Shakespeare Quarterly 54.1 (2003) 105-107
[Access article in PDF]
Vision and Rhetoric in Shakespeare: Looking through Language. By Alison Thorne. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000. Pp. xvi + 290. Illus. $69.95 cloth.
Vision and Rhetoric in Shakespeare: Looking through Language proposes to examine how visual and verbal modes of figuring the world—ways of seeing and ways of talking—are brought into productive relationship in Shakespeare's work, an endeavor to recapture an early modern world of ut pictura poesis which has recently excited other critics as well.The work is rooted in an effort to demonstrate commonality between the arts by focusing on classical rhetoric as the main discursive agency through which the visual and verbal arts were brought together, especially around the shared interest in perspective, both linear and dramatic.Following Norman Rabkin's lead in Shakespeare and the Common Understanding (1967), Thorne proposes attending to the shifts in viewpoint from character to character.The author's project is most fully realized in the rich opening chapter on As You Like It, which relates the visual and verbal in organic, interconnected ways. The general organization of the book, however, places the discussions of art theory and history in the first half and literary analyses of individual plays in the second half. [End Page 105]
Both initial chapters focus on Leon Battista Alberti's program of perspective in De Pictura (1436), the first formula in the history of painting for achieving a coherent spatial field: "all perpendicular lines would converge to a single vanishing point. Heavy emphasis was placed on the beholder's role in the production of this unified space; the location of the viewing eye served as the main point of reference when determining the relative size and distance of objects in the painting" (3). This scheme imposed order and stability on the mutable, ambiguous domain of optical phenomena and specified the beholder's viewpoint; thus, Thorne argues, it is analogous to "the way rhetorical discourse operates in relation to the speaker and those to whom it is addressed" (35). This program was not taken up in England as systematically as in Italy and elsewhere, however; and artists influenced by Continental ideas tended to resist conformity, to be unorthodox and idiosyncratic—Thorne cites Inigo Jones, Robert Peake, and Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger. Perspective for Shakespeare, she mentions in conclusion, "helped to sharpen and define the already deeply rooted preoccupation with questions of viewpoint that informs all his work" (55).
There is a lack of thoroughly argued connection between specific theory and Shakespeare in chapter 2, which addresses the doctrine of ut pictura poesis and the rhetoric of perspective. Thorne's major example is Richard Haydocke's 1598 translation of Giovanni Lomazzo's A Tracte containing the Artes of curious Paintinge, Caruinge & Buildinge, a work that uses rhetoric "to formulate a central paradox of mimetic art: that to capture either the outward appearance or the inner essence of things it is often necessary to violate objective truth; that to be like is not to be the same" (69). Much of the discussion here again centers on the various ways in which English writers regarded the license to exceed nature, to go beyond copying. According to Thorne, the principle of decorum laid out by Puttenham, who explicates decorum through a series of examples rather than by means of general rules, was most often invoked to sort out difficult questions of illusionism, problems of deceit, and the use of imaginative ideals.
In the chapters that follow, discussions of Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, Antony and Cleopatra, Hamlet, and The Tempest are thorough and often sharpened by the context of perspective which frames them. Yet these discussions—largely illustrations of the commonplace idea that Shakespeare's plays foreground the relativity of perception—are too often disconnected from what is stated as the main thrust of the book. Thorne's specialized vocabulary doesn't decidedly alter or extend familiar readings of the plays. In the analysis of Troilus and Cressida, for example, there is a section on the distorting nature of praise...