Erzählen im Drama / Drama als Erzählung

‘Facing’ Shakespeare’s Narratives and Ovid’s Ars Amatoria*

by Sibylle Baumbach

The most attractive stories are those which are not told. This also applies to Shakespeare’s tragedies where some of the greatest storytellers never unfold their masterpieces. Othello, for instance, withholds the tales that have captured Desdemona, the tales that have fed her “greedy ear”[1]. Old Hamlet follows a similar pattern when he renders himself capable of telling a blood-freezing, hair-raising story but refrains from giving the verbal proof. Announced but not delivered, the unspoken, and – according to the Ghost – to the human ear unspeakable, tale continues to echo throughout the play until it is finally replaced by the story of Hamlet, or Hamlet. The latter qualifies as literary heritage because it evokes a very similar reaction in its recipients, who are reported to “look pale and tremble” (5.2.276). Hence, as preface to a story that, as Hamlet indicates in the last scene, also still remains to be narrated, the Ghost’s withheld account prepares the audience for the horrifying events they are about to witness by prescribing their reaction to them. Compensating the unspoken, Old Hamlet unfolds another tale that serves as blueprint, or more specifically: as ‘negative’, to the former. Whereas this second account is verbalized even though, providing an example of what it means to be poisoned through the ear, it is no less deafening than the former, its physical effect or facial print-off is not specified. However, the face still marks the focal-point: Hamlet’s reaction, which is described in physical terms (1.5.93 f.), certainly evokes a corresponding visual subtext. When he eventually turns the story of murder into a pantomime followed by a play, Hamlet does not only adhere to the blueprint supplied by the Ghost, moving from the unspoken to the spoken, from the visual to the verbal, but, like his father, he directs the view to a most telling yet, at the same time, most complex and ambiguous narrative: The human face.[2]

As an area where impression and expression meet, the face becomes an inventory for multifaceted, even conflicting stories. This is especially the case in Hamlet, a play which reflects upon theatrical mimesis and the actor’s capacity to perform a certain role, probing its efficacy by its affective quality. Thus, to adapt my initial claim, the most attractive stories are those that not only remain to be told but are communicated by nonverbal signifiers, the most prominent of which is the human face. Even though it is the eye rather than the ear that is caught by facial expression, in Shakespeare’s plays, where we are supposed to see what we are told, the face must be sketched verbally in order to be perceived. As far as it holds a story which can be read out onstage, the human countenance qualifies as a kind of narrative.

In what follows I will explore these ‘facial narratives’ and attempt to illustrate the ways in which they contribute to Shakespeare’s dramatic storytelling. Even beyond displaying (and covering) certain individual or typological traits and transmitting part of a figure’s (auto-)biography, facial expression becomes a vehicle for imparting stories. The messenger is the most obvious example of a figure carrying a tale that seems to look out of him.[3] Whereas in this case, transparency is used as a dramatic device in order to overcome the difficulty of letting an intruder on the scene speak out immediately, there are other instances where the face induces a very specific literary subtext into the play. While, in the first part of my paper, I will try to position ‘facial narratives’ within Shakespeare’s theory of drama, the second part will focus on a close reading of Romeo and Juliet in order to demonstrate the ways in which the face introduces an intertext that opens up a new dimension to the play. But let us first face Shakespeare’s narratives.

Guiseppe Arcimboldo, The Librarian
Guiseppe Arcimboldo, The Librarian

It is not unlikely that Shakespeare thought of Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s The Librarian (1566) when he let Lady Macbeth embark on a close reading of her husband: “Your face, my thane, is as a book where man / May read strange matters” (Macbeth, 1.6.60 f.). Not that the soldier Macbeth has a lot in common with the bibliophile archivist and curator of Maximilian’s Kunstkammer, Wolfgang Lazius, to whom Arcimboldo pays a jesting kind of homage by metamorphosing him into a literary artefact. Nor does Shakespeare’s hero serve as a symbol of the great proliferation of books. What inspires the connection between the two figures and thus links Shakespeare’s verbal and Arcimboldo’s visual art – after all, Shakespeare is said to have had his “mannerist moment”[4] – is the observation that both Macbeth and the librarian are claimed to be legible.

As far as it depicts man as a construction of facial and bodily narratives, the Librarian can be regarded as a manifesto to physiognomy, the art of character–reading, which Shakespeare frequently alludes to in his oeuvre. Assuming a sympathetic interrelation between body and mind, physiognomy infers a person’s disposition and character from the features and lineaments of his face and body where, either by birth or by habitual repetition, the psyche is believed to have left its traces or, to return to Arcimboldo, its imprints.[5] Even though The Librarian was painted two decades before the renaissance of physiognomy began,[6] Arcimboldo was obviously familiar with physiognomic concepts. Comprising a vast number of written ‘characters’, the librarian’s books can be regarded as variables for certain bodily and facial features, which although they are not specified seem legible and thus conceptualise physiognomic reading.

In compliance with physiognomy, Arcimboldo recommends to start at the top of the book-pyramid. The pun is tempting: It is a hairy business to begin reading here since the volume which so invitingly opens up its pages reveals yet another kind of ‘character’, which not only challenges physiognomic axioms but, to a certain extent, denies that the human body is intrinsically legible: The book is handwritten. While graphologists argue for an intimate relation between one’s hand and one’s character, the fact that the one and only volume whose content Arcimboldo discloses is written by hand triggers the question to what extent the individual partakes in constructing, even rewriting, his or her (inner and outer) disposition. By granting man a co-authorship in the liber corporis, which was believed to carry the signature of the divine, its lucidity is no longer guaranteed.

