Shakespeare’s Shadows

In the late 1500’s-early 1600’s, England experienced an explosion of plays written, performed, and attended. Concurrently, England witnessed an influx in the publication of artistic manuals.

Working to establish their own national artistic identity, Renaissance visual artists published documents that focused on artistic theory. Therefore, paragone debates arose in England as writers—both authors and visual artists—argued for the superiority of their form over all others. Partially fueled by a desire to gain patronage over other artisans, paragone writers also wrote in an effort to gain social mobility and respect for their art.

The visual arts held a precarious position in England during the Renaissance. England’s tumultuous religious landscape meant that issues of idolatry affected the way in which people received the visual arts. Drama, being both a verbal and visual form both participated in and transcended paragone debates, thereby disrupting the paragone’s traditional verbal/visual binary. 

Because of the concurrent rise of English drama and artistic theory, Renaissance dramas are full of reference to artistic terminology and frequently use portraits as stage props. Reference to visual arts within Renaissance drama are inherently negative and often signal toward dishonesty, falseness, and the intent to deceive.

Shakespeare’s Shadows began as an extension of Jennifer A. Royston’s dissertation research, which focuses on the meta-dramatic function of dramatizing the visual arts in Renaissance plays. Royston created Shakespeare’s Shadows as a way to explore how and why Shakespeare employs artistic terminology throughout his corpus. She knew that visualizing the locations and frequency to which he uses artistic terminology could uncover potential trends and significant relationships between verbal and visual, thereby exposing new ways of understanding Shakespeare’s texts. In all, the site argues that in contrast to paragone arguments, verbal and visual were actually intertwined, owed much to each other, and through the form of drama, were inextricably connected.

Shakespeare’s Shadows refers of course to the playwright, and then to the Renaissance synonym for portraiture; the term ‘shadow’ indicates a falseness, stands in contrast to substance, and quite perfectly represents how Renaissance dramatists use artistic terminology throughout their plays. The website currently houses six data-visualization graphs, each of which explores a specific aspect of Shakespeare’s dramas, or related texts.

Users may interact with the first four graphs; hovering or clicking on particular points will bring users to Voyant, the tool used to create each of Shakespeare’s Shadowsgraphs. Users may manipulate these graphs to search for their own terms, focus on an individual term or play, and so on. Each graph is accompanied by basic methods for understanding the data presented and a short analysis to point the user to specific areas of interest.

Jennifer Royston

2014-2015 CHI Grad Fellow Cohort

PhD Candidate, Department of English