Imagery in William Shakespeare’s Plays: “We should see each play as an extended metaphor”

 Imagery in a play has certain functions to fulfill mainly to compensate dramatic presentation for the heavy liabilities inherent in its form. This is more so in the case of poetic drama whether of ancient Aeschylus, Elizabethan Shakespeare or modern Synge. The poetic drama for its success must cultivate the virtue of intensity and compactness—a virtue which is very much dependent on functional imagery for its breadth and scope, for rousing in us an acute awareness of the broader perspective against the backdrop of which the dramatic events actually occur, Again, drama, while clinging to its ongoing motion can convey the charge carried by its imagery to achieve a more detailed exposition or fuller elaboration of a character or a theme ma short time, which is not possible in the case of reflective verse and prose with its leisurely pace and descriptive method. These functions of imagery in poetic drama are equally observable at all times and climes in the western world. According to Una Ellis-Fermor, these “may be seen at work in the Greek drama as in that of the Elizabethans, at intervals in the drama of the con-tinent down to the present day and in England again since the revival of the poetic drama in the twentieth century.” (The Frontiers of Drama).


Keeping in view the general statement above about the function of imagery in poetic drama, we may proceed to examine the use of imagery by Shakespeare from his early period to his latest romances. It is not unfair to generalize that imagery in early Shakespeare whether in his poems or plays is rather conventional, drawn mainly from the common heritage of literary images of Elizabethan England. These had a leisurely gait and form expressed generally in simile and conceit as in the case of Venus and Adonis: “The night of sorrow is turned into day.” But the Shakespeare pattern of growth and development—which G. W. Knight very rightly calls the Shakespeare Progress—is very much in evidence in the case of Shakespeare’s imagery. Beginning from the conventional, Shakespeare bad no difficulty in weaving his pattern of the observed and the original—the leisurely form getting compressed and rapid in the process and aiding the dramatic message and purpose with a telling effect charging the atmosphere and rousing the awareness of the auditors or readers as to the real theme and nuances of the play.

While Shakespeare was drawing heavily upon the common stock of Elizabethan literary images, he had also been creating his original images based on his observation Of life. As an acute observer of men and matters, Shakespeare seems to have been quite aware of the imaginative significance of imagery in a play as producing in the simplest way the most powerful effect on his audience. Thus we find that even in early Shakespeare imagery is a potent weapon in his dramatic armory which had more conventional stock than original inventions, although with his development as a mature dramatist the conventional yielded place gradually to the observed and the original. In Shakespeare’s drama of maturity, imagery seems to grow entirely functional and as Una Ellis-Fermor rightly observes, “all imagery that has a functional relation with a play increases dramatic concentration” (The Frontiers of Drama). This function of imagery may be traced back in early Shakespeare too. particularly where the issues involved are vast of which action on the stage can but show a part while the imagery employed keeps constantly before us the thematic development, which otherwise eludes the grasp of ordinary dramatic technique. Take for instance Romeo and Juliet where the vastness of love is momentarily flashed forth by an image whose revelation remains with us throughout the sequent action:
My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep.

Coming to the middle period, we find the conventional and literary images are yielding place to the original and the observed ones ; and these latter images are generally more dramatic as the form of metaphor here has greater compression and more rapidity. In Macbeth we have:
better be with the dead,
Whom we, to gain our peace, have sent to peace,
Than on the torture of the mind to lie
In restless ecstasy. Duncan is in his grave
After life’s fitful fever he sleep well....

 Still later in his development, we find a wonderful combination of the early conventional imagery with the later dramatic ones. Here is Charmian speaking of the dead Cleopatra(Antony and Cleopatra):
Now boast thee, death, in thy possession lies
A lass unparallel’d. Downy windows, close;



And golden Phoebus never be beheld
Of eyes again so royal.

This combination of literary and dramatic images is to be found also in Shakespeare’s later romances. Moreover, Shakespeare images, particularly in his maturity, have another rare quality in that those are not merely a succession of passing and isolated images but instead they form a coherent pattern. An example of this developing and coherent pattern is found in Prospero’s famous speech ( The Tempest) to Ferdinand:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve...... We are suth stuff
As dreams are made on ; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
The pattern of the imagery here is fully and finely developed so that even the dissolution of the great globe itself is subtly related to our little life rounded with a sleep in an organic whole.

