This book discusses early modern English drama as a part of visual culture. It concerns the ideas about 'making and unmaking' that Shakespeare and his contemporaries may have known and formulated, and how these ideas relate to the author's own critical assumptions about early modern aesthetic experience. The study of drama as a part of visual culture offers the perfect context for an exploration of pre-modern aesthetic discourse. The book expounds the author's approach to plays as participants in a lively post-Reformation visual culture in the process of 're-formation'. It then focuses on the social meanings of patronage of the visual arts in a discussion of Paulina as patron of Hermione's image in The Winter's Tale. The discussion of The Winter's Tale pivots around the play's troubling investment in patriarchal notions of 'perfection'. The book also explores image-breaking in Robert Greene's Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay. This play presents an instance of onstage iconoclasm in the supernatural destruction of a demonic brazen head, a quasi-magical figure that had been depicted in English literature since at least the twelfth century. In focusing on the portrayal of invisibility in The Two Merry Milkmaids, the book explores early modern preoccupation with processes of visual construction in a play in which there is very little artisanal activity.
This chapter explores what is meant by early modern English visual culture, and expounds the author's approach to drama as a part of that visual culture. By the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, English visual culture had experienced tumultuous changes resulting from the religious reforms that began to take effect in the late 1530s. In pre-Reformation devotional practices, the relationship between worshipper and God was extensively mediated through visual representations depicting Christ and the saints. The story of John Donne's efforts as a tomb-designer is instructive in this regard, since literary accounts of image-makers working to commission frequently merge into a single figure the multiple roles associated with commissioning projects. The social status of image-makers remained a preoccupation for dramatists is demonstrated by Richard Brome's The Court Beggar, probably first performed between 1640 and 1641.
Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale presents one of the most famous depictions of a patron of the visual arts in early modern English drama. In the penultimate scene of the play, the Sicilian courtier, Paulina, is in possession of a 'statue' of the dead Sicilian queen, Hermione. Studies of The Winter's Tale cover a diversity of aesthetic, formal, social, theological and ethical concerns, but most critics share an attraction to the 'statue scene' as the site of the endorsement of the 'unknown' and 'unknowability'. Paulina's status as a consumer of images is arguably often overlooked because of critical interest in the attribution of the statue to Giulio Romano. Paulina's working relationship with Giulio Romano produces a protean image that recalls the amorphous 'unity' of Adam and Eve as depicted by Trevilian, the first woman still half-submerged in the first man's side.
In 1563, the Elizabethan government drafted a proclamation suggesting measures for the regulation of the production of portraits of the queen. In the early part of the seventeenth century, a proliferation of conduct manuals and texts were published with titles including the adjective 'complete'. The popularity of 'compleat' as a title-word for these treatises of self-improvement emphasises an early modern link between concepts of completion and the attainment of idealised levels of ability in praxis. Although the Reformation in England is famed for its supposed rejection of visual experience, it is notable that the relationship between mortality and divinity is often expressed in aesthetic terms. The story of St Luke as the first 'Christian painter' was a popular theme for sixteenth-century visual artists, with depictions of the evangelist painting the Virgin frequently commissioned for display in guild buildings.
Invisibility and erasure in The Two Merry Milkmaids
This chapter considers depictions of the construction and destruction of visual representations such as paintings, sculptures and brass heads. It focuses on the portrayal of invisibility in The Two Merry Milkmaids. The chapter explores early modern preoccupation with processes of visual construction in a play in which there is very little artisanal activity. In The Two Merry Milkmaids, invisibility is both a joke and very serious. Furthermore, the ring in The Two Merry Milkmaids does not betray its magical properties through visual signs or inscriptions; hence the ignorance of wearers when they initially encounter the jewel. The visual suppression of the ring is echoed in its presentation as an object that circulates amongst closed communities. The materiality of the invisible character marks the meeting point between dramatists' deference to God as invisible maker, and their engagements with modes of spectatorship which replicate divine omniscience.
Divine destruction in Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay
This chapter explores image-breaking in Robert Greene's Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay. The image presents an instance of onstage iconoclasm in the supernatural destruction of a demonic brazen head, a quasi-magical figure that had been depicted in English literature since at least the twelfth century. Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay is a forerunner to Sejanus in that Greene's play approaches image-breaking as a supernatural act. The supernatural iconoclasm in Greene's play arguably functions in the same manner as does supernatural image-making in the legend of St Luke, but with a reversal of the message of that legend. Like the carving of the supposed statue of Hermione, the making of the brazen head is a long-term project of 'seven years' tossing nigromantic charms', during which Bacon has 'fram'd out' the 'monstrous head of brass'.
This conclusion presents some closing thoughts on the concepts discussed in the preceding chapters of this book. The book suggests that early modern playwrights are preoccupied with processes of making, unmaking and remaking in light of the transgressive implications of 'finish'. It emphasises the connection between aesthetic discourse and critical constructions of early modern materiality. The book describes the production of incompletion as a condition of early modern cultural production. It discusses early modern playwrights' preoccupation with a material reworkability, which is produced by investment in divine 'wholeness'. From the perspective, playwrights' depictions of and allusions to incomplete objects that are 'under construction' contribute to the development of a mode of aesthetic formalism. Henry Peacham's Terminus emblem presents mortality as a fixed boundary, but does not suggest an endpoint in the figure of death, although death is an unmoveable aspect of mortality.
This introduction presents an overview of the key concepts discussed in the subsequent chapters of this book. The book explains the study of drama as a part of visual culture offers the perfect context for an exploration of pre-modern aesthetic discourse. It focuses on the social meanings of patronage of the visual arts in a discussion of Paulina as patron of Hermione's image in The Winter's Tale. The book also focuses on the ends and aims of 'making' in the Elizabethan imagination. It explores what early modern dramatists and playgoers understood by 'destruction' with reference to Robert Greene's Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay. The book argues that Greene engages with contemporary technological discourses in order to call attention to the brokenness of visual experience. It explores drama as a part of a changing post-Reformation culture in which reception is a key aspect of cultural production.