaning for reap “to take away by force”—Posthumus's suggestion in this anagram of “rape” seems not implausible here since Philario and then Posthumus will soon also accuse Jachimo of stealing Imogen's bracelet. Likewise, Jachimo's further details [the roof of the chamber (87-88), and the andirons or the guards to the chimney (88-91, despite their metaphoric allusions)], are hardly enough to convince Posthumus that Jachimo has compromised Imogen's “honor” (91) or that he has been “on her” to invoke the common pun. Although Posthumus praises Jachimo's remembrance, merely having accurately mapped (or sketched, or described) the chamber is not enough for Posthumus. Even the physical evidence of the bracelet does not suffice because it might have been stolen.

It is, of course, finally with the description of the “cinque-spotted mole,” the “corporal sign,” that Posthumus is convinced of his wife's adultery. Jachimo continues:

                                                                                                    If you seek
For further satisfying, under her breast
(Worthy her pressing) lies a mole, right proud
Of that most delicate lodging. By my life,
I kiss'd it, and it gave me present hunger
To feed again, though full. You do remember
This stain upon her?


Here, the description of the mole and Jachimo's affidavit of truth (“by my life”), his embellishment of its virtues (“worthy her pressing”), its paradoxical ability to provoke desire even while satisfying it, together become a traveler's tale of the fantastic reminiscent of Columbus's earlier reference to the New World or Enobarbus' description of Cleopatra's paradoxical ability to make hungry even while satisfying (likewise reported back in Rome, in Antony and Cleopatra 2.2.190—239).19 Jachimo the fabulist now inspires complicity in Posthumus who is, after all, a fellow traveler and, since they are both involved in the competition of the boasting game, can do nothing but concur when Jachimo poses his question, “You do remember / This stain upon her?” To answer “no,” would be to admit his own lack of “knowledge” of Imogen.20 This question is definitely “worthy [Jachimo's] pressing” since it wins him the game. Posthumus's response, too, becomes embellished: the “stain,” in fact, becomes “as big as hell can hold” (2.4.140) as he implores Jachimo to “spare your arithmetic, never count the turns. / Once, and a million!” (142-43). Here, once again allying Imogen with Cleopatra, Posthumus greatly multiplies Antony's epithet for the Egyptian “triple-turn'd whore” of Imogen's tapestry (Antony and Cleopatra 4.12.13) so that Imogen may as well have “turned” a million times in bed with Jachimo and other men. Posthumus's condemnation of women, too, is greatly multiplied as he implicates all women and finally all things feminine in his “woman's part” speech in the next scene (2.5.1-35). The mole, a “voucher” at the site of description, only becomes a “stain” at a distance—can only be exaggerated and embellished once Jachimo is out of the chamber, and in fact, like Enobarbus, back in Rome.21

As a cartographer within Imogen's chamber, Jachimo is limited to accurate recording of topographical features because he can only correct Posthumus's previous map in a verifiable way, but the traveler's tale offers a better medium for Jachimo's purposes because of its tolerance of improvisation. Annette Kolodny enumerates the range of the journeys on which travelers' tales are based: “some planned, some already executed, some wholly imaginary, and some a confusing combination of the three” (11). Thus, the very circumstances under which the traveler's tale is written (or invented)—away from the subject locale and often based on a thumbnail sketch such as Jachimo's—allow for improvisation, expansion, exaggeration, and complete fabrication. Jachimo may have undertaken to draw an accurate map, but he cannot be objective about a subject that threatens to carry him off in the rapture which prompts Imogen's “What, dear sir, / Thus raps you? Are you well?” (1.6.50-51). He is never sufficiently detached and, ironically, the traveler's tale he improvises turns out to be more convincing.

François Hartog outlines a rhetoric of otherness at work in travel literature, such as Herodotus' History, that is useful to my discussion of Jachimo's voyage to Imogen's chamber. Herodotus (ca. 480-425 b.c.), referred to as both the “father of history” and the “father of liars,” wrote what is accepted as the first ethnography about those living outside Greece in his day. According to Hartog, the problem facing a writer of ethnography becomes one of translation; in other words, “how can the world being recounted be introduced in a convincing fashion into the world where it is recounted?” (212). The degree to which ethnographers (and travelers) are able to convince their audience is evaluated based on who is speaking and on the claims of experience made by the traveler. Firsthand experience, seeing with one's own eyes, or “autopsy,” is the best evidence; next is hearsay evidence or experience that is reported by others; least convincing is that which is created by the traveler. Key phrases employed by Herodotus are used by Hartog to answer the question, “Who is speaking and to whom?” These key phrases correspond with the evidentiary hierarchy so that “I have seen” ranks higher and indicates more direct experience and the greatest likelihood of truth. “I have heard” ranks next, and the phrases “I say” and “I write” most likely indicate fabrication. Since vision is connected with persuasion, Jachimo succeeds because he is able to elevate pure fabrication into evidence of “autopsy” status.22 Posthumus's objections to Jachimo's initial evidence also seem to depend on this evidentiary hierarchy. Thus, Jachimo's initial description of Imogen's chamber (his map) is rejected because it is evidence that is low on the hierarchy: Jachimo could have heard about some of the details from others, because they are “much spoke of.” Jachimo eventually succeeds because he uses evidence that both he and Posthumus have seen with their own eyes. To secure his claim, however, Jachimo adds another element that Hartog also considers essential to the traveler's tale—marvels and curiosities (the Greek thoma), like the statues that are so lifelike they are “likely to report themselves” (2.4.83) and the cinque-spotted mole with its mystical properties. By presenting thoma, Jachimo wins the wager because he claims to have seen something of great wonder with his own eyes.

In fact, Jachimo was never able to render an accurate map because the boasting game requires that Posthumus remain involved, and only a traveler's tale allows and accommodates such participation, such complicity. In fact, the rules of this game of description were established when Posthumus, as Jachimo later tells Cymbeline, began

His mistress' picture, which by his tongue being made,
And then a mind put in't, either our brags
Were crak'd of kitchen trulls, or his description
Prov'd us unspeaking sots.


Thus, in their initial meeting, Posthumus, too, began with a thumbnail sketch of Imogen, and it is Posthumus's own traveler's tale, this “picture” made by his tongue, requiring embellishment and complicity by his listeners (“and then a mind put in't”), and his own boasting and “publishing,” which are to blame for prompting Jachimo's action. Jachimo's tale, as he finally unravels it, shows that while he may have been capable of drafting a true map of Imogen's terrain (Posthumus does commend the accuracy of his remembrance, after all in 2.4.92-93), the competition requires an embellished traveler's tale instead. It requires (in effect) that a “mind [be] put in't.”

Nancy Vickers discusses this kind of description where “on the one hand, the describer controls, possesses, and uses that matter to his own ends; and, on the other, his reader/listener is extended the privilege or pleasure of ‘seeing.’”23 Considering the voyeuristic nature of Jachimo's sexual drive, his pleasure is indeed great and his lavish descriptions demonstrate how much he values that pleasure. The “pleasure” extended to Posthumus, however, brings only pain. Because of the nature of the boasting contest in Cymbeline, Posthumus is in the peculiar position of being both rival mapmaker and, in a sense, patron to the mapmaker Jachimo. However, by the time Jachimo returns with his “map,” the paradigm seems to have changed from patronage to purchase (as it did in Renaissance cartography)—and Posthumus is simply not “buying” Jachimo's map. Jachimo and Posthumus are now united in the eyewitness of the traveler's tale and are jointly enthralled by their descriptions and expansions. Back in Rome, they look from a distance upon Imogen and Britain as other, just as Enobarbus and his Roman peers relished a communal (and imaginary) gaze upon Cleopatra thanks to Enobarbus' evocative description. Jachimo's descriptions, taken together, were deemed by Posthumus to show that Imogen's “bond of chastity [is] quite crack'd” (5.5.207) and to associate her stained honor with that other “triple turned whore.” Just as Vickers discussed the “buying” and “selling” of description (97), explorers cracked the chastity of the New World with the selling and buying of fantastic tales. By becoming the subject of description, by being mapped, by becoming the “new found land”—and like that land being turned a million times—Imogen has lost the innocence implied by her more likely name “Innogen.”24 For her “transgression,” Posthumus orders her murder. Of course, Pisanio is unable to carry out his master's orders, but Imogen is nevertheless punished for having been the subject of description. She is exiled to the edge of the map in Wales, where she becomes a wandering womb (unmappable and unreadable because of her male garb) and lives in a cave in the highly feminized but savage geography of Milford Haven for two acts before she returns to her father's court for her final humiliation.