While Early Modern concepts of self-fashioning destabilize the neo-platonic equation of physis and psyche, a strong trust in the readability of man persists. It is this dual perception of the human body and its semiotic quality, the tension between seeming and being, which marks the core of Shakespeare’s critical reception of the “art of physiognomy (The Rape of Lucrece, 1394 f.). Thereby the face becomes the chief battlefield. Reflecting Early Modern theories of physiognomy, Shakespeare’s characters take very different stands towards the face’s legibility. On the one hand, facial expression is considered as being both unstable and unreliable since it responds to manipulative forces and succumbs to individual, rhetorical skills. On the other hand, the immediacy in which emotional states and temporary passions are translated onto the surface and become visible in the countenance indicates a transparency that, up to a certain extent, can neither be controlled nor repressed.

A close analysis of the dynamics of a physiognomic reading, the significance of facial expression, and Shakespeare’s own “art of physiognomy” shall be given elsewhere.[7] As far as the scope of this paper is concerned, these preliminary remarks on the potential and inherent ambiguities of facial expression shall suffice to tackle the question as to how far the face can be regarded as narrative.

Speaking of ‘facial narratives’ in general, and their function in drama in particular, might seem problematic if not paradoxical since, at first glance, the face does not seem to meet the requirements of narrative: It neither literally ‘tells’ a story nor does it embrace “a temporal dimension indicating the passing of time, and a spatial dimension giving a sense of space”[8]. Rather than conveying a there and then of classical narrative, the face communicates a here and now, something that is “hypothetically actual”[9]. However, as far as the countenance contains genealogical information, records certain events or experiences, and holds part of its owner’s biography in its lineaments, it shows some narrative potential. Besides, its expressions are not stationary but constantly in motion and, being connected to certain passions of the mind, convey some sense of causality. Thus, regarding its translation into words, the face requires a narrative, rather than a descriptive, text. In contrast to a full-scale narrative, however, a story communicated by the face is always fragmentary. It serves as an abstract to a greater tale and relies on the participation of its recipient, who is expected to “piece out”[10] the imperfections of stage performance where necessary and thus complete the narrative web, taking on the strings presented to him. Concerning the term ‘facial narratives’ and its relation to drama, there are two further predicaments to consider: First, drama and narrative are traditionally perceived as opposing categories and second, the term “facial narratives” implies that narratives do not require a mediator whereas per definitionem they do.[11] To comment on the first objection: As recent studies on this topic have emphasised, narrative is a trans-genre, occurring in epics as well as in drama.[12] Shakespeare, for instance, quite frequently employs epic modes of storytelling such as prologue, epilogue, and choric figures. Even narrators enter the stage, who, like Gower in Pericles, not only introduce the audience to the plot but lead them through it, which takes me to the second objection, the absence or presence of a narrator.

Whereas it is certainly true that narrative requires a narrator whilst facial expression, which is per se eloquent, seems to tell itself, in Shakespeare’s “narratology of drama”[13] verbal and visual storytelling coincide. Especially with regard to physiognomic discourse, Horace’s dictum “either an event is acted on the stage, or the action is narrated” (aut agitur res in scaenis aut acta refertur)[14] no longer holds true since facial narratives operate on both the mimetic and the diegetic level, crossing the boundaries between showing and telling.[15] Faces become visible only as far as they are ‘read out’ on stage. Certainly, they can continue to communicate where words have failed but what they perform has to be verbalized in order to be perceived. Hence, like Lavinia’s “map of woe” (Titus Andronicus, 3.2.12), each face requires a narrator, who bridges the gap between mimesis and diegesis and transforms narrative to drama.

There are several figures qualifying for this position: First, the dramatis personae that undertake physiognomic readings onstage and mediate between object and recipient, translating what the former thought but did not verbally express. Second, the ‘characters’ that are being read and, by controlling or even manipulating their facial expression, alter their text in order to convey a very specific impression. And third, the spectators or readers, who take the narrative threads proposed by the dramatis personae, weaving them into a story while, at the same time, weighing the accounts of the “internal narrators”[16] against their own physiognomic judgement. In any case, there is no guarantee that the readings presented from an intradiegetic perspective can be relied on since their quality ultimately depends on the reading-skills, the physiognomic competence, or simply the goodwill of the beholder. Iago, for instance, entangles Othello in a narrative web by prompting a fatal misreading of the facial subtext that accompanies his conversation with Cassio.

As he shall smile, Othello shall go mad;
And his unbookish jealousy must conster
Poor Cassio’s smiles, gestures and light behaviours
Quite in the wrong. (Othello, 4.1.98–101)

What Othello does not know and, observing the scene from a distance, cannot hear is that Cassio is talking about his relationship to Bianca, and not, as insinuated by Iago, about an affair with Desdemona. The audience, however, to whom Iago has unfolded his strategy, is aware of this delusion. What becomes apparent in this scene is that unlike narratives that are entirely diegetic, those transmitted via the face do not suspend the action but evoke a strong dramatic moment. Confronting reader and object onstage, face-reading is enacted as a dynamic process, promoting a close interaction between text, narrator, and audience, between actors and spectators. It encourages the latter, who are present at the textual exegesis but emotionally uninvolved, to participate in the physiognomic discourse, contribute to the constructive reception of character and read in those ‘books’ which are opened up for them onstage.

