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Reviewed by:
  • Shakespeare and the Visual Imagination by Stuart Sillars
  • Michele Marrapodi (bio)
Shakespeare and the Visual Imagination. By Stuart Sillars. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. Illus. Pp. xviii + 318. $103.00 cloth.

As Stuart Sillars informs us in the opening chapter, "The aim of this book is to explore ways in which the structures, allusive practices and concepts of the visual art of Shakespeare's time were appropriated and transformed into the forms and [End Page 398] ideas of the poems and the plays, and to argue that an awareness of these processes greatly enriches our knowledge of the canon" (1). Put differently, as Kristin Phillips-Court has shown, various forms of permeability and visual representation are involved in the interrelationships between the pictorial arts and Italian drama, which "derive from painting's lasting cognitive structures and cultural resonance." This is a field that in recent years has proved particularly fertile for a reassessment of icons in Renaissance culture, pointing to a new awareness of the intermedial, three-dimensional quality of the dramatic text—what Phillips-Court calls the "perfect genre."1

In Shakespeare and the Visual Imagination, which follows three monographs primarily devoted to nineteenth-century illustrations inspired by Shakespeare's plays, Sillars turns his attention to the sister arts and emblems in the Bard's visual imagination, focusing on how various aspects of the period's visual culture contribute to "the dynamic of dramatic action, changing and developing to shape and reflect events as they are presented on stage" (257).2 He traces a critical trajectory of visual appropriation that ranges from the early comedies and poems to the later plays, analyzing engravings, encodings, portraits, painterly compositions, and emblematic elements that contribute to a given work's rhetorical and thematic structure. Specific key terms explain the exchange between word and image and the visual-rhetorical force of this relationship. Enargeia, for example, refers to the immediate effect of visual art presented in words. Ethopoeia relates to the spectator's experience, the described response to a specified setting and event. Both contribute to the description of a scene through the careful observation of a character in poetry or drama, sharpening "the metatheatric reflection implicit in the presence of visual allusion and absorption" (29).

The second chapter investigates the function of visual imagination in the Induction scenes of The Taming of the Shrew, in which Christopher Sly is tempted by the Lord and his servants. His exposure to the "wanton pictures" (Induction 1. 43) manifests the seductive intention of the ekphrastic descriptions as well as the failed enargeia and ethopoeia effects on Sly. Sillars is right to relate the visual's presence to the play's "repeated concerns with identity, personation and change" (54), but the Lord and his followers' extemporaneous acting, juxtaposed with the arrival of the professional players, also uncovers the dramatist's reliance on the impromptu practice of the commedia dell'arte. Later, Sillars's extended discussion of the narrative poems provides insights into their close relationship with visual structures. These are especially effective in the Troy-painting scene in Lucrece, where the ekphrastic passages highlight how ethopoeia and enargeia participate in the creation of meaning by sharing in the artwork's illusive and deceitful nature, "conveying the betrayal of the poem's action and the falsehoods implicit in poetry as well as painting" (78). [End Page 399]

Subsequent chapters investigate issues ranging from the appropriation of landscape as a structural element in the visual composition of Love's Labor's Lost to the political use of perspective in Richard II, from the use of paintings and emblems to explore the visual references of A Midsummer Night's Dream to a specific chapter devoted to the visual potentiality of the emblem books and tradition. A close analysis of the opening exchange between the Poet and the Painter in Timon of Athens illustrates Shakespeare's own treatment of the paragone, expounding "what is itself another order of artifice, the theatre, while revealing the falsity of the speakers' opinions of themselves … through the medium of a form that adds another term to the oppositions it interrogates" (238). The word/image debate leads to the statue scene and the...


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pp. 398-400
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