Staged Portraits in Early Modern English Drama

This post in our After Iconophobia Online Symposium comes from Emanuel Stelzer, a PhD student in intercultural humanistic studies in the department of philosophy and literature at the University of Bergamo.  Emanuel’s PhD project consists of an analysis of the uses and effects of staged portraits in early modern English drama. Here he reflects upon the extent to which the iconophobia thesis is compatible with treatments of staged portraits in early modern English drama.

Critics have traditionally employed a two-pronged approach to understand the significance of pictures in early modern English drama and of its visual dimension: they have read them either in terms of iconophobia or of iconophilia. These scholars generally refer to Patrick Collinson’s work, the seminal centrality of which is easily assessed in many diverse fields ranging from the history of Tudor and early Stuart portraiture, to the studies on Renaissance visual culture and on the impact of the English Reformation. I wish to demonstrate that the staging of portraits in early modern English drama can problematize this dualistic interpretation.

It is well known that Collinson diagnosed post-Reformation England with “severe visual anorexia”.[1] He neatly separated two moments in English cultural history: the first, “iconoclasm”, which destroyed and defaced holy icons and religious simulacra. The second phase, “iconophobia”, was nothing short of an epistemic shift which took place from the 1580s, when the very status of the image became the centre of denigration and fear. The Word had to triumph over the Image. More or less gradually, “the English became the people of a book, and that book was the Bible”.[2] Most importantly, Collinson also asked: “What do we know about the capacity to form mental pictures of someone who has almost never seen an actual picture?”[3]

1200px-shakespeareIf Collinson’s thesis proved true, the citizens of Shakespeare’s England would be complete aliens for us, rather than just being inhabitants of an early modern society anticipating our own. Collinson’s question leads us to envisage a nation whose anxiety towards images developed alongside their unfamiliarity with pictures. It follows that the presentation of a portrait on an allegedly bare stage would be an extraordinary experience for such spectators.

Many critical works are heavily indebted to Collinson’s theses and this influence is expressed in a more or less nuanced way. We can read of Renaissance Italy as “seem[ing] in many ways the mirror image of the aniconic verbal culture of England”.[4] We are invited to think of English Renaissance literature as being uneasily “situated between two eras of cultural iconophobia”,[5] and that in those decades “the English poet was caught between iconophobia and iconophilia”.[6] In the context of this ‘impoverished’ visual culture, it has been customary[7] to regard theatre as the supplementary venue to cope with the absence of pictures. This was Leonard Barkan’s adamant resolution:

theatre is England’s lively pictorial culture: the answer, the compensation, the supplément in the face of all the painting, sculpture, and art theory that was so famously alive in the European civilizations that Elizabethans dreamed about.[8]

Similarly, in her seminal study on Dutch art, Svetlana Alpers maintained that “if the theatre was the arena in which the England of Elizabeth most fully represented itself to itself, images played that role for the Dutch.”.[9]

The “iconophobia-iconophilia” dualism has been a ubiquitous paradigm employed by critics to assess how art and visual culture impacted on the dramatists’ works. This started in particular with Huston Diehl’s superb study Staging Reform, Reforming the Stage (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997) which analyzes several tragedies and quotes Collinson’s remark that: “[A]fter the Reformation, pictures – almost any pictures – aroused suspicion of popery”.[10] If interpreted in these terms, an iconophilic attitude would be a consciously transgressive position. A similar reading is endorsed by Marguerite Tassi, the first scholar to write a full-length study of staged portraits in early modern drama.[11] The subtitle of her study clearly testifies to the author’s stance: “Iconoclasm, Eroticism, and Painting in Early Modern English Drama”. Strangely, Tassi quotes Collinson only once, when he similarly states that: “by 1600 to be found in possession of a picture (almost any picture) was to be a suspected papist”.[12] She quickly asserts that: “although Collinson’s claim seems exaggerated, from the devout Protestant’s perspective, the case against painting must have been unequivocal”[13] (italics mine). From this statement we can see that Collinson’s seminal influence is restated, even if criticized.

Recent studies have demonstrated that Collinson’s ideas concerning these topics are partly misleading and faulty. Firstly, we have understood that there was no unequivocal “Protestant” iconophobia: Lutherans, Anglicans, Calvinists, and the other major Reformed confessions treated images with markedly different positions, while often changing their attitude over time.

Secondly, it is not true that English citizens were unfamiliar with images and also with portraits. There was no such thing as a total repudiation of images, and not only courtly circles but also the ascending middle class and the common people were exposed to a rich, though complex and embattled, visual culture. Images survived iconoclasm and were often re-functionalized.[14] We should then be aware that when we read texts affirming that “a thing fained in the mind by imagination is an idol”,[15] such pronouncements were typical only of a minor section of British society. Painting was still regarded as a craft and painters, organized in a livery company, were part of London’s everyday life.

Thirdly, the myth of the “bare stage”, or, to put it in more modern terms, Peter Brook’s “empty space” has been seriously questioned: both private and public playhouses were lavishly decorated “painted worlds”.[16]

The above three points in my discussion confute Collinson’s arguments but there is still another aspect I need to tackle further: the aforementioned iconophilia-iconophobia dualism.