The progression from book to face (and back again) becomes most evident in Macbeth and Hamlet. Lady Macbeth commences the ‘reading’ of her husband by the reading of his letter before moving on from the written to the living character, whom she eventually likens to a book. The same pattern occurs in Hamlet. Interrupted in his reading by Polonius, Hamlet transfers the character he claims to have encountered in the book onto the intruder at the scene. Since Polonius somehow fits the commonplace portrait of the grey-bearded, wrinkled, old man suffering from “a plentiful lack of wit” (Hamlet, II.2.198 f.), he indeed seems to have stepped out of the page straight onto the stage. As indicated by this mode of ‘characterising’, the correspondence between verbal and visual texts is a major issue in Hamlet. Especially within the first three acts, written words seem meaningful only as far as they are related, or relatable, to facial features. Thus, Hamlet clears “the book and volume” (1.5.103) of his brain of all records, making room for his observation that “one may smile and smile and be a villain” (1.5.109). Although he recognizes the ambiguous rhetoric of the face, the visual continues to supersede the verbal. As already suggested at the outset of this paper, the facial text not only serves to support, fulfil or verify a story which has already been told but also assists in prefiguring a tale that has yet to be unfolded. The latter applies to the (again only anticipated) facial reaction to Old Hamlet’s untold account. Apart from interlinking the three stories of purgatory, murder, and revenge – which according to Grumio’s definition would all qualify as “sensible tales”[17] – the reference to facial (and bodily) features serves to prescribe the tales’ reception and thus provides a case in point of “the dramatist’s manipulation of response”[18]. When Hamlet addresses the spectators witnessing the closure of his story as “you that look pale and tremble” (5.2.276), this expression of shock and horror echoes Horatio’s reaction to the Ghost’s appearance since he too is reported to “tremble and look pale” (1.1.51). Considering that Hamlet appoints Horatio as narrator, one might even speculate that paleness, in this context, distinguishes a receptive face as far as it resembles a blank page awaiting inscription.

Judging from their physis, some of Shakespeare’s figures seem more prone to outer inscription than others.[19] Whereas Othello’s black and inky face corresponds to a page blotted by numerous imprints (which could be read as referring to both the great variety of tales covered by the repertoire of Othello, the master-storyteller of the first act, and the vast number of unfavourable inscriptions imposed on him by his fellow-citizens), Desdemona’s visage remains unblemished and blank, a “fair paper” (4.2.73), on whose surface Othello seeks the lineaments of the word “whore” in vain. Being embedded in the greater narrative of the plot, faces become documents of a specific ‘printing press’ as far as they relate to certain techniques of reading and writing, which operate within the play. Furthermore, they can be regarded as recording both social and literary conventions, which exist outside the play. Hecuba, for instance, a figure Shakespeare’s contemporaries would have been familiar with, serves as a favourite blueprint for a very specific facial narrative. By borrowing her story, the First Player in Hamlet manages to imitate and adopt her expression of grief and sorrow. By borrowing her looks, Lucrece turns her visage into a “map which deep impression bears / Of hard misfortune” (The Rape of Lucrece, 1712 f.), recalling a story of unspeakable woe.

Unlike the books of Arcimboldo’s librarian, whose titles and authors are not identified, some of the facial narrations Shakespeare evokes are very specific. Thus, Lavinia’s “map of woe”, whose story seems impenetrable at first, can be read through Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Whereas in Titus Andronicus the literary subtext is brought onstage as a manual to decipher the unspoken and communicate the unspeakable, in Romeo and Juliet book and face merge into one, proposing a narrative whose highly suggestive print is displayed yet not fully unfolded. But, as Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” famously reminds us, “those unheard [melodies] are sweeter”[20]. Of the powerful subtext, Lady Capulet gives a good impression:

This night you shall behold him at our feast;
Read o’er the volume of young Paris’ face
And find delight writ there with beauty’s pen.
Examine every married lineament
And see how one another lends content;
And what obscured in this fair volume lies,
Find written in the margin of his eyes.
This precious book of love, this unbound lover,
To beautify him only lacks a cover. (Romeo and Juliet, 1.3.82–90)

Nowhere in Shakespeare’s writing is the face’s likeness to a book as neatly depicted as in this scene.[21] Line by line, Lady Capulet unfolds the praised volume before her daughter, instructing her in the art of reading faces. Unlike in Othello where Desdemona is enchanted by the art of storytelling, the precarious moment of falling in love in Romeo and Juliet relies on both verbal and visual perception. Moreover, falling in love with a face that bears not only beauty’s but love’s own signature seems a self-fulfilling prophecy. For knowing how to read becomes equivalent to knowing how to love. But Lady Capulet’s image involves more than homage to her gorgeous son-in-law in spe and a hidden reference to the femme couverte, the legal state of a married woman. Like Lavinia, though less explicit, Paris bears Ovid’s handwriting. However, it is not the Metamorphoses that become visible in his features but, more appropriately to the theme of this play, the Ars Amatoria, a text which offers a new perspective on Shakespeare’s tragic love story and the concept of love it proposes. Not only does it deepen the dialectic between the notion of true, affective love and patriarchal marriage-schemes, letting the latter eventually succumb to the former, but it also reinforces Juliet’s part in the relationship. Furthermore, as Ovid works his way through the rhetoric of love, teaching his readers how to fashion themselves and “shift and change like Proteus[22] (I.761), heexplores the narrative capacity of the face in a way that connects to Shakespeare’s critical approach to this polyphonic medium and “the art of physiognomy”.