It is significant, too, that much of the imagery in both Jachimo's initial meeting with Imogen and his penetration of her chamber alludes to navigational matters, foreshadowing his later move to the tale of wonder. Jachimo's mission, according to Posthumus was, after all, to “make your voyage upon [Imogen]” (1.4.158). As we have seen, Jachimo initially becomes so transported, seasick, or “mad” by his own lust over this new terrain that Imogen has to bring him back to reality with the query, “What, dear sir, / Thus raps you? Are you well?” (1.6.50-51). At Jachimo's initial meeting with Imogen, he is able to observe only her surface qualities—her shoreline or border, if you will—and can only speculate about what he might find with a survey of the interior of this continent:

All of her that is out of door most rich!
If she be furnish'd with a mind so rare,
She is alone th' Arabian bird.


In fact, here Jachimo may appear to be describing a portolan map; as a Roman, he is viewing Imogen, and Britain, as the other to be mapped with his reference to the exotic, the wonderful “Arabian bird”—the phoenix.25 He will continue with his further penetration of Imogen's terrain via a trunk, a smaller vessel than the one in which he would have initially arrived. Like a good navigator, when he emerges from his trunk, he notes the time of day: “The crickets sing, and man's o'er labor'd sense / Repairs itself by rest” (2.2.11-12). He also notes the weather conditions: “'Tis her breathing that / Perfumes the chamber thus. The flame o' th' taper / Bows toward her” (2.2.18-20). His description here is reminiscent of explorers in the New World described by Annette Kolodny in The Lay of the Land:

On the second of July, 1584, two English captains, Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe, entered the coastal waters off what is now North Carolina and enjoyed “so sweet and so strong a smell as if we had been in the midst of some delicate garden abounding with all kinds of odoriferous flowers.”


Exotic smells are a common report of travelers to the New World, and Jachimo's description of this experience places him squarely in the genre of travel and exploration literature.

In another Shakespearean romance, Antonio proclaims that “Travellers n'er did lie, / Though fools at home condemn 'em” (The Tempest 3.3.26-27), but his proclamation is made after Prospero's magic has produced “strange SHAPES, bringing in a banket.” These same “shapes” then “dance about it with gentle actions of salutations” (3.3. SD following 19). Resembling reports of hospitality by New World natives, this same bit of theatrical artifice prompts Sebastian's avowal:

                                                                                          Now I will believe
That there are unicorns; that in Arabia
There is one tree, the phoenix' throne, one phoenix
At this hour reigning there.


Shakespeare seems to be poking fun at these castaways who suddenly believe in wonders after viewing a bit of theater, but Jachimo's own bit of improvisation has a similar, but more explosive, effect on Posthumus.


Turning for a moment to modern literature, I would like to suggest a parallel between Imogen's status at the end of Cymbeline and that of a character in a story by Indian writer Mahasweta Devi. In Devi's “Douloti the Bountiful,”26 Douloti, the daughter of a tribal bonded worker in India, becomes a bond slave prostitute who, after achieving the highest status in a house of prostitution, descends to the lowest rung in that same hierarchy. Finally, having contracted venereal disease and too sick to continue in her profession, she makes a journey to a hospital for treatment, only to be directed to a more remote hospital. She decides instead to walk back to her family's village. She doesn't make it home but collapses in the night on the comforting clay of a schoolyard and dies. A rural schoolmaster, Mohan, had drawn a map of India in the clay of the schoolyard in order to teach his students nationalism in preparation for an Independence Day celebration during which he was to place the Indian flag in the middle of the map. In the morning, Mohan and his students discover Douloti on the map. Gayatri Spivak explains the ambiguous ending: “The story ends with two short sentences: a rhetorical question, and a statement that is not an answer: ‘What will Mohan do now? Douloti is all over India.’” Spivak continues:

The word doulot means wealth. Thus douloti can be made to mean “traffic in wealth.” Under the last sentence—“Douloti is all over India” [Bhrat jora hoye Douloti]—one can hear that other sentence: Jagat [the globe] jora hoye Douloti. What will Mohan do now?—the traffic in wealth [douloti] is all over the globe.

I end, somewhat abruptly, with a text for discussion: Such a globalization of douloti, dissolving even the proper name, is not an overcoming of the gendered body. The persistent agendas of nationalisms and sexuality are encrypted there in the indifference of superexploitation.27

Similarly, by having maps and tales “encrypted” on her geography, Imogen has experienced a metaphoric death during the play even though she has escaped the actual death that Posthumus ordered for her. In the end, Imogen is “fasten'd to an empery” in the manner of the dead Douloti, all over India, rather than like the erect and stately Elizabeth of the Ditchley portrait, with the “traffic in wealth” that her jewels and the tiny ships suggest. Like Douloti, Imogen's proper name (as the next Queen) has been dissolved. After all, she was sole heir to her father's kingdom at the beginning of the play and it seems not coincidental that her brothers, who were kidnaped twenty years earlier and believed dead, have discovered their own identities even while hers has been tainted. Interestingly, Jachimo's lewd penetration of Imogen's chamber is not enough to resurrect them—only after the telling of the traveler's tale do they appear; in other words, they don't appear until after she is “stained.”

As readers, we too have been diverted with a traveler's tale, since the boasting game is based on such a tale. Ironically, one translation of the story from Boccaccio's Decameron that is a likely source for Shakespeare begins by warning of the dangers of description:

Wherein is declared that by over-liberal commending the chastity of women it falleth out (oftentimes) to be very dangerous, especially by the means of treacherers, who yet (in the end) are justly punished for their treachery.28

In this translation of Boccaccio, those “dangers” and their consequences are incumbent upon the describer, or “treacherer”—who, in Boccaccio's story, ends up being impaled naked on a stake, anointed with honey and devoured by wasps and mosquitoes. In another possible source, Frederyke of Jennen, the treacherer, John of Florence, too, suffers a “shamefull death” of beheading.29 In Cymbeline, by contrast, the treacherer Jachimo is forgiven—is told to “Live, / And deal with others better” (5.5.419-20)—in effect, to “go and sin no more.” Imogen, not so fortunate, is the real loser here, moving from her role as heir apparent to a role of near insignificance as part of the land and the masses to be ruled; this, despite having her reputation cleared. Ironically, Britain, for which Imogen has been the sometimes metonymic equivalent, again pays the tribute to Rome despite having won the battle at Milford Haven. Oddly enough, in this play, winners are losers, and losers, such as Jachimo, are forgiven.

A pun on tail/tale in Petruchio's retort to Kate when she asks him to leave, “What, with my tongue in your tail?” (The Taming of the Shrew 2.1.218), works well in the story of Imogen. By having her “tail” become the subject of “tales” of travelers, especially those who would like to “make their voyage on her,” Imogen has indeed ceased being “Virginia,” the virgin land. Her chastity, as well as her chamber, by being explored, mapped, described, and published has been “cracked.” Jachimo has figuratively had his tongue in her “tail” by his lewd and voyeuristic sexual fantasies, and he has had his tongue in her “tale” by describing and publishing his knowledge of her chamber and her person to others. The continued momentum of this descriptive competition is evident even in the final scene when Posthumus reverses his opinion of Imogen and creates yet another, or a sort of “counter-traveler's tale” to Jachimo's, based on the same formula of the boasting game which initiated this dangerous competition of description: Posthumus describes further wonders, too, as he now realizes that Imogen is indeed a “temple / Of Virtue” (5.5.220-21). Concluding that Jachimo's map was a forgery and that his traveler's tale was false, Posthumus's former map of Imogen is reinstated, if not a little embellished with newfound “wonders.”

Even the “happy ending” has this competing traveler landing on Imogen's shore as Cymbeline tells us, “See, / Posthumus anchors upon Imogen” (5.5.392-93). Thus, Imogen continues as the “new found land” once again being colonized by the discourse of power that makes her subject to having all of her aspects published broadly. She is left with neither a room nor a womb of her own.


  1. Christopher Columbus, Select Documents Illustrating the Four Voyages of Columbus, trans. and ed. Cecil Jane (London: Hakluyt Society, 1930) 1:12.

  2. Walter Raleigh, The Discoverie of the Large, Rich, and Bewtiful Empyre of Guiana in (London: Imprinted by Robert Robinson, 1596), 96.

  3. Michel de Certcau, The Writing of History, trans. Tom Conley (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), xxv-xxvii. Louis Montrose also offers an excellent discussion of this etching in “The Work of Gender in the Discourse of Discovery,” Representations 33 (Winter 1991):1-41.

  4. Annette Kolodny, The Lay of the Land: Metaphor as Experience and History in American Life and Letters (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984).