There are more than seventy plays from the Elizabethan to the Caroline period in which a portrait is featured as a prop. One element I would like to stress is that the very number of staged portraits arguably proves the significance of these commodities in early modern England. Portraits hardly ever[17] appear in Renaissance French drama, and only sparingly[18] on the Spanish stage. There are a couple of Commedia dell’arte scenarios[19] which intriguingly feature pictures, but the fact that portraits were employed comparatively frequently in English Renaissance drama demonstrates that these were objects which caught the attention and catered to the tastes of their audiences.

However difficult it is to assess the types of pictures used onstage, I would like to suggest that we could apply Paul Yachnin’s notion of the “populuxe” to understand them. Yachnin sees players as active traders in a market which offered “popular, relatively inexpensive versions of deluxe goods”.[20] The staging of miniatures[21] and portraits could address that “heightened degree of sensitization”[22] which marked the desire for new commodities within an emerging consumer society: staged portraits could well have been the object of consumerist desire beyond iconophobic considerations.

white_devil_title_pageIt is interesting to note that the iconophilia-iconophobia interpretation has been applied to some scenes in tragedies (for instance, the poisoned picture in Webster’s The White Devil or the piercing of the portrait in Shirley’s The Traitor) while often ignoring comedy and tragicomedy. Therefore it is necessary to interpret the uses of staged portraits in the wider context provided by different genres. However, the sheer number of defaced (Dekker’s The Noble Spanish Soldier, 1622), stabbed[23] (Shirley’s The Traitor, 1631; Heminge’s The Fatal Contract, 1639), poisoned (evoked in Arden of Faversham, 1592; staged in Webster’s The White Devil, 1612), and burnt (offstage in Massinger’s The Picture, 1629) portraits begs the question: How were the original audiences[24] expected to respond to such powerful dramatic moments? Are these examples of an instantiation of latent iconophobia? On the one hand, the defacement of staged portraits had to stir the memory of those iconoclastic acts which had marked the theatregoers’ experience. Spectators were bound to remember and re-live those violent actions. On the other hand, these moments are intensely theatrical and emotional: they stir our imagination and can move us even today. It is very difficult to dispel the notion that, however historically and culturally resonant with iconoclasm, these scenes dramatize Freedberg’s empathetic, relatively universal “power of images”.[25] The playwrights and the playing companies knew how powerful these scenes could prove on the stage, and employed the defacement or destruction of a portrait because well aware of this potential.

To recap, I see the uses and effects of staged portraits in early modern drama as a case in point to challenge the facile iconophobia-iconophilia dualism traditionally employed by scholars who refer to Patrick Collinson’s work. As I have argued, pictures, while perhaps latently a site of anxiety, were also the object of consumerist desire and their staging reflected the original audiences’ competence in their self-reforming visual culture.

[1] Patrick Collinson, The Birthpangs of Protestant England (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1988) 119.

[2] Patrick Collinson, From Iconoclasm to Iconophobia: The Cultural Impact of the Second English Reformation (Reading: University of Reading, 1986) 8.

[3] Ibid., 23.

[4] Michael O’Connell, The Idolatrous Eye: Iconoclasm and Theatre in Early Modern England (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000) 32.

[5] Ann Hurley, John Donne’s Poetry and Early Modern Visual Culture (Selinsgrove: Susquehanna University Press, 2005) 14.

[6] Ibid., 15.

[7] For a survey, see Chloe Porter’s “Shakespeare and Early Modern Visual Culture”, Literature Compass 8 (2011): 543-553, the main arguments of which can be found also in her Making and Unmaking in Early Modern English Drama (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2014).

[8] Leonard Barkan, “Making Pictures Speak: Renaissance Art, Elizabethan Literature, Modern Scholarship”, Renaissance Quarterly 48/2 (1995): 338.

[9]  Svetlana Alpers, The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1983) xxv.

[10] Patrick Collinson, op. cit. (1986): 27.

[11]  Although she only analyzed Elizabethan plays. For a brilliant survey of staged portraits in early modern English drama, see Yolana Wassersug, ‘My Picture, I enjoin thee to keep’: The Function of Portraits in English Drama, 1558-1642, PhD diss. (Birmingham University, 2015).

[12] Marguerite A. Tassi, The Scandal of Images (Selinsgrove: Susquehanna University Press, 2005) 25.

[13] Ibid. Tassi’s study owes much to Ernest B. Gilman, Iconoclasm and Poetry in the English Reformation (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1986).

[14] See Tessa Watt, Cheap Print and Popular Piety, 1550-1640 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991); Anthony Wells-Cole: Art and Decoration in Elizabethan and Jacobean England: The Influence of Continental Prints, 1558-1625 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997); Tara Hamling & Richard L. Williams (eds.), Art Re-Formed: Re-Assessing the Impact of the Reformation on the Visual Arts (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007). As concerns portraits, see Tarnya Cooper, Citizen Portrait: Portrait Painting and the Urban Elite of Tudor and Jacobean England and Wales (London and New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012) and Robert Tittler, The Face of the City: Civic Portraiture and Civic Identity in Early Modern England (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2007).