A possible reference to the Ars has already been suggested by Jonathan Bate in connection with Juliet’s refusal of Romeo’s oath.[23] Her claim “At lovers’ perjuries, / They say, Jove laughs” (Romeo and Juliet, 2.1.134–135) echoes the Ars where the same image is evoked: Iuppiter ex alto periuria ridet amantum (I.633). Yet whereas Ovid sees in Jove a collaborator, who laughs with, and not at, his fellow-deceivers about the folly of those that are betrayed, and encourages his reader to charm women by false promises, Juliet evokes this image in order to re-establish language as a trustworthy vehicle for the declaration of true love. In view of the different quality of language, Bate sees Romeo and Juliet as an inversion of the Ars. While this observation is certainly valid, Bate does not further explore the impact of Ovid’s didactic poem on Shakespeare’s play and hence misses the full scope of this highly suggestive and utterly satiric subtext, which becomes apparent not only in Juliet’s comment on the craft of language but also in many other instances of the play.

The lewd, lascivious content of the Ars, which Stephen Gosson condemns as “that trumpet of Baudrie”[24], does not oppose a potential correspondence but rather finds an ally in Mercutio, who induces sexual innuendo into the play. It is more than likely that an Early Modern audience would have recognised the allusion to Ovid’s poem in the reference to “this precious book of love”.[25] Irrefutably, Shakespeare himself was familiar with the Ars. He explicitly refers to it in The Taming of the Shrew:Disguised as a schoolmaster, Lucentio manages to continue his courtship of Bianca whereby he seems to follow Ovidian principles: „I read that I profess, The Art to Love.”(Taming, IV.2.8). Yet Bianca is a well-matched opponent as far as she appears to be aware of Ovid’s playful precepts, which are so powerfully enacted and contested in the struggle between Kate and Petruchio. The question of who tames whom sets off a fast-flying battle of wits, in which both male and female have an equal share. However, in the end, there is no winner. Lucentio is sceptical that his shrewish sister-in-law has eventually succumbed to her husband. In fact, Kate’s submissive mode in the final scene might be read as a subversive affirmation, or rather: another strategic move in the game of love.[26]

After all, the Ars addresses women as well as men, instructing both sexes how to win, catch, and keep the adored. Even if the male takes a more active part in bringing about the relationship – courtship, according to Ovid, remains his business –, woman nonetheless has an equal share in the rhetoric of love. It is particularly this parity of the sexes that makes the Ars a fruitful subtext for Romeo and Juliet. This connection is substantiated by the fact that Ovid is said to have written his love-compendium for a young woman called Julia, the daughter of the emperor Augustus, who was known to be a notorious adulteress. It is not unlikely that, by bringing up the “book of love”, Shakespeare alludes to certain incidents that led to the Ovid’s exile. Yet these incidents are hard to reconstruct. There has been a lot of speculation about the reasons for his banishment. Even though Ovid’s relationship with Julia is but one version of the story, Shakespeare’s contemporaries were probably fairly convinced by it since it would appear in the life history of Ovid that was included in most editions of the time.[27] The story can be reconstructed as follows:

After the death of her second husband, Agrippa, Julia was forced into an unhappy, political marriage by her father and soon made a name for herself by her licentious lifestyle. In 2 BC, the same year in which the Ars was published, she was accused of adultery and banished to the Island Pandateria. Although Ovid came under attack for his erotic writings, his part in the scandalous incident could not be proved. It seems beyond doubt, however, that Julia’s daughter, Julia Agrippina, born in 15 BC, who was raised by the emperor’s family and became patron to Ovid, could have been inspired by the “Craft of Love”[28] when she followed in her mother’s footsteps. Neither did she attend to the Roman virtues of frugality and chastity nor did her adultery escape punishment. This time, Ovid, who was even said to have had an affair with her, was exiled as well. Julia’s adultery might have given the impulse for his banishment since she was a case in point for the lewd lifestyle propagated in the Ars, by which “yonge myndes might be styred to wantonness”[29]. As far as Ovid’s didactic poem proclaimed concepts of love and marriage that disparaged Augustan matrimonial law, it is likely that the Ars was a deciding factor that led to his exile.

Evoked within the first act, preceding the scene in which Romeo and Juliet meet for the first time, the Ars serves as a kind of prelude to what will become a compelling, passionate love-story. Thus, it is by no means bound to Paris. Even though the beauteous youth is mentioned in the Ars and, as stated in the Heroides, seems to adhere to Ovid’s art of love,[30] the connection between Paris and the Ars is not one of content but of form. Besides asserting the aesthetic quality of “this precious book of love”, Paris serves as an agent to, and imitation of, action in the Aristotelian sense.[31] He is less a character than a function, a medium and messenger, introducing a potential blueprint for the love-story that is about to unfold. As such, he corresponds to the Ars which is but a draft to a greater narrative. It is “a script to be performed”[32], which by referring to suitors, courtiers, and famous couples in mythology, both joyful and forlorn, suggests numerous strategies concerning the different ways of launching a love-relationship. In Shakespeare’s play, this love-manual is set down in facial print, waiting to be read. Having been recognised, it directs the audience’s sympathies towards a new, rebellious kind of love, which breaks with conventions of the time.