  5. Catherine Stimpson uses this evocative title for her discussion of rape in Titus Andronicus, The Rape of Lucrece, the “darkly comic study of imagined rape” of Imogen by Cloten in Cymbeline, and Jachimo's theft of Imogen's good reputation, which “like his penetration of her bedchamber, is a psychic equivalent” (61). Stimpson links rape in Shakespeare's works with the tainting of patriarchal property rights in “Shakespeare and the Soil of Rape,” in The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, ed. Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz, Gayle Greene, and Carol Thomas Neely (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1983), 56-64.

  6. Indeed, in Cymbeline, England is even “clothed”—in a “salt-water girdle” (3.1.80).

  7. Using the popular iconography of the Queen along with other emblems of chastity, Peter Stallybrass discusses women's chastity as a “patriarchal territory” that must be safeguarded. Using as his model Bakhtin's distinction between the classical (“finished, completed”) body and the grotesque body (which is “unfinished, outgrows itself, transgresses its own limits”), Stallybrass shows how women, as possessions of men, were subject to constant surveillance of three specific areas: the mouth, chastity, and the threshold of the house. The three areas are often collapsed into each other so that linguistic fullness and/or frequenting public space might be associated with wantonness. “Patriarchal Territories: The Body Enclosed,” in Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe, ed. Margaret W. Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan and Nancy J. Vickers (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 123-42.

  8. John Davies, “Hymne XXVI”:

    Behold how my proud quill doth shed
    Eternal nectar on her head;
    The pompe of coronation
    Hath not such power her fame to spread,
    As this my admiration.

    Here the pen is the mighty instrument of description that successfully competes with pictorial representation but is also figured sexually; for certainly a writer of Davies' skill in manipulating letters is also playing on the anagram for “Hymne”—hymen. Hymnes of Astræa, ed. Alexander Grosan (1869), The Complete Poems of Sir John Davies (Ann Arbor: University Microfilms, 1969).

  9. This type of imagery is very much with us today; I am reminded, for example, of Michael Franks' recent recording of “Popsicle Toes”: “You've got the nicest North America this sailor ever saw, / I'd like to feel your warm Brazil and touch your Panama,” from Michael Franks, The Art of Tea, Warner Bros. Records, 1975.

    Similar images appear in Maya Angelou's “Africa,” from Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well (New York: Random House, 1975) and in Sharon Olds' “Topography,” in The Gold Cell (New York: Knopf, 1987).

  10. Nancy Vickers, “‘The Blazon of Sweet Beauty's Best’: Shakespeare's Lucrece,” in Shakespeare and the Question of Theory (New York: Methuen, 1985), 95-115. Patricia Parker also ties together blazon, inventory, and exploration in “Rhetorics of Property: Exploration, Inventory, Blazon,” chap. 7 in Literary Fat Ladies: Rhetoric, Gender, Property (New York: Methuen, 1987), Linda Woodbridge, too, discusses the land-as-woman trope and aligns seige and rape in Titus Andronicus, Lucrece, and Cymbeline in “Palisading the Elizabethan Body Politic,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language, 33, no. 3 (Fall 1991): 327-54. She also proposes a change in the body-political image of England with the death of the Virgin Queen and the accession of James I.

  11. Shakespeare also uses this connection between geography and woman in The Merry Wives of Windsor where Falstaff describes Mistress Page as “a region in Guiana, all gold and bounty” (1.3.69) and where he articulates his plans to seduce both Mistress Page and Mistress Ford: “They shall be my East and West Indies, and I will trade to them both” (71-72), for example. In The Comedy of Errors, Dromio of Syracuse orates a lengthy and very bawdy description of Luce as “spherical, like a globe” wherein, he swears, he could “find out countries” (3.2.112-43).

  12. Richard Helgerson presents an excellent outline of Elizabethan projects of mapping England in Forms of Nationhood: The Elizabethan Writing of England (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1992). Peter Barber offers two excellent chapters in Monarchs, Ministers, and Maps that deal specifically with the mapping of England: “England I: Pageantry, Defense, and Government: Maps at Court to 1550,” and “England II: Monarchs, Ministers, and Maps, 1550-1625,” in Monarchs, Ministers, and Maps: The Emergence of Cartography as a Tool of Government in Early Modern Europe, ed. David Buisseret (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 26-98. John Gillies connects these mapping projects with theater in Shakespeare and the Geography of Difference (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

  13. Less polemic claims of accuracy and correction are often touted in the titles of new maps, such as Thomas Porter's “The Newest and Exactest MAPP of the most Famous Citties LONDON and WESTMINSTER …” (1655).

  14. “To his Mistress Going to Bed.” Also frequently anthologized as Elegy 19, John Carey's edition of Donne's poems has it as Elegy 2. John Donne (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1990).

  15. The image is again reminiscent of Van der Straet's etching of Vespucci surveying the recumbent “America.” Compare, too, Troilus's description of Cressida:

    Her bed is India, there she lies, a pearl;
    Between our Ilium and where she [resides],
    Let it be call'd the wild and wand'ring flood,
    Ourself the merchant, and this sailing Pandar
    Our doubtful hope, our convoy, and our bark.

    (Troilus and Cressida 1.1.100-105)

  16. Georgianna Ziegler asserts that “the woman's room signifies her ‘self,’ and the man's forced or stealthy entry of this room constitutes a rape of her private space.” “My Lady's Chamber: Female Space, Female Chastity in Shakespeare,” Textual Practice 4, no. 1 (Spring 1990): 71-90. Patricia Parker, too, remarks that “the association of a female body with a ‘chamber’ is finally inseparable from the violation of the chamber to which her sexuality is reduced” (Literary Fat Ladies, 136). See also Note 5.

  17. Of course, he could be posing an opposition between this heavenly angel and the “hell” under the stage, to which he will now return via the trunk.

  18. See Barber, “England II: Monarchs, Ministers, and Maps, 1550-1625,” 65-66.

  19. Compare also Jachimo's initial impression of Imogen filled with oxymorons, Shakespeare's frequent refuge for characters under pressure:

    Sluttery, to such neat excellence oppos'd
    Should make desire vomit emptiness,
    Not so allu'd to feed.
    What is the matter, trow?
                                                                                                        The cloyed will—
    That satiate yet unsatisfied desire, that tub
    Both fill'd and running—ravening first the lamb,
    Longs after for the garbage.
                                                                What, dear sir,
    Thus raps you? Are you well?


  20. Of course, in his “woman's part” speech in the next scene, Posthumus admits to a rather disappointing connubial union in which Imogen “restrain'd” him of his “lawful pleasures” and “pray'd me oft forbearance” (2.5.9-10).

  21. Although they are indeed very different women, a compelling resemblance is constructed in many of the scenes involving Imogen between her and Cleopatra: in particular, both are portrayed as “other,” exotic, female, and transgressive by Roman men for the titillation of other men in Rome and away from the site of the wonders themselves.

  22. See Francois Hartog, “The Eye and the Ear,” chap. 7 in The Mirror of Herodotus: The Representation of the Other in the Writing of History, trans. by Janet Lloyd (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 260-309, for a discussion of this hierarchy of evidence. See also Stephen Greenblatt, Marvellous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), for a thorough discussion of marvels and wonders of the New World.

  23. Vickers, Shakespeare and the Question of Theory, 96. Patricia Parker's discussion of enargeia in “Shakespeare and rhetoric: ‘dilation’ and ‘delation’ in Othello,” is germane to this point, as well, Shakespeare and the Question of Theory, ed. Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman (New York: Routledge, 1990), 54-74. Iago, too, is able to describe Desdemona's supposed infidelity so vividly that Othello accepts a mere description as “ocular proof” and responds with, “I see” (Othello, 3.3.360ff).

  24. J. M. Nosworthy suggests that “Imogen,” while used throughout the 1623 folio, may be a misprint for “Innogen” (or Jnnogen), the name Simon Forman used in his diary when describing the 1611 staging of the play. Nosworthy also points out the occurrence of a mute Innogen, wife of Leonato, in the 1600 Quarto of Much Ado About Nothing, demonstrating a long association of the names of this hero and heroine (Posthumus's family name is Leonatus.) Cymbeline, The Arden Shakespeare (New York: Routledge, 199), 7. Also important, I think, is Innogen's status as a mute or “ghost” character in Much Ado, similar to Imogen's status by the end of Cymbeline.

  25. Although it has been noted that Elizabeth seems to be standing on a composite of Christopher Saxton's county maps (1579) in the Ditchley portrait, I think Jachimo's initial glimpse at Imogen's more public features invites an alternative reading of this foundational map as a portolan map. We get the coastline and not much more—she hides the terra incognita beneath her skirts.

  26. The story is found in Devi's Imaginary Maps, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (New York: Routledge, 1995), 19-92.