[15] William Perkins, A Warning Against the Idolatry of the Last Times (1601), quoted in Huston Diehl, Staging Reform, Reforming the Stage: Protestantism and Popular Theater in Early Modern England (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1997) 69. It must be said, though, that Perkins’ position was much more complex.

[16] Marguerite A. Tassi, op. cit. (2005): 21.

[17] Emmanuelle Hénin (Ut Pictura Theatrum: Théâtre et Peinture de la Renaissance Italienne au Classicisme Français, Geneva: Droz, 2003) discusses how the discourses of painting and theatre influenced each other in the context of French Renaissance drama. She does not mention any staged portrait.

[18] These Spanish plays featuring staged portraits are brilliantly analyzed by Laura Bass in The Drama of the Portrait: Theater and Visual Culture in Early Modern Spain (University Park: Penn State University Press, 2008).

[19] Namely, The Picture and The Fortune of Foresta, Prince of Muscovy from Flaminio Scala’s Teatro delle Favole Rappresentative (Venezia: Pulciani, 1611).

[20] Anthony B. Dawson & Paul Yachnin, The Culture of Playgoing in Shakespeare’s England: A Collaborative Debate (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001) 40.

[21] An exception would be the miniatures used in the so-called “Cavalier drama” which very probably were real, highly expensive objects by courtly artists.

[22] Catherine Richardson, “Properties of Domestic Life: The Table in Heywood’s A Woman Killed with Kindness” in Jonathan Gil Harris & Natasha Korda (eds.), Staged Properties in Early Modern English Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002) 145.

[23] Fredson Thayer Bowers, “The Stabbing of a Portrait in Elizabethan Tragedy”, Modern Language Notes, Vol. 47, No. 6, 1932, pp. 378-385

[24] Of course, a connection to the fate of many portraits of Elizabeth I which were stabbed or harmed in order to attack the queen is easily traced.

[25] David Freedberg, The Power of Images: Studies in the History and Theory of Response (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991).

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10 thoughts on “Staged Portraits in Early Modern English Drama

  1. Pingback: After Iconophobia? | the many-headed monster

  2. Hello, thank you for posting the above. I am particularly interested in your reference to the use of miniatures within Cavalier drama. Do you know what sources have been used to suggest that these props were expensive? Were they bespoke items commissioned for the performance of the plays or did the Queen allow the players to use one from her existing collection? In either case it would be interesting to know the source for this information. Many thanks.

    • Thank you very much for your question! Courtly plays that could have used real creations of the limners were, for instance, Arviragus and Philicia (c. 1636) by Lodowick Carlell (who was married to Joan Palmer, an accomplished portrait painter) and the “scandalous” Walter Montague’s The Shepherd’s Paradise (1633), performed by Queen Henrietta Maria and her ladies. Many miniatures by Hilliard, Oliver etc. were made of expensive and exotic materials. A visual clue of a miniature used as a prop is to be found in a portrait of a noblewoman dressed as Cleopatra by an unknown British artist (see Yasmin Arshad, “The enigma of a portrait: Lady Anne Clifford and Daniel’s Cleopatra”, British Art Journal 11.3, Spring 2011: 30–36). As Arshad elucidates, we’re dealing with someone performing Samuel Daniel’s Tragedy of Cleopatra. The woman in the picture wears as a locket the miniature of a man in Roman robes: Antony. Samuel’s play does not feature a staged miniature but a performance could well use such a prop. This may have been influenced by the fashion at the Stuart court of having one’s portrait á l’antique, best represented by Isaac Oliver’s miniature of Prince Henry as a Roman general (c. 1610, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge). Unfortunately, to my knowledge, we do not have documents stating e.g. the Queen’s giving permission to use one of her miniatures, nor impresarios’ commissioning of miniatures: mine is only a hypothesis.

    • Thank you for your suggestion! “Painted cloths”, as they were called, were used (e.g. Henslowe mentions a “clothe of the Sone & Mone”, and Falstaff speaks of his soldiers being “as ragged as Lazarus in the painted cloth”, 2Henry IV IV.ii 28). Painted cloths were cheaper than portraits on wood and could be hung in any part of the stage. As for embroidery per se, I haven’t looked too much into it, but there are excellent articles or chapters on it, such as Chloe Porter’s book Making and Unmaking in Early Modern English Drama (2014); Sara Mueller’s “Domestic Work in Progress Entertainments” (2013); essays centred on the handkerchief in Othello; and esp. Susan Frye, Pens and Needles: Women’s Textualities in Early Modern England (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010).

  3. This is a very interesting piece. Reading your post – and others in the symposium – I realise that early modern drama has been something of a blind-spot in my own understanding of the subject. I found the discussion here persuasive. I wonder if there is much evidence of pre-Reformation items (vestments, images, and so on) being used on the stage, particularly in anti-Catholic scenes?

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