In twentieth century special attention began to be bestowed upon Shakespeare’s imagery following the discovery of the influences of the unconscious as unraveled by psychology. However, this psychological approach was anticipated in the 18th century by Waiter Whiter in his Specimen of a Commentary on Shakespeare based on the principle of Association of Ideas as enunciated by the famous British philosopher, Locke. This principle of association of ideas seeks to unravel an author’s mind (in this case Shakespeare’s) by referring them to- associated images in his writings—for instance, flatterers suggest dogs and dogs again suggest sweetmeats etc. as in Henry IV, Part I and Antony & Cleopatra. In the twentieth century the English-speaking world produced three eminent spokesmen and interpreters of Shakespeare’s imagery, namely, Caroline Spurgeon, Una Ellis-Fernor and G. Wilson Knight while the continental Wolfgang Clemen in his famous The Development of Shakespeare's Imagery tried a truly organic method of understanding the images, considering the plays chronologically and tracing the images from the merely iterative to the fully symphonic.




The most methodical study of all seems to be that of Caroline Spurgeon’s in her Shakespeare’s Imagery where she shows that the images are not only recurrent or iterative indicating an under song but some of them are peculiar to particular plays or groups of plays, symbolizing the dominant theme or thought or characters. This is particularly so in the case of tragedies. The unfinished work of C. Spurgeon, who did not live to complete it, was developed by Una Eflis-Fermor in her The Frontiers of Drama. Since Spurgeon’s approach was germinal in respect of iterative imagery, a discussion of her ideas and interpretations is imperative in this connexion.

Iterative imagery “is the repetition of an idea or picture in the images used in any one play”, says Spurgeon and then she adds that it is a marked character of the art of Shakespeare and “his most individual way of expressing his imaginative vision”. In the opinion of Spurgeon, Shakespeare as he writes, has constantly before him some picture or symbol which is recurrent in the form of images throughout a play indicating the leading motives born of the emotions of the theme and shedding lurid light on Shakespeare’s way of looking at things. Thus Romeo and Juliet show the splendour and sweetness of love in a chiaroscuro of light and shade. The preponderant image is light against the background of darkness. We find scattered throughout the play subtle imageries of sunshine, starlight, sunrise, moonbeams, sunset, fire, candles and torches pitted against oncoming darkness, threatening clouds, enveloping mists, showering rains and enshrouding night. In Hamlet the leading motive is woven round the idea of a tumour, a hidden corruption in the body politic, throwing light on Shakespeare’s own notion of the dilemma the Prince of Denmark was confronted with. Macbeth shows the protagonist as a dwarfish ‘and ignoble creature clad in over-sized robes indicating rather clearly at least one aspect of Shakespeare’s own conception of Macbeth’s character, as the dramatist visualized it pictorially.

Shakespeare’s images have often been picked out by critics and commentators to illustrate particular aspects of the dramatist’s thought or theme but a total approach to this imagery as providing an under song or undertone by way of repetition or recurrence of images in any play. or group of plays was made first by C. Spurgeon. She found that this under song of iterative imagery not only added richness and meaning in Shakespeare’s tragedies as alluded to in the earlier paragraph but that it ran through all the early histories while it supplied atmosphere and background in his comedies. In the later romances, it assumed a more subtle symbolism where Shakespeare tended to put across an underlying idea rather than a detailed picture, an idea robed in varied imageries.

“There is a simple but persistent running image through all the early histories from the first part of Henry IV (where there are only touches of it) culminating in Richard II”, opines Spurgeon after a thorough examination of the plays and she continues, the two parts of Henry IV are curiously free from any contiguous imagery of this kind, while King John is a very interesting example of a most strong symbolism which powerfully affects us pictorially and emotionally” While this in sum is the dominant influence of iterative imagery in Shakespeare’s early histories, the comedies show the undersong of imageries in a richer and intense effect. The imagery works in the comedies like A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Much Ado About Nothing to supply the atmosphere and background as also to emphasize or re-echo certain qualities of the play. The woodland beauty of the dreaming summer is very much the creation of the iterative imagery in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The reference to the omnipresent moon, through constant imagery works this miracle from the beginning lines with the wedding of the lovers under the waning of the old moon and coming of the new.
Like to a silver bow
New-bent in heaven
upto the end when the wolf “that behowls the moon” as Puck tells us and when the night is all too ready for the frolic of the fairies. Time and movement are again measured by the moon, which word occurs twenty-eight times in the play. And these are the birds—the dove, the lark, the nightingale, the rock, the cock whose imagistic mention through songs and sounds not only indicates the various activities and sense-values of Shakespeare in the setting of an, English woodland play but also helps in measuring the passage of Time (the cock-crow) in addition to the waxing and waning of the Moon.