  27. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Woman in Difference: Mahasweta Devi's ‘Douloti the Bountiful,” Cultural Critique (Winter 1992):105-128.

  28. The Decameron, The Second Day, The Ninth Novel. Trans. unknown. (London, 1620).

  29. “Than toke the officers John of Florence and brought hym besyde of the galowes, where the Justice should be done. And whan that he had made his prayers and all doone, than made the hangman him knele downe and smote Johann of Florence head of, and after that laied his body vpon a whele, and the head he stycked on a stake and set it by, ouer the head a galowes: all after the maner as the kyng had iudged him; and than retourned home againe. And in this maner was John of Florence serued for his great falshed and thefte that he hadde done to that trewe wyfe and mayde” (Frederyke of Jennen, reprinted in J. M. Nosworthy, Cymbeline, 203).

Frederick Kiefer (essay date summer 1999)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4860

SOURCE: Kiefer, Frederick. “The Iconography of Time in The Winter's Tale.Renaissance and Reformation/Renaissance et Reforme 23, no. 3 (summer 1999): 49-64.

[In the following excerpt, Kiefer emphasizes Time's restorative powers as well as its destructive ones in The Winter's Tale. Time's dual nature, the critic suggests, is symbolized by the hourglass he carries, for its inversion signals a dramatic movement from catastrophe to consolation.]

Probably no personification was more familiar to Jacobean playgoers than the figure whom Shakespeare brings to the stage in The Winter's Tale: Time. His presence is in keeping with the special attention Shakespeare gives to visual effects in the late plays, when he increasingly creates characters out of mythological figures, and when his company has available the resources of the indoor Blackfriars theater as well as the Globe. Father Time is not unfamiliar to modern audiences accustomed to seeing his image at New Year's celebrations. But we have largely lost the visual language of Shakespeare's culture, the symbolism that was the common property of his contemporaries. As a result, a modern playgoer is almost certainly unaware of the specifics of Time's appearance and of the contexts in which Time typically appeared in Elizabethan England. Fortunately, we have at hand sufficient materials to reconstruct what playgoers saw when Time walked onto Shakespeare's stage. That is, by using prints, paintings, and other artistic representations contemporary with Shakespeare, as well as evidence furnished by pageantry and drama, we are able to reconstruct the visual appearance of Time. By so doing and thereby coming to understand the range of symbolism conveyed by this figure, we can more fully appreciate the meaning of the spectacle, both for the ensuing dramatic action and for the entire play.


In Renaissance pageantry and art, personified Time is unremarkable: bald and bearded, he could be taken for almost any other aged man wearing classical robes. The features belonging to Time are chiefly three; they are specified by Thomas Dekker in Troia-Nova Triumphans, London Triumphing, the lord mayor's pageant for 29 October 1612, and by Thomas Middleton in The Triumphs of Truth, the pageant for 29 October 1613, as scythe, hourglass, and wings.1 The scythe represents the destructive effects of transience; the hourglass is the visual metaphor of time's passage; and the wings suggest our psychological sense of time's rapidity. Despite the near ubiquity of these three accoutrements in Elizabethan-Jacobean England, they constitute a marked departure from classical representations. In antiquity time was conceived as “the divine principle of eternal and inexhaustible creativeness,” a concept symbolized by the ouroboros, a snake swallowing its tail.2 This motif survives in some depictions of Petrarch's Triumphs, where the ouroboros is held by Time, and in certain other pictures where it encircles Time's arm, as on the engraved title page of Jean Chaumeau's Histoire de Berry (Lyons, 1566).3 The ancients also conceived of time as kairos, “the brief decisive moment which marks a turning-point in the life of human beings,” and they represented this concept by a youth holding a balance.4 Personified Time in the Renaissance conveys the same sense of opportunity when he wears a forelock, meant to be seized by the aspirant at an auspicious moment,5 as he does on the title page of Lapis Philosophicus (Oxford, 1599) by John Case.6 Shakespeare evokes this sense of timeliness when Antonio, in Much Ado about Nothing, says, “he meant to take the present time by the top [i.e., the forelock]” (1.2.14-15).7

As Erwin Panofsky has demonstrated, Time gained the hourglass, scythe (or sickle), and other symbols through a confusion: “the Greek expression for time, Chronos, was very similar to the name of Kronos (the Roman Saturn), oldest and most formidable of the gods.”8 Even in the ancient world the confusion is apparent. Cicero, for example, writes that “Saturn's Greek name is Kronos, which is the same as chronos, a space of time.”9 An illustration in Vincenzo Cartari's Le Vere e nove imagini de gli dei delli antichi (1615) demonstrates the conflation: Saturn and Father Time stand side by side, both old and bearded.10 They could be identical twins, except that Saturn holds a sickle (used to castrate his father) and a staff, while Time has wings and a winged crown.

The confusion between these two is also manifest in Ben Jonson's Hymenaei, a masque performed 5 January 1606, where a marginal note claims that “Truth is feigned to be the daughter of Saturn, who indeed with the ancients was no other than Time, and so his name alludes, Kronos.11 From this conflation Time became particularly identified with destruction and death. For instance, a character in Respublica, performed at the Christmas revels of 1553-54, calls Time “An auncient turner of houses upside downe, / and a comon consumer of cytie and towne” (ll. 1301-2).12 In Fulke Greville's Mustapha, a closet drama written about 1595, Eternity tells personified Time: “your scithe mortall must to harme incline” (3rd act chorus, l. 142).13 Artists gave powerful form to the concept. A painting by Frans Francken II depicts a group of men fighting two personifications: Death aims several arrows at the combatants, while winged Time, hourglass atop his head, wields his scythe against them.14 More than any other single work, Petrarch's Triumphs gave impetus to the concept of Time as destroyer. Personified in such a triumph, Time may possess a grotesque quality, as, for example, in Philips Galle's print after Pieter Bruegel: Time rides in his vehicle while devouring a child,15 a clear sign of the confusion with ancient Kronos, or Saturn, who ate his offspring in order to forestall a prophecy that his children would overthrow him. Shakespeare alludes to the destructive nature of Time in Love's Labor's Lost, when the prince speaks of “cormorant devouring Time” (1.1.4), and in Measure for Measure, when the duke cites “the tooth of time” (5.1.12). Time's formidable teeth are the subject of Henry Peacham's reminiscence: “I have seene time drawne by a painter standing upon an old ruine, winged, and with iron teeth.”16

Depictions of Time exude a mood of melancholy, befitting a personification who presides over so much destruction and death. “How slowly does sad Time his feathers move!” writes Spenser in his Epithalamion.17 In Love Freed from Ignorance and Folly, a masque performed 3 February 1611, Ben Jonson writes of “agèd Time” with “weary limbs” (ll. 312-13). And in Middleton's The World Tossed at Tennis, apparently intended for performance as a masque, then revised for performance at a Bankside playhouse in 1620, a character observes, “See, Time himself comes weeping.” Time replies, “Who has more cause?” (l. 309),18 and he goes on to catalogue the toll of mutability. Michiel Coxcie, in a sixteenth-century print, depicts Time sitting dejectedly amid the ruin of classical buildings: old and bearded, Time has an hourglass and a crutch.19 Although never part of Time's iconography in antiquity, the crutch became common in the Renaissance, due to the conflation of Time and ancient Saturn. Time may even have two crutches, as he does in some illustrations of Petrarch's Triumphs.20 In all of these pictures, the crutch symbolizes both advanced age and debility. A crutch may also, however, suggest Time's seeming slowness: in Much Ado about Nothing, Claudio conveys his anxiety by saying, “Time goes on crutches till love have all his rites” (2.1.357-58).


In view of Time's identification with mutability and death, Shakespeare's personification in The Winter's Tale may, as Robert M. Adam suggests, enter “in toga and sandals, with the shaggy locks and fierce scythe that he inherited from his cannibalistic predecessor Saturn/Chronos.”21 And yet Shakespeare's Father Time makes no mention of a scythe. J. H. P. Pafford surmises that “as many emblematic figures of Time do not carry a scythe Shakespeare's Time may not have had one.”22 Given the dramatic context, however, there would be nothing inappropriate about Time's appearance with the implement for reaping. After all, the playgoers have just witnessed Antigonus pursued by a bear (3.3.58 s.d.), and in the same scene the Clown reports seeing the Sicilian ship go down at sea. Discovering the infant Perdita, the Shepherd reflects on the conjunction of death and life when he tells the Clown, “thou met'st with things dying, I with things new-born” (113-14).