It has already been stated that the ways in which faces are drawn and read in a play connect to the context in which they are embedded and reflect social and literary conventions. As a trope for encoded love,[33] the book-metaphor corresponds to this notion. However, to conclude that it complies with Early Modern patriarchal views of marriage would do more justice to the speaker than to the book. After all, the latter has not yet been bound. Furthermore, the allusion to the Ars strongly opposes this view. Apart from serving as a manual for Roman youth, teaching them the rhetoric of love whereby some conventional patterns are recalled, it offers promiscuous, hedonistic views that, by undermining Augustan matrimonial law, challenged contemporary concepts of marriage. But why would Lady Capulet suggest to her daughter a lascivious reading that even glorifies extramarital love affairs? Taking the Ars as subtext designed less for the dramatis personae than for recipients outside the play, one could argue that, like Paris, in this particular scene, Lady Capulet serves as messenger to bring Ovid into the play. However, one could even make a case for a kind of non-compliance on her part regarding her husband’s decision to marry Juliet to Paris. Not only does she rebuke Capulet’s furious outburst (her admonishing “Fie, fie – what are you mad”[34] seems to be directed not to her daughter but to her husband), she also remains completely silent during the plotting of the hasty marriage. Although it would go too far to call her a subversive force – after all, she conforms to her husband in banishing Juliet from her sight –, it seems odd that she should know that Romeo has fled to Mantua (III.5.88 f.) when he has only just leapt out of the window. Even more peculiar is the fact that her daughter, on being presented “this precious book of love”, is the same age (“she’s not fourteen”, 1.2.12) as Augustus’ granddaughter at the time the Ars was published. Just like Augustus, who tolerated Ovid’s presence in his house, Lady Capulet, in her appraisal of Paris, unintentionally provides the grounds for a full-scale scandal. For Juliet will find her “book of love” and attend to it while Romeo takes over the role of the “unbound”, passionate, volatile lover, whom Juliet binds to a game of love, which shows at least some Ovidian traits.

The fact that Romeo does not resemble the volume sketched by Lady Capulet but, rather than embodying Ovid, emerges from the first scenes as a living compendium of Petrarchan clichés does not impede Juliet’s choosing. On the contrary, the masking at the ball allows for a successful ‘misreading’ on her part. As far as it can be regarded a subversive element, undermining conventional rules and legislation, the masking complies with the Ovidian subtext: It serves as prerequisite for Romeo and Juliet to meet and thus sets off the game of love. The covering of faces, which is made very explicit in the text (Mercutio, Romeo, Old Capulet and Tybalt all refer to it), prepares the precious moment at which Juliet naturally fails to read the lineaments of the visage but nonetheless discloses her ‘book of love’ and, by seeking its content, hits the mark.

Sealing her encounter with Romeo that, again quite strikingly, is cut short by her mother craving to have a word with her daughter, Juliet’s comment “you kiss by the book” (1.5.107) allows for different readings. It seems convincing, however, that Juliet does not congratulate her courtier for the artfulness of his kiss, but rather rebukes him for its artificiality. As far as her comment can be read as a reproach of Romeo’s bookish Petrarchism, Juliet follows the track of Ovid’s Ars, which not only parodies didactic, literary, elegiac love–schemes but also displays the “‘conventionality’ of conventions”[35]. While Romeo certainly lacks a certain nonchalance in his courtship, he follows at least one piece of advice recorded by Ovid, when he is bold enough to take kisses even though none are given (illa licet non det, non data sume tamen)[36]. It is Juliet, however, to whom the book is presented. Indeed, she shows greater affinity to the Ars and knows the rules of the game better than her suitor, countering Petrarchan clichés with a more practical, down-to-earth Ovidian approach to love.

Notwithstanding her tender age, Juliet “transcends Romeo in maturity, complexity, insight, and rhetorical dexterity”, an observation which prompts Carolyn Brown to read the play as “Juliet’s Taming of Romeo”[37]. Grounding her arguments primarily on the imagery of falconry and Juliet’s power “to lure this tassel-gentle back again” (2.1.204), Brown conceives the heroine as “in many senses the most aggressive and self-contained in her pursuit of love”[38] of Shakespeare’s female characters. Since in teasing, taunting, and eventually taming her lover, she seems complicit with strategies taught by the Ars, Juliet deserves a place amongst “Shakespeare’s learned heroines in Ovid’s schoolroom”[39]. As Brown points out, it remains disputable if Juliet could have been aware of Romeo’s presence when she has her first great ‘monologue’ on the balcony.[40] As the scene proceeds, Juliet exploits the darkness of the night and describes herself as having “a maiden blush” (2.1.138) on her cheek. This use of verbal make-up not only demonstrates a dramatic (and, as it has been argued, narrative) convention in Shakespeare’s plays but also recalls Ovid, who cynically recommends the night to women as the perfect stage for a favourable self-fashioning since it hides “faults both great and small” (Heywood, III.892).

