Academic journal article DQR Studies in Literature

Shakespeare's Visual Memorability during Romanticism

Academic journal article DQR Studies in Literature

Shakespeare's Visual Memorability during Romanticism

Article excerpt

"Don't think, but look!"1

Even though the nineteenth century was characterized by a popularization of literature, a similar process did not embrace visual and plastic arts. Nonetheless, while most of the objets d'art remained confined to private collections, a number of events, works and entertainments, such as the Panorama and the Diorama, were beginning to revitalize public taste for the spectacularly visible. The opening of the British Institution in 1805, with its annual exhibition, promoted a more widespread interest in the visual, by demolishing the monopoly of the Royal Academy. Lessing's Laokoön (1766) contributed to the revival of the ancient and ever-present debate over the Horatian axiom ut pictura poesis, reformulated likewise by thinkers such as S.T. Coleridge and Henry Fuseli.2 The dialectics between the Horatian axiom and Lessing's position has been central in the study of the culture of visibility during Romanticism, and, as William Galperin remarks, Romantics had a particularly problematic approach to the Horatian principle. If writers such as Wordsworth and Coleridge were generally inclined towards an exaltation of the more evocative verbal medium over the visual - denouncing the strict tyranny of the eye - other Romantic artists were, in reality, obsessed with visual arts,3 considering them not only as a means to replicate reality but also as a way to give substantial evidence to the immaterial objects of their imagination.

The conjunction between the theatre and visual arts may be extremely problematic when considered both in ontological and epistemological terms. As the very act of representation is subject to predicaments of resemblance, by reproducing through visual arts a dramatic or literary character, the artist needs to take into account the degree to which comparative resemblance enters into the equation. In his basic exposition of representation, Nelson Goodman observes that a basic "view of representation might perhaps be put somewhat like this: 'A represents B if A appreciably resembles B', or 'A represents B to the extent that A resembles B'".4 According to Goodman's definition, resemblance is both the condition and ultimate essence of representation. When we deal with artistic representations, however, the conditions accounting for the establishment of a relation of resemblance are not always met. In the specific case of paintings portraying dramatic characters, a true resemblance relation cannot be established, since the two objects of representations belong to two different perceptive contexts: the original subject being the object of reading, while its artistic reproduction being the object of sight. So, arguably, A and B cannot be similar, unless they both belong to the same sensory field.

The conjunction between visual arts and literature appears therefore particularly problematic especially when considered in terms of resemblance. When it comes to the theatre, however, and more specifically to the staging of dramatic texts, visual arts can be regarded as a suitable means to reproduce the physiognomy, gestures and costumes of the actors, as well as the setting and scenery of the play. Possibly for this reason, during the second half of the eighteenth century, the "theatrical conversation pieces" increasingly began to obtain critical authority. The proliferation of paintings portraying Shakespearean heroes started towards the 1760s, when David Garrick (1717-1779) commissioned J.J. Zoffany (1733-1810) to paint him in theatrical scenes, and continued with more emphatic force during the Romantic era.5 Hence, although the numerous written accounts of theatrical representations of the day provide useful guidelines for reconstructing the acting practices and dramatic conventions of the nineteenth-century stage, it appears nonetheless undeniable that paintings provide a different level of documentation and interpretation, offering a more immediate - and visually concrete - grasp of what was taking place in the London theatre. …

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