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...
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