illustrating shakespeare

illustrating shakespeare

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

That's gotta hurt

Many of Shakespeare's greatest works are infused with violence: Macbeth, Hamlet, Othello, Romeo & