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]

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