With greater confidence, we can say that Shakespeare's Time is old (4.1.10) and so probably bearded. He also has “wings” (4), symbolizing the swift passage of time. The personification, moreover, holds an hourglass. By employing this hand prop, Shakespeare's figure resembles Time in other Elizabethan plays and pageants. For instance, at Harefield place in 1602, the queen witnessed a pageant featuring Time, who had blonde hair, wore a green robe, and carried an hourglass; there Time pays a conventional compliment, telling the queen that as long as he attends her, “my glasse runnes not: indeed it hathe bine stopt a longe time.”23 In The Thracian Wonder, a comedy performed ca. 1590-1600, Time makes a brief appearance, and although he spends only moments onstage and says not a word, he does perform an action: Enter Time with an hourglass, sets it down, and exit (1.3.15 s.d.).24 In Anthony Munday's Chruso-thriambos, The Triumphs of Gold, the lord mayor's pageant of 29 October 1611, Time has a somewhat larger role. Equipped with his ubiquitous hourglass, Munday's Time turns it over, saying, “As thus I turne my glasse to times of old, / So tune thine eares to what must now be told.”25

Shakespeare's Time resembles these other figures to the extent that he carries the same hourglass and he speaks in a way that evokes the personification of Elizabethan and Jacobean pageantry. That is, Time's is not a supple blank verse, like that of other characters in The Winter's Tale, but a stiffer poetry spoken in rhyme. So different is the speech of Time from the speech of other characters that Shakespeareans, especially earlier in the twentieth century, supposed that a less accomplished collaborator must have been responsible for the lines.

Having identified the physical features of Time, we need to ask what Shakespeare achieves by bringing the personification on stage. Erwin Panofsky suggests that the words defining Time's function in the play are these: “I slide / O'er sixteen years” (4.1.5-6). Panofsky comments, “Sometimes the figure of Father Time is used as a mere device to indicate the lapse of months, years, or centuries, as in Shakespeare's Winter's Tale.26 Yet Shakespeareans have not been satisfied by this characterization of Time's role. Pafford, for instance, argues that Time has a significance that transcends the brief scene in which he addresses the playgoers: “Time's speech is not an interpolation but an integral part of the play.”27 If so, what does Time contribute? Pafford suggests that Time “gives information,” and indeed he does. But this alone cannot account for Time's presence on stage, for as Nevill Coghill demonstrates, the points Time cites—that sixteen years have elapsed, that Leontes “shuts himself” away in penitence, and that we are about to see Perdita and Florizel—“are clearly made in the scene immediately following.”28 If conveying information were his sole raison d'être, Time would be unnecessary. Shakespeare could simply have moved from the scene of Perdita's discovery by the Shepherd to the colloquy between Camillo and Polixenes about “the penitent King” (4.2.6-7) and “a daughter of most rare note” (41-42).

In assessing Time's purpose, let us consider the one prop we are certain he carries—an hourglass: “I turn my glass, and give my scene such growing / As you had slept between” (4.1.16-17). By upending the device, Father Time marks the chief division of the dramatic action: we are about to move from a world of anxiety, suffering, and death to one of exuberance, joy, and new life. Paradoxically, this sharp transition masks an underlying similarity between the two halves of the play. William Blissett, who notes that The Winter's Tale “is almost unique in the canon for its bilateral symmetry,” enumerates some of the parallels:

in the first half Leontes offends and Polixenes is in a state of innocence, in the second Polixenes takes offense and Leontes is in a state of penitence; in the first, Camillo flees, Perdita is rejected, Paulina protests, and Hermione lies hidden as if in death; in the second, Camillo returns, Perdita is received, Paulina restores, and Hermione stands risen as if from death.29

Because the two halves of Time's hourglass look identical, Ernest Schanzer observes, “it may not be fanciful to think that this fact enhances our sense of the similarity of the shape and structure of the two halves of The Winter's Tale.30

The hourglass held in Father Time's hands has another and more specific implication for the king who has so cruelly treated his family, precipitating the death of his son, the abandonment of his daughter, and the sequestration of his wife. By his behavior, Leontes has violated humane impulses, codes of decorum, standards of civilized conduct. His is a display of imprudence and intemperance on an outrageous scale. In view of this excess, it is significant that the cardinal virtue of temperance was associated with devices for timekeeping in the late Middle Ages and in the Renaissance. Lynn White points out, for instance, that manuscripts of L'Épître d'Othéa (ca. 1400) are “embellished with pictures of Temperance adjusting a large mechanical clock” and that in a treatise of the virtues ca. 1470 personified Temperance has a clock on her head.31 The very word temperance seems to derive, ultimately, from the Latin tempus. Shakespeare makes the connection explicit when Hamlet defends himself against his mother's charge of “ecstasy”: “Ecstasy? / My pulse as yours doth temperately keep time, / And makes as healthful music” (3.4.139-41). In another of his plays Shakespeare describes a character's intemperance by means of a clock. When King Richard II says, “now hath time made me his numb'ring clock” (5.5.50), he is not only expressing his own sense of victimization but also, implicitly, conceding his past intemperance.

The association between temperance and time is not limited to mechanical clocks. Lynn White notes that a fresco in the Palazzo Publico, Siena, depicts Temperance in the 1350s with “our earliest picture anywhere of a sandglass.”32 Similarly, Cornelis Matsys, in a mid-sixteenth-century print, depicts personified Temperance holding an hourglass. …33 That device, in the hands of Shakespeare's Father Time, is a silent signal that, so far as Leontes is concerned, temperate behavior and sound judgment will characterize future action.


Inga-Stina Ewbank has suggested that Shakespeare's personified character may have been inspired by the prose romance on which he based his play, Robert Greene's Pandosto The Triumph of Time (1592), whose full title continues, Wherein is discovered by a pleasant Historie, that although by the meanes of sinister fortune, Truth may be concealed, yet by Time in spight of fortune it is most manifestly revealed.34 A Latin tag follows: Temporis filia veritas.35 That proverbial saying had a special resonance for an English audience, since Queen Mary had chosen it “for her personal device, for the legend on her crest, on the State seal of her reign, on her coins.”36 Given the queen's adoption of the adage, it seems appropriate that in Respublica, written during the first year of Mary's reign, Verity, called “the dawghter of Tyme” (l. 1699), hands malefactors over to Justice and Nemesis/Mary (ll. 1798-1801). Queen Elizabeth, moreover, witnessed an incident in her coronation procession that gave a characteristically Protestant application to the dictum: from a hollow place or cave “issued one personage whose name was Tyme, apparaylled as an olde man with a sythe in his hande, havynge wynges artificiallye made, leadinge a personage of lesser stature then himselfe, whiche was fynely and well apparaylled, all cladde in whyte silke, and directlye over her head was set her name and tytle in latin and Englyshe, Temporis filia, the daughter of Tyme.”37 As Elizabeth looked on, Truth delivered the book she held, the Bible in English. The young queen then demonstrated her Protestant allegiance by her handling of the book: “she as soone as she had received the booke, kyssed it, and with both her handes held up the same, and so laid it upon her brest, with great thankes to the citie.”38

Thomas Dekker adopted this tableau in The Whore of Babylon, written in the early years of King James's reign (performed ca. 1606). In a dumb show at the beginning of the play, Dekker dramatizes Time's role as revealer of truth: a curtain is drawn, “discovering Truth in sad abiliments; uncrowned: her haire disheveld, and sleeping on a rock: Time (her father) attired likewise in black, and al his properties (as sithe, howreglasse and wings) of the same cullor, using all meanes to waken Truth, but not being able to doe it, he sits by her and mourns.”39 There follows a funeral procession (for Queen Mary), consisting of counselors, pensioners, and ladies. With the beginning of Queen Elizabeth's reign, “Truth suddenly awakens, and beholding this sight, shews (with her father) arguments of joy, and Exeunt, returning presently: Time being shifted into light cullors, his properties likewise altred into silver, and Truth crowned.” In The Winter's Tale, Time does not change costume, of course, nor does personified Truth make an on-stage appearance. But the dramatic action involves the revelation of the true identity of a daughter, lost for a long time to her father and mother. The dialogue, too, evokes the progression of truth through time. Near the end of the play, when one Gentleman inquires, “Has the King found his heir?”, another answers, “Most true, if ever truth were pregnant by circumstance” (5.2.29-31). In the last scene, as she reveals to Leontes the statue of his wife and thus the truth about Hermione's fate, Paulina says, “'Tis time” (5.3.99).40


