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.