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Image Ethics in Shakespeare and Spenser (review)

From: Comparative Drama
Volume 46, Number 4, Winter 2012
pp. 557-559 | 10.1353/cdr.2012.0043

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Breaking with historicist accounts of early modern images in terms of political and religious iconophobia and iconoclasm, James Knapp offers a fascinating and original study of early modern “visuality”—encompassing a range of experiences including ekphrasis and images in the mind’s eye—and the ethical questions it provoked. Indeed, the great passion of the book is arguably not for Renaissance literature but for the way in which the ethical response to visual images in Spenser and Shakespeare speaks to twentieth-century phenomenology and “a new body of work on morality and ethics in philosophy, literary theory and cognitive psychology” (16).

Knapp begins by acknowledging that the attraction to and anxiety about images in early modern literature reflects a “critical moment when English culture was undergoing epistemological, theological and aesthetic transformations that would mark the transition from the medieval to the early modern era” (2). Reformation skepticism about vision as a catalyst in spiritual matters (fundamental to Neoplatonic and Pauline discourses) clashed with philosophy’s increasing trust in empirical observation, hence “the question of how people ought to be moved by visual experience sparked intense debate” (2). The Reformation privileging of word over image was thus not simply a religious imperative, but “an attempt to separate the reasoned, stable, and implicitly verbal world of morality from the unstable, emotional realm of visual experience” (31). Literary artists, however, embraced the power of visuality to elicit not only emotional but ethical reactions, and chief among them were Spenser and Shakespeare, for whom “a crucial test of one’s virtue lies in how one responds to images” (27).

There are two key tenets to Knapp’s argument that Spenser and Shakespeare are seen to share. First is the assumption that truth cannot be accessed by a rejection of the material world, but that (citing the phenomenologist Jean-Luc Marion) “the invisible (truth) is only available in … ‘the crossing of the visible’” (59). Also underpinning the argument here is the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who offers ‘“uncontested evidence that one must see or feel in order to think, that every thought known to us occurs to a flesh,”’ and whose insistence on the figure of “intertwining,” or the chiasm, to define embodied experience proves highly suggestive for Knapp’s close readings of Spenser and Shakespeare. The second assumption relates to the distinction between morality as a set of principles “apart from the accidents of a particular situation” and ethics, which “cannot be thought apart from the singular situations in which human subjects are challenged to make ethical decisions” (24). Drawing upon recent developments in moral psychology, including the work of Jonathan Haidt, Knapp argues that “moral reasoning plays a fairly minor role in guiding human action” (21), Haidt’s “automatic intuitive reaction” being initially dominant. Similarly, in Spenser and Shakespeare, “moral conviction is produced phenomenologically, welling up in their characters despite their awareness of established moral principles and in tension with the calm domain of moral reasoning” (22). Both writers are judged to be acutely aware of the tension between morality and ethics, which often begins from the ambiguous moral nature of visual experience.

In the section on Spenser, which considers his translations in Jan van der Noot’s Theater for Voluptuous Worldlings (1569), The Shepheardes Calendar (1579), and The Faerie Queene (1590), Knapp moves on from Ernest Gilman’s influential assumption that ‘“[d]epending on the passage of his work that falls open, one can find in Spenser a militant reformer on the question of images or a lover of decoration and display willing to employ more traditional discriminations between their use and abuse’” (48) to suggest a coherent trajectory. Spenser is seen to move from an initial use of illustrations in his work, exploring a material iconoclasm, to a disavowal of illustrations and a more figurative kind of iconoclasm, acknowledging the threat of visual experience to “proper Protestant ethical comportment” (46). A comparison between Spenser and key phenomenologist thinkers including Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty follows: like them, “Spenser recognised that the ethical required something other than system; and, as importantly, he insisted that the whole field of ethics is of this world” (86).

In the four chapters based on Shakespeare...

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