Date of Award


Document Type

Open Access Dissertation


Comparative Literature

First Advisor

Lawrence Rhu


This dissertation investigates the claim that “The truest poetry is the most feigning” by examining ekphrasis and its relation to skepticism in Shakespeare. Two fundamental claims comprise my argument: first, Shakespeare uses ekphrasis to acknowledge doubt in order that his poetry might become most true; second, ekphrasis is the unique means by which the spectators–at times both within and outside of the play– may question their own skepticism and additionally consider their role and place as audience.

In the introduction, after discussing key characteristics of ekphrasis conveyed in the Shield of Achilles, I argue that the spatial focus of Horace’s ut pictura poesis results in a distancing effect that allows for an ethical dimension within ekphrastic expression: in short, ekphrasis invites, and perhaps demands, the spectator’s recognition of her own consciousness as spectator, resulting in heightened self-knowledge. In the chapters that follow, I discuss ekphraseis that are centered around questions of language: in Chapter 2, I argue that the Mouse-trap allows Hamlet to test the representational fidelity of words; in Chapter 3, I assert that the wonder and momentary cessation of speech produced by viewing the statue of Hermione repairs tragedy; last, in Chapter 4, I argue that the Sonnets present framed moments of the failure of epideictic speech, and that these moments are inextricably linked with the development of a wholly novel poetic.Throughout I observe dramatic and poetic prototypes from antiquity in light of the many overlapping characteristics shared by ekphrastic and intertextual approaches.


© 2014, Robert P. Irons