A corollary of truth's revelation is the righting of wrongs: ideally, justice may be achieved when the actual course of events becomes known. In Respublica, the villainous Avarice reports of Time, “manie of my frendes hathe he brought to paine and smarte” (l. 1304). In The Trial of Treasure, performed ca. 1565, Time announces, “Time is the touchstone the just for to try.”41 In A Larum for London, performed in the 1590s, Time, who speaks the prologue and epilogue, says that he has “searcht the worlds corrupt enormities” (l. 4).42 In As You Like It, performed in 1599, Rosalind says, “Time is the old justice that examines all such offenders” (4.1.199-200). And in Shakespeare's The Rape of Lucrece, “Time's glory is … To unmask falsehood, and bring truth to light … To wrong the wronger till he render right” (ll. 939-43). Time even holds the scales of justice in Gilles Corrozet's emblem book, Hecatomgraphie (1540).43

In keeping with his punitive role, Time may bear a whip of the kind that Hamlet cites (3.1.69). Such a whip takes visual form on the title page … of Giovanni Andrea Gilio's Topica Poetica (Venice, 1580). In a print by Maarten van Heemskerck, Time is the charioteer who, whip in hand, drives the chariot of the world.44 A mural by Paolo Veronese in the Villa Barbaro, Maser, puts a scourge in Time's hand.45 And a stage direction in The Sun's Darling by Ford and Dekker, performed in 1624 and later revised, represents Time wielding his instrument of correction: Enter Time with a whip, whipping Follie before him (1.1.85 s.d.).46

In The Winter's Tale much misdoing needs to be righted: Leontes must make amends for the ill treatment of his wife; his hostility toward Polixenes must be replaced by friendship forged anew; and, most important, he must welcome back and cherish the daughter he condemned to death. As the last act of the drama begins, it seems that all this is possible. After all, sixteen years earlier, when he learned of the deaths of wife and child, Leontes vowed to do penance: “Once a day I'll visit / The chapel where they lie, and tears shed there / Shall be my recreation” (3.2.238-40). Some things, though, can never be undone, however long the passage of time. Leontes' penitence cannot erase the sixteen years of suffering for a separated husband and wife; when they are reunited, Hermione's wrinkled face will epitomize their loss of precious time together. Nor can a guilty king's contrition restore to a father and mother those years when their daughter came of age in a foreign land. And Leontes' penitence cannot undo the death of Mamillius, who will never know rebirth in this world.

The Winter's Tale, then, dramatizes the double dimension of time, its capacity to chastise and destroy as well as reveal and restore. If Father Time's presence on stage signals the capacity of time to console the afflicted and sort out the depredations of the past, he also symbolizes the destructive effects of transience. The self-description of Shakespeare's character is succinct: “I, that please some, try all, both joy and terror / Of good and bad, that makes and unfolds error” (4.1.1-2). This dual aspect is brilliantly realized in a print by Hieronymus Wierix. … Father Time holds in his hands two objects with a melancholy significance: his scythe, symbolic of destruction and death, and a mirror, which he holds up to a couple who see the skeletal figure of Death reflected behind their images.47 Something with a very different significance, however, decorates Time's form: fruit literally adorns his head, symbolizing his capacity to bring events to benign fruition.


Shakespeare is hardly unique in creating Father Time, a character whose role in numerous entertainments and plays varies from perfunctory to crucial. We have already noted the figure's appearance in a late Elizabethan pageant, a Jacobean pageant by Anthony Munday, and The Thracian Wonder. Time also appears in A Larum for London, where he speaks both the prologue and epilogue. What distinguishes Shakespeare's treatment from these others is the prominence and placement of the personified character in the dramatic action. In contrast to A Larum for London, Time in The Winter's Tale appears in the very midst of the play; his speech becomes the hinge on which the play turns. When he upends his hourglass, as we have seen, he calls attention to the structural division of the play and to the contrasting nature of the action that is to ensue. By giving Time a voice, moreover, Shakespeare makes the personage more engaging and compelling than the wordless figure of The Thracian Wonder. In a fairly lengthy speech of thirty-two lines, Shakespeare's Time delineates his twofold effect. Unlike the personification of the pageants, Shakespeare's Time is not exclusively benign: he evokes “both joy and terror”; he can both “plant and o'erwhelm” (4.1.9). In short, Shakespeare's Time provides the verbal counterpart of his iconography.


  1. See Troia-Nova Triumphans, in The Dramatic Works of Thomas Dekker, ed. Fredson Bowers, 4 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1953-61), 3: 235 (line 195), and The Triumphs of Truth, in The Works of Thomas Middleton, ed. A. H. Bullen, 8 vols. (London: John C. Nimmo, 1885), 7: 250.

  2. Erwin Panofsky, “Father Time,” in Studies in Iconology: Humanistic Themes in the Art of the Renaissance (New York: Oxford University Press, 1939), p. 72.

  3. Reproduced by J. Richard Judson and Carl van de Velde, Book Illustrations and Title-Pages, Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard 21, 2 vols. (London: Harvey Miller-Heyden, 1978), vol. 2, fig. 5.

  4. Panofsky, p. 71.

  5. See Frederick Kiefer, Fortune and Elizabethan Tragedy (San Marino, CA: The Huntington Library, 1983), chap. 7, for a discussion of opportunity in Renaissance iconography and drama.

  6. Reproduced by S. K. Heninger, Jr., Touches of Sweet Harmony: Pythagorean Cosmology and Renaissance Poetics (San Marino, CA: The Huntington Library, 1974), p. 218.

  7. The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans et al., 2nd ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997). All citations of Shakespeare are from this edition.

  8. Panofsky, p. 73.

  9. Cicero, De natura deorum, trans. H. Rackham, Loeb Classical Library (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1933), p. 185 (bk. 2, chap. 25).

  10. Vincenzo Cartari, Vere e Nove Imagini, introd. Stephen Orgel, Philosophy of Images 12 (Padua, 1615; facsimile rpt. New York: Garland, 1979), p. 32.

  11. Marginal note to Hymenaei, in Ben Jonson: The Complete Masques, ed. Stephen Orgel (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1969), p. 523. Similarly, in Time Vindicated to Himself and to His Honors, Jonson's masque performed on Twelfth Night, 1623, Fame says, “he's Time itself, and his name Kronos” (l. 15).

  12. Respublica: An Interlude for Christmas 1553, ed. W. W. Greg, Early English Text Society, no. 226 (London: Oxford University Press, 1952).

  13. Mustapha, in Poems and Dramas of Fulke Greville, First Lord Brooke, ed. Geoffrey Bullough, 2 vols. (Edinburgh and London: Oliver and Boyd, 1939), vol. 2. Mustapha, like Fulke Greville's other plays, is a closet drama. Bullough suggests that it “may have been first written by 1595” (p. 58). Interestingly, Time in Mustapha is female: “Daughter of Heaven am I” (3rd act chorus, l. 25).

  14. Reproduced by Ursula Härting, Frans Francken der Jüngere (1581-1642): Die Gemälde mit kritischem Oeuvrekatalog, Flämische Maler im Umkreis der grossen Meister 2 (Freren: Luca Verlag, 1989), fig. 32.

  15. Reproduced by Arno Dolders, Netherlandish Artists, Philips Galle, The Illustrated Bartsch 56 (New York: Abaris Books, 1978), fig. 5601.081.

  16. Henry Peacham, The Gentlemans Exercise (London, 1612), p. 111.

  17. Epithalamion, in Edmund Spenser: Selected Shorter Poems, ed. Douglas Brooks-Davies (London: Longman, 1995), l. 281.

  18. The World Tossed at Tennis, in The Works of Thomas Middleton, 7: 166.

  19. Reproduced by Teréz Gerszi, Dessins hollandais et flamands, 2nd ed., trans. Arlette Marinie (Paris: Editions Siloé, 1980), fig. 3.

  20. See, for example, Maarten van Heemskerck's “The Triumph of Time,” reproduced by Ilja M. Veldman, Maarten van Heemskerck, ed. Ger Luijten, 2 parts, The New Hollstein: Dutch and Flemish Etchings, Engravings and Woodcuts, 1450-1700 (Roosendall, Netherlands: Koninklijke van Poll, 1994), part 2, fig. 495/1.

  21. Robert M. Adams, Shakespeare: The Four Romances (New York: Norton, 1989), p. 113.

  22. J. H. P. Pafford, ed. The Winter's Tale, Arden Shakespeare (London: Methuen, 1963), p. 168.

  23. The Progresses and Public Processions of Queen Elizabeth, ed. John Nichols, 3 vols. (1823; rpt. New York: Burt Franklin, [1966]), 3: 589.

  24. The Thracian Wonder by William Rowley and Thomas Heywood: A Critical Edition, ed. Michael Nolan (Salzburg, Austria: Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik, Universität Salzburg, 1997).

  25. Chruso-thriambos, The Triumphs of Gold, in Pageants and Entertainments of Anthony Munday, ed. David M. Bergeron, The Renaissance Imagination 11 (New York: Garland, 1985), ll. 177-78.

  26. Panofsky, p. 81.

  27. Pafford, p. 168.

  28. Nevill Coghill, “Six Points of Stage-craft in The Winter's Tale,Shakespeare Survey 11 (1958): 35.

  29. William Blissett, “This Wide Gap of Time: The Winter's Tale,English Literary Renaissance 1 (1971): 54.

  30. Ernest Schanzer, ed. The Winter's Tale, New Penguin Shakespeare (1969; rpt. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1981), p. 35.

  31. Lynn White, Jr., “The Iconography of Temperantia and the Virtuousness of Technology,” in Action and Conviction in Early Modern Europe: Essays in Memory of E. H. Harbison, ed. Theodore K. Rabb and Jerrold E. Seigel (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969), pp. 209, 214.

  32. Ibid., p. 208.

  33. The face between the breasts of Matsys's Temperance is a symbol belonging to virtue. Maarten van Heemskerck gives such a symbol to Fortitude in a drawing dated 1556; the photographic archive at the Warburg Institute, London, has a copy (Netherl. Art Inst. no. 2926). Similarly, Raphael places such a face on the chest of Prudence (reproduced by James Beck, Raphael: The Stanza della Segnatura [New York: Braziller, 1993], p. 70). Giorgio Vasari does the same with Justice (reproduced by Patricia Lee Rubin, Giorgio Vasari: Art and History [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995], fig. 91). All such symbols probably derive from statues of Pallas Athena/Minerva in the ancient world.

  34. Inga-Stina Ewbank, “The Triumph of Time in The Winter's Tale,Review of English Literature, 5 (1964): 83-100.

  35. Soji Iwasaki, in “Veritas Filia Temporis and Shakespeare,” English Literary Renaissance 3 (1973): 249-63, explores the topos.

  36. Fritz Saxl, “Veritas Filia Temporis,” in Philosophy & History: Essays Presented to Ernst Cassirer, ed. Raymond Klibansky and H. J. Paton (1936; rpt. New York: Harper & Row, 1963), p. 207.

  37. The Quene's Majestie's passage through the citie of London to Westminster the daye before her coronacion, in Elizabethan Backgrounds: Historical Documents of the Age of Elizabeth I, ed. Arthur Kinney (Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1975), p. 28.

  38. Ibid., pp. 28-29.

  39. The Whore of Babylon, in The Dramatic Works of Thomas Dekker, 2: 500.

  40. Plutarch, in The Philosophie, commonlie called the Morals, trans. Philemon Holland (London, 1603), asks why Saturn is sometimes called “the father of Trueth,” and answers in a way that aligns truth with time: “Is it for that (as some philosophers deeme) they are of opinion that Saturne is Time? And Time you know well findeth out and revealeth the Truth. Or, because as the poets fable, men lived under Saturnes reigne in the golden age: and if the life of man was then most just and righteous, it followeth consequently that there was much trueth in the world” (p. 854).

  41. The Trial of Treasure, in Anonymous Plays, ed. John S. Farmer, Early English Dramatists, 3rd ser. (1906; rpt. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1966), p. 245.

  42. A Larum for London, 1602, ed. W. W. Greg, Malone Society Reprints (1913; rpt. New York: AMS Press, 1985), sig. Av. In his prologue, Time refers to his “hoary scalpe” (l. 5) and his “feathers” (l. 10), indicating that he is white-haired and winged.

  43. Gilles Corrozet, Hecatomgraphie, introd. Alison Saunders, Continental Emblem Books 6 (Paris, 1540; facsimile rpt. Ilkley, Yorkshire: Scolar Press, 1974), sig. Niiv. The figure holding the scales is identified as Le monde in the 1540 edition, but as Le temps in the 1543 edition.

  44. Reproduced by Veldman, part 2, fig. 482/1.

  45. Reproduced by Terisio Pignatti, Veronese, 2 vols. (Venice: Alfieri, 1976), vol. 2, fig. 302.

  46. The Sun's Darling, in The Dramatic Works of Thomas Dekker, vol. 4.

  47. In “Time and His ‘Glass’ in The Winter's Tale,” Raymond J. Rundus notes that “in some of the popular devices of the period Time had as an attribute a mirror in which Death was reflected, either behind a human figure or behind Time himself, indicating the relentless intrusion of the future and its attendant decay upon the vitality of the present” (Shakespeare Quarterly 25 [1974]: 124-25).

Further Reading

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Bowers, A. Robin. “Iconography and Rhetoric in Shakespeare's Lucrece.Shakespeare Studies 14 (1981): 1-21.

Maintains that Shakespeare's depiction of Lucrece reflects the Renaissance view of her as an icon of virtue and a pitiful symbol of chastity destroyed by violence.

Cary, Cecile Williamson. “‘It Circumscribes Us Here’: Hell on the Renaissance Stage.” In The Iconography of Hell, edited by Clifford Davidson and Thomas H. Seiler, pp. 187-207. Kalamazoo, Mich.: Medieval Institute Publications, 1992.

An overview of the metaphorical depiction of hell in Reformation drama, with considerable attention to the plays of Shakespeare and Marlowe. Following the Reformation, Cary points out, the iconography of hell and the Last Judgment in medieval drama was replaced by indirect representations, because Protestant theology forbade religious images on the stage.

Daly, Peter M. “Of Macbeth, Martlets and Other ‘Fowles of Heauen.’” Mosaic 12, no. 1 (fall 1978): 23-46.

Considers the symbolic meanings and implications of Banquo's reference to the “temple-haunting martlet” in Act I, scene iv of Macbeth. Daly also discusses the multiple verbal images of birds evoked by other characters in this tragedy and provides an extensive review of the significance of the martlet in European folklore and emblem books.

———. “Shakespeare and the Emblem: The Use of Evidence and Analogy in Establishing Iconographic and Emblematic Effects in the Plays.” In Shakespeare and the Emblem, edited by Tibor Fabriny, pp. 117-87. Szeged, Hungary: Department of English, Attila Jozsef University, 1984.

A survey of twentieth-century scholarship on emblematic and iconic motifs in Shakespeare's plays. Daly calls attention to the importance of taking into consideration the dramatic context of these visual and textual devices—that is, integrating them and their attendant meanings into a broader understanding of the drama.

Dessen, Alan C. “Hamlet's Poisoned Sword: A Study in Dramatic Imagery.” Shakespeare Studies 5 (1969): 53-69.

An analysis of the function of swords in the cellarage, closet, and duel scenes in Hamlet. Emphasizing visual effects and theatrical possibilities in these episodes, Dessen proposes that the repeated presentations of the revenger's sword as both restorative and destructive underscore the idea that by pursuing retribution in a corrupt world, Hamlet himself becomes corrupted.

Doebler, John. “Richard II: Second Adam.” In Shakespeare's Speaking Pictures: Studies in Iconic Imagery, pp. 66-94. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1974.

Asserts that Richard II is the focus of the play's iconic stage images and its verbal imagery, and that these are designed to represent his dual nature as fallen man and sanctified king. The critic explores the way both kinds of imagery underscore Shakespeare's portrait of a monarch whose authority, like Christ's, comes from God.

———. “The Merchant of Venice: Divine Comedy.” In Shakespeare's Speaking Pictures: Studies in Iconic Imagery, pp. 39-65. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1974.

Explains the iconographic meaning of important stage properties in The Merchant of Venice, including the gold, silver, and lead caskets; the rings exchanged by the young lovers; and the scales and knife Shylock brings to the trial. Doebler argues that these visual images significantly advance the play's principal thesis: justice must be grounded in mercy.

———. “When Troy Fell: Shakespeare's Iconography of Sorrow and Survival.” Comparative Drama 19, no. 4 (winter 1985-86): 321-31.

Points out that many of the Renaissance emblem books, engravings, drawings, and frescoes depict an ambiguous view of the legendary Aeneas: he is shown as both a hero (carrying his father Anchises safely away from the destruction of Troy) and a deserter (abandoning his lover Dido). Doebler discusses numerous verbal and stage images in Shakespeare's writings—particularly 2 Henry VI, Julius Caesar, and As You Like It—that reflect this equivocal view of Aeneas.

Dunbar, Mary Judith. “‘To the Judgement of Your Eye’: Iconography and the Theatrical Art of Pericles.” In Shakespeare, Man of the Theater, edited by Kenneth Muir, Jay L. Halio, and D. J. Palmer, pp. 86-97. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1983.

Contends that stage images in Pericles are integral elements of its intellectual and theatrical design. Emphasizing Shakespeare's creative linking of commonplace images and emblems to particular dramatic contexts, Dunbar remarks on the way symbolic stage properties, costumes, and stage directions for the blocking of actors contribute to characterization and thematic development in this play.

