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Iconographic Research in English Renaissance Literature: A Critical Guide.

Peggy Munoz Simonds. New York: Garland Publishing, 1995. xx + 539 pp. $84.

The study of iconography, broadly considered, is a vast and slippery field. It is, as Erwin Panofsky has stated in a passage quoted by Peggy Munoz Simonds with apparent approval (24), an area within art history that focuses on "the subject matter or meaning of works of [visual] art, as opposed to their form." Thus all visual configurations, even what literary critics have traditionally called "imagery," have been lumped together under the rubric "iconography." Unsurprisingly, therefore, it is not a methodology that finds favor among post-modernists, who often have regarded iconographic research as looking for rigid meanings or authorial intent--and such reductive scholarship may certainly be found in abundance. However, there is much methodologically rigorous work of very great importance for literature as well as the visual arts, as a quick perusal of Simonds' Iconographic Research in English Renaissance Literature will demonstrate.

Simonds' guide to the held is an annotated bibliography containing 322 entries, and is necessarily selective in its choice of books and articles for inclusion. The complexity of much of the scholarship requires that she should warn the user that her summaries and comments, often incisive and pungent, cannot be substituted for perusal of the books and articles themselves. Though, for example, she devotes more than four and one-half pages to Roland Mushat Frye's The Renaissance Hamlet, she can only give a general idea of the richness of this book in its analysis of iconographic detail in Shakespeare's play.

It is useful that Simonds has placed considerable emphasis on the drama, since the theater is in fact a visual art--an art that by its very nature brings visible forms to life before audiences. That the stage demanded fixed visual pictures in the Renaissance has been disputed, and there is some merit in such objections. But on the whole audiences of the time expected and responded to certain visual configurations; words indeed often served as stage directions to point the actors to conventional gestures and actions that seem also to be reflected in the forms designating meaning m prints and emblem books of the time.

The commonplace notion of the Renaissance as a period which turned away entirely from the highly visual emphasis of the late Middle Ages and instead embraced language, both spoken and written, is thus a distortion. To be sure, Reformation iconoclasm may have destroyed much of the visual dimension of the past in its attempt to eliminate "abused" images, but sight was still widely regarded as chief of the five senses. Thus Truth, in an emblem discussed in several of the items in Simonds' annotated bibliography, was pictured as the daughter of Time, and hence as a figure being drawn by Time out of a dark cave into the light. Truth therefore is still seen in the Renaissance as a quality that requires depiction as a visual symbol, not merely an allegorical female who, tucked away in darkness, can only be talked about.

Naturally, in any selective listing of the sort provided by Simonds one would necessarily wish that she had made some different choices. The section on "Stylistic Studies," because it deals with style rather than with meaning, could well have been set aside. And among general studies I would not have left out Don Cameron Allen's Mysteriously Meant: The Rediscovery of Pagan Symbolism or Jean Seznec's The Survival of the Pagan Gods, nor, for example, would I have omitted Russell Fraser's Shakespeare's Poetics in Relation to King Lear. In addition, I would have listed the published catalogue of the library of the Warburg Institute, which is one of the most important reference works for iconographic study. But this is not to detract from the utility of Simonds' book, which is all the more useful because of its excellent index.
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Author:Davidson, Clifford
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1996
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