For Ovid, love rhetoric is deeply connected with facial rhetoric.[41] Thus, it is not surprising that the Ars should enter the play via the face. Many precious moments in Romeo and Juliet are intensified by more or less complex facial narratives. Yet the ways in which they are to be read does not always comply with common patterns. At their parting, Romeo and Juliet mirror each other’s pale complexion (3.5.57 f.), which according to Ovid is an indispensable feature every lover must adopt. In Shakespeare’s play, however, it also forebodes oncoming death. Furthermore, the messenger, Juliet’s nurse, is rebuked for looking sad and insinuating distressing news whilst, in fact, bringing good tidings (2.4.23 f.). In the same way in which Shakespeare probes conventions of facial rhetoric, he examines conventional patterns of love. Thereby Ovid serves as an ally to Shakespeare as well as a rival.

Recalling common literary patterns, Ovid advises men to adopt a pale complexion and win the maid as an ally while instructing women to deceive watchful keepers and have their lovers “come in through the window, though it were easier by the door” (Heywood, III.605). In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare adheres to these rules. However, Ovid’s advice is only evoked in order to be overturned. As indicated by Juliet’s playful remark to “frown, and be perverse, and say thee nay” (2.1.138), by which she seeks to oppose the impression that she might be easily won, a remark which surpasses the rules of the game by openly displaying them, it becomes obvious that whilst certain elements in Romeo and Juliet resonate with the Ars, in the end, both conventional love and Ovid’s cynical account of it are overcome. This moment of departure from the Ars coincides with Romeo’s, or respectively: Ovid’s, banishment from Juliet.

With lovelorn Romeo, who enters the stage in the first act, Shakespeare brings back Ovid from exile. Benvolio’s attempts to reintroduce his friend to life, drag him out of his solitude, and urge him to examine other beauties recall the Remedia Amoris, which Ovid wrote after being banished from Rome. Following his role as praeceptor amoris (Ars, I.17), Ovid considered it his duty, having instructed young lovers how to win their love, to assist the rejected lover in overcoming his grief. Similarly, Benvolio promises to “pay that doctrine” (1.2.231) and make Romeo sociable again. Inverting Ovid’s chronology by beginning the play with the remedies for unhappy love, which wee written in order to prevent forlorn lovers from committing suicide, Shakespeare makes room for both a tragic ending and a romantic concept of love. Rather than a dramatic script, the Ars provides the foundation for Shakespeare to revive a notion of ‘true love’ and reintroduce a concept, which he at first, by referring to the Ovidian text, seemed to deconstruct. Just like Juliet who dismisses Paris in favour of “her Romeo” (5.3.309), whom she will eventually bind, Shakespeare, in the end, grounds his play on a different pattern of love. Enclosed by prologue and epilogue, the Ars Amatoria is one of several readings, which he opens up to the recipient within the first scenes, urging him to contribute to the narrative the play is about to unfold. Yet when Shakespeare finally claps it shut, he has given it a new cover and has composed a new “precious book of love” whose multi-faceted physiognomy provokes numerous possible readings on which to embark.


*  I would like to thank Raphael Lyne for his critical discussion of this essay.

[1]  William Shakespeare, Othello,ed. by Stephen Greenblatt et al., The Norton Shakespeare (New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1997), 1.3.148. All quotations from Shakespeare’s œuvre are from this edition.

[2]  The narrative potential of the face in Hamlet becomes a central topos in Lars-Ole Walburg’s current production at the Kammerspiele in Munich. Preceding the precarious scene in which Claudius’ visage is being scrutinised, Hamlet instructs Horatio in the art of face-reading. For this purpose, he pins to the wall five photographic pictures of George W. Bush, which show his face within the first five seconds after he was informed of the terror attack on September 11, 2001. Not surprisingly, yet after some initial reading difficulties, Horatio spots a document of guilt in the presidential wrinkles, which seems to attest some prior knowledge of this disastrous incident. Besides pointing to the intricacy of physiognomic reading practice, Walburg demonstrates how multiple stories can be projected onto a certain facial expression and sheds some light on the way in which Shakespeare employs facial narratives as productive, yet inherently ambiguous, texts.

[3]  Cf. Cleopatra: “The business of this man looks out of him / We’ll hear him” (William Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra, 5.1.50)

[4]  Jean-Pierre Maquerlot, Shakespeare and the Mannerist Tradition. A Reading of Five Problem Plays (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1995), p. 171.

[5]  The term physiognomy as it will be used in this essay comprises both physiognomic and pathognomic theories. Whereas physiognomy deals with the permanent structures and contours of face and body, pathognomy studies temporary expressions and passions, which notwithstanding their transitory nature can by frequent repetition leave a permanent signature on the human physis. However, since this terminological distinction was not made until the 18th century, this paper will subsume both static and dynamic facial expressions under the term physiognomy.