Dundas, Judith. “The Masks of Cupid and Death.” Comparative Drama 29, no. 1 (spring 1995-96): 38-60.

An overview of Shakespeare's use of the fable of Love and Death exchanging arrows and then slaying each other. Dundas maintains that in his poems and plays, Shakespeare alluded to this iconographic image indirectly, as a means of character and thematic development; by contrast, she suggests, seventeenth-century masques such as James Shirley's Cupid and Death employed it as a static emblem.

Ewbank, Inga-Stina. “‘More Pregnantly than Words’: Some Uses and Limitations of Visual Symbolism.” Shakespeare Survey 24 (1971): 13-18.

Discusses several instances in Shakespeare's plays when the dramatist appears to be exploring the relative power of words and visual images to convey dramatic reality. Ewbank particularly notes the occasions when tableaux and emblematic scenes communicate a character's thoughts and emotions or help explain the relationship between one character and another.

Fabiny, Tibor. “‘Veritas Filia Temporis’: The Iconography of Time and Truth and Shakespeare.” In Shakespeare and the Emblem, edited by Tibor Fabriny, pp. 215-71. Szeged, Hungary: Department of English, Attila Jozsef University, 1984.

Analyzes Shakespeare's use of the traditional emblematic convention that “Truth is the daughter of time.” Fabiny contends that in the late romances, the dramatist depicts time not as a destroyer but as a redeemer who reveals hidden verities.

Fleischer, Martha Hester. The Iconography of the English History Play. Salzburg: Institute für Englische Sprache und Literatur, Universität Salzburg, 1974, 363 p.

A study of the emblematic significance of nonverbal stage imagery in sixteenth-century English history plays. Fleischer examines the literal and allegorical connotations of visual stage action in the historical dramas of Shakespeare and other playwrights of the period.

Gira, Catherine R. “Shakespeare's Venus Figures and Renaissance Tradition.” Studies in Iconography 4 (1978): 95-114.

A survey of Shakespeare's use of the Venus motif in several plays and in the narrative poems. Gira argues that the vitality and complexity of Shakespeare's Venus figures deviate from the traditionally pejorative and judgmental views of the goddess held by English Renaissance authors; indeed, she suggests, the dramatist's depictions of Venus's dual nature are closer in conception to those of Italian artists such as Botticelli and Titian, who represented her as the image of ideal beauty.

Hassel, R. Chris, Jr. “Painted Women: Annunciation Motifs in Hamlet.Comparative Drama 32, no. 1 (spring 1998-99): 47-84.

Associates Hamlet's confrontation of Ophelia in Act III, scene i with iconic representations of the angel Gabriel's appearance to the Virgin Mary. Hassel relates Hamlet's distrust of women's virtue and sexuality as well as his reliance on human reason rather than divine providence to religious controversies that raged throughout the Reformation and Counter-Reformation.

Keenan, Siobhan, and Peter Davidson. “The Iconography of the Globe.” In Shakespeare's Globe Rebuilt, edited by J. R. Mulryne and Margaret Shewring, pp. 147-56. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Describes in detail the interior decoration of the Globe Theatre erected on London's Bankside in the 1990s. Keenan and Davidson point out that the painted cloths and hangings as well as the brightly painted ornamentation on different levels of the playhouse enhance the Elizabethan idea of the stage as a microcosm of “all things under the heavens.”

Kiefer, Frederick. “Spring and Winter in Love's Labor's Lost: An Iconographic Reconstruction.” Comparative Drama 29, no. 1 (spring 1995-96): 91-107.

Suggests that the original stage representation of spring and winter at the close of Love's Labor's Lost may have reflected depictions of the seasons in Renaissance etchings, engravings, and woodcuts. Kiefer proposes that Spring and Winter's songs were first performed by Jaquenetta and Dull, with the two actors dressed in costumes and carrying props that mirrored traditional iconography.

Lascelles, Mary. “King Lear and Doomsday.” Shakespeare Survey 26 (1973): 69-79.

Argues that for members of Shakespeare's first audiences, numerous allusions in King Lear would have recalled the terrifying Last Judgment murals painted in the sixteenth century over the chancel arch in many English churches. This verbal and visual correspondence, Lascelles contends, heightened the audience's fear and underscored the play's thematic concern with human and divine justice.

MacKenzie, Clayton G. “Hamlet and the Death's Head.” In Emblems of Mortality: Iconographic Experiments in Shakespeare's Theatre, pp. 93-114. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 2000.

Discusses the graveyard scene in Hamlet in terms of the profusion of images and artifacts of the death's head in the early modern period. MacKenzie maintains that although Hamlet's initial remarks on death demonstrate a failure to directly confront the ephemerality of human existence, his contemplation of Yorick's skull helps him shift from intellectualizing death to particularizing it and brings him closer to an existential understanding of his own mortality.

Paster, Gail Kern. “To Starve with Feeding: The City in Coriolanus.Shakespeare Studies 11 (1978): 123-44.

Analyzes image patterns in Coriolanus, particularly ones of fragmentation and divisiveness in the human body and civic life. Paster suggests that these contribute to Shakespeare's portrait of Rome as a city riven by competing aspirations for honorable conduct and self-aggrandizement.

Simonds, Peggy Muñoz. “The Iconography of Imogen's Bedchamber.” In Myth, Emblem, and Music in Shakespeare's Cymbeline: An Iconographic Reconstruction, pp. 95-135. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1992.

A detailed inquiry into the Christian and Neoplatonic significance of the ornamentation of Imogen's bedroom in Cymbeline. Simonds argues that although the tapestry, fireplace, and ceiling are inspired by mythology, they also allude to Protestant doctrine. The critic proposes that the ornamentation also points to a description Imogen: a woman who comprises the principal graces of beauty, virtue, and love.

———. “The Iconography of Vegetation.” In Myth, Emblem, and Music in Shakespeare's Cymbeline: An Iconographic Reconstruction, pp. 241-71. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1992.

Focuses on Cymbeline's use of the Renaissance motif of the elm and the vine as an emblem of companionate marriage: one that combines friendship with romantic love and reflects political harmony. Simonds also discusses the significance of the image of the cedar tree in the play, particularly the notion that it flourishes through systematic pruning—just as a political system requires reform from time to time.

———. “The Iconography of Transformed Fish in Shakespeare's Pericles: A Study of the Rusty Armor Topos in the English Renaissance.” In Shakespeare and the Christian Tradition, edited by E. Beatrice Batson, pp. 121-61. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1994.

Explicates the significance of the fishermen's discovery of the rusty armor in Act II, scene ii of Pericles. Simonds contends that the armor represents the protagonist's chivalric and spiritual heritage, and recalls St. Paul's Christian knight (Ephesians 6:11-17), who was a prominent figure in Renaissance art and literature.

Steadman, John M. “Falstaff as Actaeon: A Dramatic Emblem.” Shakespeare Quarterly 14, no. 3 (summer 1963): 230-44.

Reads Falstaff's impersonation of Herne the Hunter in Act V, scene v of The Merry Wives of Windsor as a parodic representation of the mythical Actaeon, whom Renaissance emblem books often depicted being punished for his excessive devotion to hunting. Steadman maintains that Falstaff is similarly exposed and humiliated because of his lecherous pursuit of Mistresses Ford and Page.

Thompson, Ann. “Philomel in Titus Andronicus and Cymbeline.Shakespeare Survey 31 (1978): 23-32.

Contrasts Shakespeare's use of Ovid's tale of Philomel in Titus and Cymbeline. The critic particularly compares Marcus's long speech upon discovering Lavinia's mutilated body with Imogen's extended reaction to waking up next to Cloten's headless corpse.

Waddington, Raymond B. “Antony and Cleopatra: ‘What Venus Did with Mars.’” Shakespeare Studies 2 (1966): 210-27.

Proposes that the traditional iconographic association of Mars and Venus with the idea of achieving harmony out of chaos helps explain Shakespeare's portrayal of Antony and Cleopatra. Waddington asserts that before their deaths, the lovers come to recognize that Roman values must be reconciled with Egyptian ones.

Wright, Rosemary. “Prospero's Lime Tree and the Pursuit of Vanitas.Shakespeare Survey 37 (1984): 133-40.

Suggests that the lime tree on which Ariel drapes a gaudy array of clothes in Act IV, scene i of The Tempest would have reminded Shakespeare's first audiences not only of the Edenic tree of knowledge but also the one featured in Renaissance paintings of the pedlar and the apes—an emblematic device of human folly. Wright contends that both traditions enhance the significance of the lime tree as a theatrical property that underscores the vanity of human aspirations for power and control over others.

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