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Invocation of the Visual Image: Ekphrasis in Lucrece and Beyond


In discussing Shakespeare’s verbal accounts of pictorial representations, scholars have tended to presuppose a conflict between the two modes, where Shakespeare describes pictures in order to affirm the triumph of words. If, on the other hand, we look in his writing for cooperation between the sister arts, it becomes apparent that each in a different way seeks to make present to consciousness the matter it portrays. Early modern writers value the illusions images can create; Shakespeare’s invocation of visual representation generally praises the skill of the artist and seeks to co-opt for his own work the ability to show a simulated reality. Sadly, his writing also recognizes the impossibility of the project: the substance, reality itself, remains beyond the reach of representation, whether in words or pictures. Shakespeare’s ekphrasis tests the powers of the signifier to their limits, to reveal that presence is not an option. At the same time, it shows what the signifier can do when it acknowledges those limits. In fiction to name is to evoke possibilities that exceed the reality we already seem to know.

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