[6]  Giambattista della Porta’s De humana physiognomonia (1586) has been regarded an important landmark of physiognomy, reviving the art of character-reading, which goes back to antiquity and the pseudo-Aristotelean treatise Physiognomonica (dated to the end of 4 BC). Numerous writings touching upon the subject of a close correspondence between physis and psyche confirm the renaissance of physiognomic thought towards the end of the 16th century. Cf. Martin Blankenburg, „Physiognomik, Physiognomie“, in Joachim Ritter, Karlfried Gründer, eds., Historisches Wörterbuch der Philosophie, vol. 7 (Darmstadt: WB, 1989), 955–963. For the significance of physiognomy in the Early Modern era confer Ulrich Reißer, Physiognomik und Ausdruckstheorie der Renaissance. Der Einfluß charakterologischer Lehren auf Kunst und Kunsttheorie des 15. und 16. Jahrhunderts, Beiträge zur Kunstwissenschaft, vol. 69(München: scaneg, 1997).

[7]  Cf. Forthcoming PhD thesis by the author, ‘Let me behold thy face’ – Eine physiognomische Lektüre von Shakespeares Tragödien.

[8]  Manfred Pfister, The Theory and Analysis of Drama (Cambridge et al.: Cambridge UP, 1988), p. 196.

[9]  Keir Elam, The Semiotics of Theatre and Drama (London and New York: Methuen, 1980), p. 111.

[10] Henry V, Prologue, 23.

[11] The absence of a mediator has been regarded as a key difference between narrative and drama. Elam, for instance, writes: “Dramatic worlds […] are ‘seen’ in progress ‘here and now’ without narratorial mediation”. Elam (1980), p. 111.

[12] Ansgar Nünning and Roy Sommer, „Drama und Narratologie: Die Entwicklung erzähltheoretischer Modelle und Kategorien für die Dramenanalyse“, in Vera Nünning and Ansgar Nünning eds. Erzähltheorie transgenerisch, intermedial, interdisziplinär (Trier: WVT, 2002), 105–128. Cf. Jonathan Hart, “Narrative, Narrative Theory, Drama: the Renaissance”, Canadian Review of Comparative Literature 18 Nos. 2–3 (1991), 117–165. For Shakespearean narrative see Rawdon Wilson, Shakespearean Narrative (Newark: Delaware UP and London: Associated UP, 1995) as well as Barbara Hardy, Shakespeare’s Storytellers, Dramatic Narration (London and Chester Springs: Peter Owen, 1997). Neither of these, however, has explored facial storytelling.

[13] Cf. Manfred Jahn, “Narrative Voice and Agency in Drama: Aspects of a Narratology of Drama”, New Literary History 32 (2001), 659–579.

[14] Horace, Ars Poetica, v. 179.

[15] Yet, it seems more than plausible that, in Shakespeare’s performance-oriented texts, references to facial expression serve as internal stage directions and thus are always accompanied by a visual para-text.

[16] Brian Richardson, “Point of View in Drama: Diegetic Monologue, Unreliable Narrators, and the Author’s Voice on Stage”, Comparative Drama 22.3 (1988), 193–214, p. 194.

[17] Cf. Taming of the Shrew, 4.1.53f: Curtis,“This ‘tis to feel a tale, not to hear a tale.” Grumio, “And therefore ‘tis called a sensible tale.”

[18] E.A. Honigmann, Shakespeare: Seven Tragedies Revisited. The Dramatist’s Manipulation of Response. (Basingstoke and New York: palgrave, 2002 (1976)), pp. 16–29.

[19] This does not only apply to the face: Falstaff, for instance, with his massive belly, incorporates a globe of (projected) stories. See Joachim Frenk, „Falstaff erzählen und zeigen“ in this edition of WSO.

[20] John Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn” in The Poetical Works of John Keats, ed. by H. W. Garrod (London: Oxford UP, 1959), p. 209.

[21] The face-as-book is a common metaphor in Shakespeare. Cf. Ann Thompson and John O. Thompson, Shakespeare. Meaning & Metaphor (Brighton: Harvester Press, 1987), pp. 165–170.

[22] Thomas Heywood, Art of Love I.761. In the following, I will cite from Heywood’s translation. (M.L.Stapleton, Thomas Heywood’s Art of Love. The First Complete English Translation of Ovid’s Ars Amatoria (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000).

[23] Jonathan Bate, Shakespeare and Ovid (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), pp. 178–180. Regarding the “book of love”, Gwynne Blakemore Evans has already noted Paris’ likeness “to a kind of Ovidian Ars Amatoria, which ‘unbound’ (as a lover) only fulfils itself when ‘bound’ (as a husband)” (William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet,ed. by Gwynne Blakemore Evans, The New Cambridge Edition (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003), p. 87n88). Further possible connections between Shakespeare’s oeuvre and the Ars have been stated especially for Venus and Adonis and The Taming of the Shrew. See, respectively: M.L.Stapleton, ”Venus as Praeceptor. The Ars Amatoria in Venus and Adonis”, in Philip C. Kolin ed. Venus and Adonis. Critical Essays (New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1997), 309–321, and Vanda Zajko, „Petruchio is ‘Kated’: The Taming of the Shrew and Ovid”, in Charles Martindale and A.B. Taylor eds. Shakespeare and the Classics (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004), 33–48, p. 43.

[24] Stephen Gosson, The Schoole of Abuse, ed. by Edward Arber, English Reprints (London: Murray & Son, 1868), pp. 19–20.