An entirely different atmosphere at once gay and sparkling and i: witty and unsentimental dominates the play in Much Ado and this atmosphere is attained through the deft use of very lively images denoting sound and swift movement in dance and music, riding and galloping, shy swift birds flying, the hunting dog running in lighting quick motion. These and other imageries provide the suitable setting for the gay and high-spirited girl born under a dancing star. The imageries in this play create not the languorous moonlit atmosphere of a dreaming wood but a completely different form of English country life of active outdoor works and sport such as bird-snaring and angling. There are also such activities as riding, fishing, shooting, hunting3 fencing, archery etc. imaged accurately to show vital bodily action. These clusters of images point toward certain associated ideas in the mind of the poet offering an interesting study and throwing a curious light on what the psycho-analysts of today would call complexes in Shakespeare’s subconscious mind indicating without doubt the upshot of an essential experience—a sight or emotion which had profoundly affected him.

Through iterative imagery Shakespeare, the man, expresses his many personal feelings particularly his bitterest and deepest mdignations at feigned love and false friendship. A curious set of images appears whenever a play presents false friends or fawning flatterers—the images of dog, cur, candy, melting, sweets etc. come about in a series to complete a detestable picture. We find the great Caesar speaking to a prostrate Metellus   Cimber about to pray for his banished brother in such indignant terms and telling him not to be so fond like a base spaniel-fawning as to hope to melt with sweet words and low-crook’d court’sies that only deceive fools. Then he warns Cimber not to ‘pray and fawn for him’ for then he would “spurn thee like a cur out of my way”. Coming to Hamlet, it all starts with the image of candy. Horatio, the just man ever known to Hamlet when so compared is about to demur at this unsought-for praise when he is checked by the Prince: “Nay, do not think I flatter, for what have I to gain from you?” And he continues that there is no reason to flatter the poor but that ‘the candied tongue lick absurd pomp’, Hotspur cries out in the same vein when speaking of Bolingbroke, before he was king:
Why, what a candy deal of courtesy
This fawning greyhound then did proffer me!
In Antony & Cleopatra, the first image is of the dog meaning false flattery as Antony thinking himself betrayed and deserted by Cleopatra, cries:
The hearts
That spaniel’d me at heels, to whom I gave
Their wishes, do discandy, melt their sweets on blossoming Caesar.
This curious and recurrent sequence of ideas shows, if anything, prevalent Elizabethan habit to have dogs, chiefly of the spaniel and greyhound types, at table, “licking the hands of the guests, fawning and begging for sweetmeats” and after being over-fed dropping the semi-method particles all over the place making it dirty all over. As Spurgen so observantly remarks that Shakespeare, fastidious as he was, perhaps “hated the habit, as he hated all dirt and messiness, especially connected with food”.

Thus the physical aversions came to be linked up with mental disdain, as displayed in the indignant Images in his plays, of dogs, candies, fawning, flattery, greed and gluttony. In one play, in fact, namely, Timon of Athens, the central image is provided by the constant picture of dos-.--dogs fawning and eating and lapping and licking—dogs being stoned and spurned and kicked—a mangy dog, a sleeping dog, an unspeakable dog, a beggar’s dog. And the whole subject of the play is about a man (Timon) betrayed by false friends and flatterers on which Shakespeare utters here some of his profoundest and bitterest thoughts. It will be evident from the discussions above and the discussions that follow that Shakespeare had the habit of returning to a similar picture or group of pictures under the Stress of similar emotional stimulus and this particular habit helps us to determine the genuine authorship of a Shakespeare work. We refer below recurring images from two different plays to show how this habit acts as a touchstone of Shakespeare’s authorship. The first picture comes from The Winter’s Tale invoking the image of one “naked, fasting upon a barren mountain” in “still Winter tn storm perpetual” ; the second picture comes from Henry VI part II, where again one is referred to as “standing naked on a mountain top, where biting cold would never let grass grow, and think it but a minute spent in sport.” Both the pictures are used for measuring time lived in anguish and suffering and both come out with a boiling gush of tormented anger, showing Shakespeare working under similar emotional stimulus.

coming to the tragedies we find Shakespeare’s peculiar fascination for the corporal body as a running symbol, the body seen some special aspect or angle, which is continuous throughout a play—in Lear it is a tortured body, in Hamlet a diseased one, in Coriolanus the different members and functions of the body etc.

To sum up, we may say that Shakespeare’s many personal experiences, characteristics and even points of view can be detected through his imageries and it is quite possible from a detailed study of his imagery to build up not only a fairly credible picture of his physical propensities including his personal tastes and interests but also a general outline of his total approach to life. And when we have laboured through this arduous process, we are rewarded with that “soul-life” of a Shakespearean play of divine worth. In the words of G. W. Knight, its perennial fire is as mysterious, as near and yet as far, as that of the sun, and, like the sun, it burns on while generations pass.’

Ardhendu De


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An English Teacher;    M. A.(English) , D. Ed., B. Ed., UGC- NET Qualified

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