Shakespeare’s picture of ‘We Three’ An image for illiterates?

Katritzky, M. A. (2020). Shakespeare’s picture of ‘We Three’ An image for illiterates? In: Duits, Rembrandt ed. The Art of the Poor: The Aesthetic Material Culture of the Lower Classes in Europe, 1300–1600. London: Bloomsbury, pp. 185–198.


Twelfth Night contains Shakespeare’s most explicit reference to an early modern image commonly referred to as “We 3”. In an economic treatise of 1623, the London merchant Gerard de Malynes succinctly summarizes the formula for producing such illustrations, when recalling: “the picture of two fooles, deriding one another, made by our moderne Paynters, with an inscription: We are three, meaning the looker on for one”. Although the formula is typified by the phrase “We 3”, the number is not fixed. Two, three, four, seven and ten are all popular variants. Whatever the given number, it is generally one more than actually depicted.
The “We 3” phrase underlies a persistent and widespread pan-European emblematic visual formula informing numerous text-image influences and interdependencies. This multi-layered admonition generated coloured drawings in elite friendship albums, but also a rich variety of popular prints, wooden biscuit moulds, decorated earthenware dishes, trade tokens and other modest images clearly aimed at amusing and diverting the economically less privileged. It drew on the late medieval Germanic tradition of folly literature (Narrenliteratur) and its associated images, enriching the works of early modern artists with meaningful complexity, and persisting as a tradition which degenerated into the crude derivative images of a trivial secular "joke". With reference to some key examples of “We 3” representations, my presentation considers the rise of the “We 3” image from around 1600, reasons for its huge popularity in early modern England, Germany, France and Italy, and several prints explicating its challenging and ridiculing of illiterates.

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