- Shakespeare’s Artists: The Painters, Sculptors, Poets and Musicians in His Plays and Poems by B. J. Sokol
B. J. Sokol has a long trajectory of research and publication on Elizabethan contexts for Shakespeare’s work, with particular interest in Shakespeare and the law. His present study is further undergirded by a wide familiarity with the writing of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, as well as treatises on a range of subjects that those writers would surely have known. The book does not so much analyze Shakespeare’s depictions of artists as characters as it situates his treatment of categories of artists in their economic, social, and cultural circumstances. Sokol claims in his introduction that “all of Shakespeare’s portrayals of artists are inflected by contemporary cultural conditions” (2), and thus “Shakespeare’s artists are distinctive features of, even bellwethers of, the social fabric” (8).
The six chapters focus on visual artists (painters and sculptors), poets, and musicians. Sokol treats each of the three categories of artists first with a survey chapter, followed by a chapter that explores somewhat arcane examples. He describes the organizational [End Page 578] pattern as fact-finding observation followed by “speculative interpretation” (3). His introduction examines how the very word artist held quite different connotations in Shakespeare’s time from today’s understanding of it. The Renaissance “artist” could be anyone who had become proficient in a specific field, such as astronomy, medicine, and wig-making. The term might also refer to one who was adept at artifice, as opposed to those who offered literal simulacra of nature. During Shakespeare’s lifetime, the concept of artistic inspiration underwent a major shift from mercurial to saturnine. Under the influence of Mercury, an artist honed skills through refinement of technique, but Saturn brought the concept of the eccentric, melancholy native genius. Interestingly, Sokol questions whether Shakespeare actually embraced the latter view or satirized it with characters like Hamlet, Orsino, and Jaques.
Chapter 1 posits the Elizabethan view of painting as a mere trade, less worthy than poetry or music. Much of the chapter is devoted to the influence of Leonardo da Vinci’s writing on the hierarchy of the senses, a comparative approach later called paragoni, in which da Vinci argued for the supremacy of the visual. Although Shakespeare generally privileges music and poetry over painting and sculpture, the paragoni might have contributed to the complexities of the “verbal-visual divide” (20) in his poems. Another issue in the visual arts is exemplified by Shakespeare’s use of language in Venus and Adonis to evoke his imagined painting of a supremely beautiful horse; while the painter can probably never represent as much about the horse as the words accomplish, the visual artist may aim either for a visual illusion of the real thing or for the evocation of a more idealized vitality. Through his analysis of The Rape of Lucrece, Sokol shows the crucial role of the artist’s audience—the “beholder’s share” (33)—in completing the circle of interpretation. Chapter 2 expands on those ideas, along with examples of the role of portraits in Elizabethan life, with analyses of Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Merchant of Venice, Two Noble Kinsmen, Timon of Athens, The Spanish Tragedy, Pericles, Arden of Feversham, The Second Maiden’s Tragedy, and most extensively, The Winter’s Tale.
Poetry was respected and enjoyed by Elizabethans at all social levels, and there was a craze for “sonneteering” (97) that peaked in the mid-1590s. In chapter 3, Sokol distinguishes between verse as Shakespeare’s medium of expression and verses created by poet characters within the plays; his focus on the latter reveals that Shakespeare often parodied poets or poetasters. A noteworthy example of satirical intent is the love poems that the men compose in Love’s Labour’s Lost. Poets or poetry-writing characters appear in numerous plays, and Sokol discerns some ambiguity in their treatment, despite their frequent association with feigning or deceit. Chapter 4, on the poets in Shakespeare’s poems, focuses...