Shakespeare’s “portrait of a blinking idiot”: transnational reflections

Katritzky, M. A. (2014). Shakespeare’s “portrait of a blinking idiot”: transnational reflections. In: Henke, Robert and Nicholson, Eric eds. Transnational Mobilities in Early Modern Theater. Studies in Performance and Early Modern Drama. Ashgate, pp. 157–175.



Shakespeare’s evocations of images are often said to draw on textual rather than visual sources. It has even been claimed that “whereas the place held by music was assured and central in Shakespeare’s universe, equivalent to that of the word, the visual arts, we may have to conclude, were ancillary to his creative purposes.” My analysis of the “portrait of a blinking idiot” indicates Shakespeare’s complex engagement with interrelated visual and textual sources on the very cusp of a newly emerging transnational emblematic theme. Although considerations of the persistent "We three" theme flourish at the margins of various modern cultural, literary, and art-historical enquiries, and specialists in diverse fields cite relevant images and text-image links, few venture beyond "Twelfth Night" to draw on this broad transnational emblematic tradition and its implication for readings of Shakespeare’s plays. Here, some of his references to this theme are identified, and contextualized within a discussion of its medieval antecedents and selected early modern visual as well as more purely literary manifestations.
Early developments in the "We three" tradition support interpretation of the image Arragon variously describes as a “silver’d o’er’ fool” or “the portrait of a blinking idiot” not as an artistic portrait, but as a mirror image of his own face, viewed either in the silver casket’s polished interior, or in a mirror within. Here, this “portrait” is contextualized within an overview of the related fool-mirror and "We three" themes, and Shakespearean manifestations augmenting their widely recognized occurrence in "The Merchant of Venice" and "Twelfth Night" with significant newly-identified traces in plays such as "King Lear", "Hamlet", and "A Midsummer Night’s Dream". All bear tangible witness to the extent to which the transnational intellectual heritage of medieval folly literature engaged the mind, and shaped the work, of Shakespeare.

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