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James A. Knapp. Image Ethics in Shakespeare and Spenser.

James A. Knapp. Image Ethics in Shakespeare and Spenser. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. Pp. xii + 231. $89.00.

Breaking with historicist accounts of early modern images in terms of political and religious iconophobia and iconoclasm, James Knapp offers a fascinating and original study of early modern "visuality"--encompassing a range of experiences including ekphrasis and images in the mind's eye--and the ethical questions it provoked. Indeed, the great passion of the book is arguably not for Renaissance literature but for the way in which the ethical response to visual images in Spenser and Shakespeare speaks to twentieth-century phenomenology and "a new body of work on morality and ethics in philosophy, literary theory and cognitive psychology" (16).

Knapp begins by acknowledging that the attraction to and anxiety about images in early modern literature reflects a "critical moment when English culture was undergoing epistemological, theological and aesthetic transformations that would mark the transition from the medieval to the early modern era" (2). Reformation skepticism about vision as a catalyst in spiritual matters (fundamental to Neoplatonic and Pauline discourses) clashed with philosophy's increasing trust in empirical observation, hence "the question of how people ought to be moved by visual experience sparked intense debate" (2). The Reformation privileging of word over image was thus not simply a religious imperative, but "an attempt to separate the reasoned, stable, and implicitly verbal world of morality from the unstable, emotional realm of visual experience" (31). Literary artists, however, embraced the power of visuality to elicit not only emotional but ethical reactions, and chief among them were Spenser and Shakespeare, for whom "a crucial test of one's virtue lies in how one responds to images" (27).

There are two key tenets to Knapp's argument that Spenser and Shakespeare are seen to share. First is the assumption that truth cannot be accessed by a rejection of the material world, but that (citing the phenomenologist Jean-Luc Marion) "the invisible (truth) is only available in ... 'the crossing of the visible" (59). Also underpinning the argument here is the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who offers "uncontested evidence that one must see or feel in order to think, that every thought known to us occurs to a flesh'" and whose insistence on the figure of "intertwining" or the chiasm, to define embodied experience proves highly suggestive for Knapp's close readings of Spenser and Shakespeare. The second assumption relates to the distinction between morality as a set of principles "apart from the accidents of a particular situation" and ethics, which "cannot be thought apart from the singular situations in which human subjects are challenged to make ethical decisions" (24). Drawing upon recent developments in moral psychology, including the work of Jonathan Haidt, Knapp argues that "moral reasoning plays a fairly minor role in guiding human action" (21), Haidt's "automatic intuitive reaction" being initially dominant. Similarly, in Spenser and Shakespeare, "moral conviction is produced phenomenologically, welling up in their characters despite their awareness of established moral principles and in tension with the calm domain of moral reasoning" (22). Both writers are judged to be acutely aware of the tension between morality and ethics, which often begins from the ambiguous moral nature of visual experience.

In the section on Spenser, which considers his translations in Jan van der Noot's Theater for Voluptuous Worldlings (1569), The Shepheardes Calendar (1579), and The Faerie Queene (1590), Knapp moves on from Ernest Gilman's influential assumption that '"[d]epending on the passage of his work that falls open, one can find in Spenser a militant reformer on the question of images or a lover of decoration and display willing to employ more traditional discriminations between their use and abuse'" (48) to suggest a coherent trajectory. Spenser is seen to move from an initial use of illustrations in his work, exploring a material iconoclasm, to a disavowal of illustrations and a more figurative kind of iconoclasm, acknowledging the threat of visual experience to "proper Protestant ethical comportment" (46). A comparison between Spenser and key phenomenologist thinkers including Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty follows: like them, "Spenser recognised that the ethical required something other than system; and, as importantly, he insisted that the whole field of ethics is of this world" (86).

In the four chapters based on Shakespeare plays, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Measure for Measure, Othello, and The Winter's Tale, we find an even more ambitious range of issues emerging from the concept of visuality and ethical response, with particularly penetrating accounts of A Midsummer Night's Dream and Othello. Knapp's discussion of the former centers on the "visual aporia at the heart of ethical judgment: that it is never possible to see with another's eyes" (100). Arguing that the play insists on perceptual vision plus insight, or seeing with the mind's eye, Knapp explains, "In maintaining both poles of the visible and the invisible, the play establishes its ethical imperative to never stop, never opt for either the comfort of reason and law (as do Egeus or Theseus) or the fullness of the sensuous experience (Bottom's experience with Titania). The ethical demand of the visual inheres in the ability to move between both realms, remaining attuned to what has been in order to ethically respond to what is to come" (120). Knapp's treatment of Othello is more tightly focused on vision as "both the most direct conduit to the world as it is and the sense most susceptible to illusion and misinterpretation" (143). Here the problem that the language of the visual is taken as proof is related to a similar difficulty in contemporary philosophy. Similarly, an illuminating discussion of the handkerchief leads to a broader point: this unstable visual object "becomes emblematic of the flaws endemic to empiricist (materialist) epistemologies, flaws that become even more pronounced when such epistemologies guide human ethical action" (153).

As will have become clear, Knapp's book is not for the intellectually faint-hearted. In three pages on Spenser's Guyon, the reader is asked to marshal what he/she knows about Wittgenstein, Levinas, and Derrida, while some familiarity with cognitive psychology and modern art would also be useful. By comparison, the engagement with the Spenserian primary texts is limited. A few sonnets in Theater for Voluptuous Worldlings, the "Aprill" eclogue, and books 1 and 2 of The Faerie Queene (the destruction of the Bower of Bliss merits only a few lines) represent a shaky foundation for Knapp's argument, reinforcing a sense that this was initially conceived as a book about Shakespeare. At the same time, the lack of differentiation between Spenser's use of images as an epic poet and Shakespeare's as a playwright might be problematic for some readers: although Knapp acknowledges that "[i]n each play the power of visuality [is] doubled by the visual nature of theatre" (28), the latter receives very little attention.

The readership for Knapp's book may thus be rather narrower than the simplicity of his title or the often thrilling explication of his introduction suggests. Nevertheless, the intellectual pleasure that he takes in his elegant linking together of sixteenth- and twentieth-century perspectives is compelling; he wears his remarkable erudition lightly. And the new interpretations he offers of some familiar Shakespearean cruxes, in a book that addresses not only Shakespeare's response to the visual image but his perception that "ethical failure ris[es] from moral conviction" (28), deserves the attention of a more general audience.


Roehampton University, London
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Author:Kingsley-Smith, Jane
Publication:Comparative Drama
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2012
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