[25] Not only that Ovid, “a man of gret auctorite” (Chaucer, The House of Fame,2158) was the most influential classical author, he was also regarded the “unchallenged expert of love” (Jeremy Dimmick, „Ovid in the Middle Ages: Authority and Poetry“, in: Philip Hardie, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Ovid (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002), 264–287, p. 264). See also: Colin Burrow, „Re-embodying Ovid: Renaissance afterlives“, in Hardie (2002), 301–319, p. 301 and Raphael Lyne, „Ovid in English translation“, in Hardie (2002), 249–263. The first English translation of Ovid was printed in 1513 and contained the Ars: The Flores of Ovide de Arte Amandi with Theyr Englysshe afore Them. London: Wynkin de Worde, 1513 (Stapleton, 2000), p. 5. Once it had been published, Heywood’s Loves Schoole became “the most widely available and pervasive rendition of an Ovidian text in pre-Augustan England” (ibid., p. 7). Stapleton assumes that Heywood’s translation was printed between 1609 and 1613 while manuscripts could have been available before that time since Heywood probably began his translation in Cambridge in the 1590s.

[26] Cf. Zajko (2004), p. 43.

[27] In his biographical account of Ovid, Thomas Cooper, while asserting that the reasons for Ovid’s banishment remain uncertain, refers to the Juliet–story. Thomas Cooper, Thesaurus Linguae Romanae et Britannicae… Accessit dictionarium historicum et poeticum propria vocabula. London 1565, sigN2v–N3r. (quoted in Bate (1993), p. 1. Furthermore, George Chapman’s Ovids Banquet of Sence (1595) and Ben Jonson’s Poetaster (1601) focus on the love relationship between Juliet and Ovid. In Aston Cockayne’s The Tragedy of Ovid (1662), the connection between Ovid’s banishment and the Ars is made explicit. Thus the poet himself recalls: “For the composing of my Art of Love / (…) I was exciled” (IV.3.4–6) and, in the end, dies of broken heart after being told of Juliet’s death. For the connection between lover and exile as well as Ovid’s reception in Early Modern times see Raphael Lyne, „Love and exile after Ovid“. In: Hardie (2002), 288–300. For the history, myth, and reception of Ovid’s exile and biography see Ronald Syme, History in Ovid (Oxford: Clarendon, 1978), 215–229, and Fausto Ghisalberti, “Medieval Biographies of Ovid”, Jahrbuch des Warburg Instituts 9 (1946), 10–59.

[28] Gosson (Arber [1868]), p. 20.

[29] Cooper, N3r. Quoted from Bate (1993), p. 1.

[30] In the seventeenth letter of the Heroides, Helen recalls Paris’ secret schemes of love, which are reminiscent of Ovid’s love rhetoric.

[31] Cf. Aristotle, Poetics, translated by Stephen Halliwell (Cambridge/Mass.: The Loeb Classical Library, 1995), p. 51: “[…] tragedy is mimesis not of persons but of actions and life.”

[32] Cf. Duncan Kenney, The Arts of Love. (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993), p. 65.

[33] Oliver Lubrich reads the play along the lines of Nicolas Luhmann. Oliver Lubrich, „‘You kiss by th’ book’ – Der Mythos der ‚wahren Liebe‘ und seine Dekonstruktion in William Shakespeares Romeo and Juliet“, Poetica 33 (2001), 69–98, pp. 83–86.

[34] Romeo and Juliet, 3.5.157. Cf. ibid., 3.5.175.

[35] Molly Myerowitz, Ovid’s Games of Love (Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1985), p. 35: “[…] Ovid underlines and exaggerates […] the conventions of didactic poetry, even as he stresses those of erotic poetry and roman love elegy. Here, too, the effect goes beyond mere literary parody to draw our attention to the ‘conventionality’ of convention, both literary and erotic.”

[36] Ovid, Ars Amatoria, I.664.

[37] Carolyn E. Brown, “Juliet’s Taming of Romeo”, Studies in English Literature 36 (1996), 333–355.

[38] Ibid., p. 335.

[39] Heather James does not mention her, though. Heather James, „Shakespeare’s learned heroines in Ovid’s schoolrooms“, in Martindale (2004), pp. 66–85.

[40] Brown (1996), p. 341.

[41] Ovid also wrote a compendium for women, Medicamina faciei femineae, which deals especially with facial make-up.


Der bei Shakespeare vielfach verwendete Vergleich von Gesicht und Buch lenkt den Blick auf die narrative Physiognomie oder vielmehr: die physiognomische narratio. Die kommunikative Fläche des Gesichts, auf der Ein- und Ausdruck zusammentreffen, dient in Shakespeares Dramen dazu, bestimmte Geschichten, sowohl biographische als auch literarische, aufzurufen. Die Miene, die an sich nicht selbst ‚spricht‘, sondern stets nach einem Erzähler oder Übersetzer verlangt, zeigt hierbei ein narratives Potential, das über die Vermittlung einer bestimmten individuellen, charakterologischen Textur hinausgeht. Sowohl explizit – wie bei Lavinia, deren Pein ihr ins Gesicht geschrieben steht und schließlich mit Hilfe von Ovids Metamorphosen entziffert werden kann – als auch implizit kann über das Gesicht ein bestimmter Subtext aufgerufen werden, der sodann als Leseanweisung der folgenden Dramenhandlung unterliegt. Letzteres ist in Romeo and Juliet der Fall, wenn Paris’ “book of love” auf Ovids Ars Amatoria verweist.