The Idolatrous Eye: Iconoclasm and Theater in Early-Modem England/Images, Idolatry, and Iconoclasm in Late Medieval England

By Bruhn, Karen | Anglican and Episcopal History, September 2003 | Go to article overview

The Idolatrous Eye: Iconoclasm and Theater in Early-Modem England/Images, Idolatry, and Iconoclasm in Late Medieval England


Bruhn, Karen, Anglican and Episcopal History


MICHAEL O'CONNELL. The Idolatrous Eye: Iconoclasm and Theater in Early-Modem England. New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Pp. viii + 198, introduction, bibliography, index. $49.95.

JEREMY DIMMICK, JAMES SIMPSON, NICOLETTE ZEEMAN, EDS. Images, Idolatry, and Iconoclasm in Late Medieval England. New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. Pp. 250, introduction, bibliography, index. $70.00.

Scholars who study the English Reformations can (and will) debate almost any aspect of Protestant reform; most, however, agree that reform was accompanied by a strong iconoclastic impulse. The two books under review here address this notion, not to refute it, but to place it in a more comprehensive cultural and historical context. The essays included in Images, Idolatry, and Iconoclasm in Late Medieval England all argue-in one way or another-that early modem English iconoclasm is rooted in an earlier period. Michael O'Connell's The Idolatrous Eye reflects on the theology underpinning English Protestant iconophobia and also explores how it affected the popular theater of the period.

O'Connell detects a tension between word and image in Western culture that precedes and succeeds Protestant reform. According to O'Connell, sixteenth-century iconoclastic debate merely recapitulated a conflict imbedded in the doctrine of the Incarnation. If Jesus entered the world as a physical representation of the almighty God, does this so change creation that the physical becomes an agent by which humans can experience the sacred? Or, was the Incarnation a single, contained episode, accessible now only by sacred text? The book's second chapter provides an insightful overview of the history of the debate, and also explains the Reformation controversies in light of this theological quandary. Medieval Christianity put great emphasis on the physical, O'Connell argues, but Protestant reformers, with their humanist bent (and access to the newly-invented printing press), privileged the word rather than the image as the correct representation of the sacred.

O'Connell wants to understand the impact this contest made on Elizabethan and Stuart theater. He recounts the systematic suppression of the medieval cycle plays, explores the "incarnational" aspects of Latin liturgical drama, and traces the evolution (and demise) of Protestant biblical drama. He then examines the work of Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare to determine if these texts embrace, reject, or otherwise comment on the logocentricism of their day.

In his final chapter O'Connell concludes that Jonson's humanist sympathies produced a kind of self-conscious embarrassment concerning the visual aspects of theater; Jonson urged his audiences toward a "near exclusive attention to the verbal element of the mixed art that theater is." Conversely, while Shakespeare often rehearsed cultural anxieties over the unreliability of representation in general, he ultimately celebrated both the auditory and visual aspects of his art.

O'Connell offers readings of several plays to make his point, but finds his strongest evidence for Shakespeare's celebratory attitude toward the "incarnational" aspects of theater in The Winter's Tale. The play's final scene-the statue of the wronged Hermione becomes Hermione herself (incarnate) and brings reconciliation to all-soundly refutes the iconophobic notion that the physical may never serve as a vehicle for the spiritual.

Not all of O'Connell's assertions ring true. He bases his claims for the religious symbolism in the final scene of The Winter's Tale on modem criticism rather than on Shakespeare's own words. …

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