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Emblematic Pictures for the Less Privileged in Shakespeare's England Elizabeth Truax As a youth man growing up in a provincial town during the reign of the Protestant queen Elizabeth I, Shakespeare's personal acquaintance with the visual arts was necessarily more limited than it would have been earlier in the sixteenth century. Until a generation before his birth, the Church had been a patron of the arts and had not only built splendid ecclesiastical structures but also furnished them with images, wall paintings, painted glass windows, and sumptuous reliquaries. Following the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530's and the encouragement of Protestantism , especially its imposition under Edward VI, there came a period of mass destruction of medieval religious art, which was designated as idolatrous. Iconoclasm ceased for a time under Mary I but resumed at the beginning of the reign of Elizabeth I in 1558 in spite of the queen's encouragement of moderation.' Pictures on religious subjects continued to be regarded with suspicion , and in 1563 the playwright's father, John Shakespeare, acting as Stratford chamberlain, was assigned the job of whitewashing and screening off the wall paintings in the town's Guild Chapel which were deemed too Catholic.2 There was, however, a revival of interest in the visual arts by the 1580's, and a wide variety of pictures portraying secular and sometimes religious subjects, often characterized in the popular tradition established by emblem books, could be seen in public places in towns like Stratford-upon-Avon as well as London. Although the glory of Italian Renaissance painting made a tardy appearance in Tudor England, there was nevertheless a rising demand for magnificent palaces and stately manor houses, prompted by new wealth from the acquisition of ecclesiastical properties and from the expansion of trade. England was in fact flooded with European engravings and illustrated books, espe147 148Emblematic Pictures daily emblem books imported from France and the Low Countries , which introduced the visual arts to a receptive audience. New modes of representation in the visual arts reflecting the spirit of the age were thus found not only in high quality art in houses built by a newly enriched gentry but also in cheaper, cruder imitations in taverns and in the humbler houses of those below the gentry class. In later life Shakespeare would have been familiar with the decorative arts at court; however, the pictures he knew best appear to have been not Italian or Flemish masterworks but illustrations in emblem books and pictures, contrived in the emblematic manner, found in public places for all to see. The account that follows examines emblematic pictures that would have been familiar to less privileged members of society as well as gentry —pictures which range from inn signs and heraldic shields hung in public view to the decorated walls of taverns and inns and the houses of prosperous merchants. Again and again we find that the illustrations in popular emblem books would provide not only poets but also painters with models for imitation. The emblem is essentially a Renaissance art form which developed in the climate of humanism that followed the invention of printing, although it claimed to be rooted in antiquity as far in the past as Egyptian hieroglyphics and the Greek epigram. Sometimes scholars limit the emblem to the form established in the various editions of Andrea Alciato's Emblemata. Thus Peter M. Daly describes the emblem as a form of allegorical or political expression which has a three-part structure: a motto, picture, and poem, aimed at a general audience.3 But it is important not to omit alternative forms—e.g., the impresa, which retained only the motto and picture. Alan Young, describing the use of tournament imprese, notes that such devices may have been familiar in England as early as the end of the fourteenth century.4 Certainly the popularity of the emblems was at a high point in the latter part of the sixteenth century, and in 1570 Gabriel Harvey complained that English scholars were wasting their time reading the work of Giovio, Ruscelli, and Paradin.5 In the visual arts, the tendency was to encourage the production of imprese and other...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 147-167
Launched on MUSE
2016-10-05
Open Access
No
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