A conflict between verbal ways of knowing and visual ways of knowing seems to be as old as western civilization. Plato in Phaedrus 250.d pronounces sight "the most piercing of our bodily senses." The writer of the Gospel of John gives primacy to hearing: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God" (John 1:1-2, KJV). The written word combines, of course, both ways of knowing, and for much of its history, especially since the invention of movable type in the fifteenth century, western civilization has depended on the written word as its primary means of communication beyond face-to-face contacts. The development of photography, motion pictures, television, and computers with display screens has challenged the long-standing balance between the visual and the verbal—or so it seems to many observers. Guy Debord takes an extreme view in The Society of the Spectacle (1967, English translation 1994). According to Debord, the proliferation of images in contemporary culture has emptied those images of any reality. At the same time, it has turned the viewers of images into passive recipients of mass-produced commodities. The result is alienation on a large scale:
The origin of the spectacle lies in the world's loss of unity, and its massive expansion in the modern period demonstrates how total this loss has been: the abstract nature of all individual work, as of production in general, finds perfect expression in the spectacle, whose very manner of being concrete is, precisely, abstraction. The spectacle divides the world into two parts, one of which is held up as a self-representation to the world, and is superior to the world. The spectacle is simply the common language that bridges this division. Spectators are linked only by a one-way relationship to the very center that maintains their isolation from each other. The spectacle thus unites what is separate, but it unites it only in its separateness (22).
Present in Debord's analysis are three considerations that are worth keeping in mind, whether the medium in question is computers, film and video, stage productions, or print:

  • the phenomenology of the visual image
  • the semiology of the visual image
  • the politics of the visual image.
Let's take those up one by one.

Phenomenology attends to the ways in which we come to know things. Thus Debord insists on the separation in The Society of the Spectacle between the viewer and the thing viewed. That physical separation creates, according to Debord, a psychological separation, so that I know the things I see in mass-produced images quite differently from the way I would know them if I shared the same physical space with them. Spectacle, Debord claims, elevates sight to the place occupied by touch in more unified cultures. If so, that originary unity may have been lost in western civilization a long time ago. Don Ihde in "Image Technologies and Traditional Culture" points out that framing visual images, changing the scale, and removing them from their original context is in fact a Renaissance phenomenon. Its exemplars are the telescope and the microscope. As far as Shakespeare's plays are concerned, we are dealing in all forms of visual media with the same basic elements:

  • bodies
  • space
  • time
  • sound
The questions we need to bring to each visual medium are two:
  • how these four elements are related to one another within the image itself and
  • how these four elements are related to one another with respect to the viewer vis-à-vis the image.

The semiology of the image is a matter of asking, "What does this image signify? Of what does this image stand as a sign?" Jean Baudrillard in "Simulacra and Simulations" (1981, English translation 1988) seconds Debord's claim that images in our own culture have been detached from any verifiable meanings. The result is an existential awareness of the arbitrariness of meanings that seems quite different from the assumptions of Shakespeare and his contemporaries:
The transition from signs which dissimulate something to signs which dissimulate that there is nothing, marks the decisive turning point. The first implies a theology of truth and secrecy (to which the notion of ideology still belongs). The second inaugurates an age of simulacra and simulation, in which there is no longer any God to recognize his own, nor any last judgement to separate truth from false, the real from its artificial resurrection, since everything is already dead and risen in advance (170-171).
The whole question of the semiology of visual images has been considered most carefully, perhaps, by Roland Barthes in his classic essay "The Rhetoric of the Image" (1964). Barthes wants to know whether an image as an analogical copy of something else can, in itself, constitute a consistent system of signs or whether it must remain an assemblage of symbols that "really" belong somewhere else. In effect, Barthes is asking, "How does an image mean?" His answer involves a distinction among three different kinds of messages:

  • a linguistic message
  • a denotative message
  • a connotative message.
Attending to the first kind of message, we can "read" an image by turning it into a verbal statement or by relating it to a pre-existing verbal text. (Barthes goes on to distinguish between anchorage, in which a verbal text directs the reader in how to read the image, and relay, in which words and image work together to create meaning. A captioned illustration in a printed book is an example of anchorage; a film is an example of relay.) Attending to the coded iconic message, we see what is denotatively present in the image. Attending to the denotative message, we recognize the elements in the image for what they purport to be: a man, a chair, a tree. We pay attention to the signifieds in the image. Attending to the connotative message, we see the elements in the image on their own terms: an arrangement of curved lines, color, shading. We pay attention to the signifiers in the image. A given culture, as Barthes points out, has established protocols for reading images in each of these three ways. We need to consider historical differences in these protocols of reading images as we move from computers to film at different points in cinematic history to stage productions at different points in theater history to printed images at different points in bibliograpic history.

Finally, Debord directs our attention to the politics of visual images. Who produces the images? Who sees them? Under what circumstances? For what ends? The staged images in original productions of Shakespeare's plays offer themselves as a case in point. Those images were produced using the most expensive pieces of professional equipment that the acting company owned: its props and costumes. Spectacle was part—perhaps even a large part—of what paying customers had come to see, but different customers enjoyed different views of that spectacle, depending on what they could afford to pay. Patrons who had paid only a penny to stand in the yard got to look up at the spectacle on the platform several feet above them; customers who paid more got to look at the spectacle on the same plane or, for even more money, to look down at the spectacle from the upper galleries or the lords' room. Even in the original productions of Shakespeare's plays, therefore, images involved power relations of people vis-à-vis each other and vis-à-vis the image in question. In attending to computers, to film and video, to contemporary stage productions, to printed images of whatever era we need to keep these political relations in mind.

Printed Media/Stage Production/Film & Video/Digital Media