Was Shakespeare an Eidetiker? 

1972, Previously unpublished


    It is a commonplace that Shakespeare was richly endowed with visual imagery, and his use of it for poetic and dramatic purppses has been widely studied, e.g. by Edward Armstrong (1946), Wolfgang Clemen (1951) and Caroline Spurgeon (1952). However there are passages in his Sonnets which suggest that, more than merely being richly imagin­ative, especially in the visual modality, he was actually an Eldetiker.

    In the Encyclopedia of Psychology (eds. Eysenck, Arnold, Meili, 1972), eidetic imagery is so defined: “vivid visual images of specific objects that are not present in actuality are 'seen' by the subject (usually a child), who is generally conscious that these are not directly sensed images of the external world." A fuller account is given by Ulric Neisser (1966), from Which the following is quoted:

An image is called 'eidetic' when (1) the subject describes it as having a clarity and definiteness comparable to that of external objects; (2) he 'projects' it, i.e. sees it as occupying a particular place in space; (3) he can 'examine' it as he might examine a real picture; and (4) it does not shift its position with eye movements as an afterimage would.

   According to Neisser, Haber and Haber (1964) found 12 children who were Eidetikers among 151, almost the whole enrollment of a New Haven elementary school. There is nothing like an 8 per cent frequency of Eidetikers among adults in the western world, so that most children must outgrow the capacity; but a very few  retain it into adult life.   

    Again according to Neisser, Doob (1964) found eidetic imagery very common among rural Nigerian adults, but not among members of the same tribe living in the provincial capital. A recent annotation in Nature (May 19, p. 132) [1] reports experiments conducted along very sophisticated neurophysiological lines which “provided striking evidence for the existence of at least detailed memory of texture and produced results that seemed qualitatively unlike those for normal observers." Nevertheless there remain many uncertainties:‑ how and when the capa­city begins to fade in those children who have it, whether the capacity is qualitatively different from abilities used in normal visual recall, whether it can be obtained by training.

    The key Sonnet that suggests that Shakespeare was able to evoke visual imagery of extreme distinctness is S. 27:

   Weary with toyle, I hast me to my bed,
   The deare repose for lims with travaill tired,
   But then begins a journy in my head
   To worke my mind, when boddies work's expired.
   For then my thoughts (from far where I abide)
   Intend a zelous pilgrimage to thee,
   And keepe my drooping eye‑lids open wide,
   Looking on darknes which the blind doe see.
   Save that my soules imaginary sight
   Presents thy shaddoe to my sightles view,           (Q. thy their)
   Which like a jewell (hunge in gastly night)
   Makes blacke night beautious and her old face new.
      Loe thus by day my lims, by night my mind,
      For thee, and for my seife, noe quiet finde.

It is clear that though night is made beautious, the whole experience is disquieting and has a compulsive element. It is perhaps much the same experience, though now described as occurring in dreams and without psychological distress, which comes up in S. 43:

   When most I winke then doe mine eyes best see, 
   For all the day they view things unrespeeted,
   But when I sleepe, in drearnes they looke on thee,
   And darkely bright, are bright in darke directed.

And again in S. 61:

   Is it thy wil, thy Image should keepe open
   My heavy eielids to the weary night?
   Dost thou desire my slumbers should be broken,
   While shadowes like to thee do mocke my sight?

The image of the lovely boy is taken into the mind's eye of the poet as early in the sequence of sonnets as S.15, and in S.24:

   Mine eye hath play'd the painter and hath steeld,
   Thy beauties forme in table of my heart,

In S.46, eye and heart

       are at a mortall warre
   How to devide the conquest of thy sight,
   Mine eye, my heart thy pictures sight would barre...
   And sayes in him thy faire appearance lyes.

In the next sonnet (47), heart and eye are leagued, and

   With my loves picture then my eye doth feast...
   For thou not farther then my thoughts canst move,
   And I am still with them, and they with thee.
     Or if they sleepe, thy picture in my sight
     Awakes my heart, to hearts and eyes delight.

Not only is the friend's image retained, but the poet claims also to be able to visualise in all completeness the writings confided to him (S.122):

   Thy guift, thy tables, are within my braine
   Full characterd with lasting memory,
   Which shall above that idel rancke remaine
   Beyond all date even to eternity.
   Or at the least, so long as braine and heart
   Have facultie by nature to subsist
   Til each to raz'd oblivion yeed his part
   Of thee, thy record never can be mist:

The poet had given his friendsnotebooks away; and there seems to reason to doubt him when he says he can remember everything there written "full characterd" in the friend's handwriting.

    At times visual, and, it seems, eidetic, imagery gets between Shakespeare and the reality of the world around him (S. 113):

   Since I left you, mine eye is in my minde,
   And that which governes me to goe about,
   Doth part his function, and is partly blind,
   Seems seeing, but effectually is out:...
   For if it see the rud'st or gentlest sight,
   The most sweet‑favor or deformedst creature,
   The mountaine, or the sea, the day, or night:
   The Croe, or Dove, it shapes them to your feature.
      Incapable of more repleat with you,
      My most true minde thus maketh mine untrue.

"Untrue" here is a noun (Seymour‑Smith, l963). As is usual with Shakespeare, his truth is on several levels, not less metphor­ical than literal. His most true mind is not only that of his mental aspects which he knows for his most accurate and reliable guide, i.e. visual perception, memory and associated systems; it is also that part of his mind that remains totally faithful to his friend. Both of these functions are here turned against him, leading to some degree of mental blindness to the world around, literally, and also in a deeper metaphorical sense.

    The subtle ways in which his most true mind betrays him come to the fore again in the dark lady sonnets. Here again heart and eye are at war, and the poet is bewildered by the contradictions (S.l37:

   Thou blinde foole love, what doost thou to mine eyes,
   That they behold and see not what they see:

And (S.148):

   O me! what eyes hath love put in my head,
   Which have no correspondence with true sight,
   Or if they hase, where is icy judgment fled,
   That censures falsely what they see aright?

The lady has captured his eyes, and his soul rebels against it. The dilemma is one encountered by lovers at times since the world began, but an abnormally painful one for a poet whose exceptional visual powers were relied on as his truest servants.

[1] Cf. "Alpha Rhythm of an Eidetiker" by A.D.J.R., Nature Vol. 237 19 May 1972 (1972 as composition date of the present essay was thus inferred, ED)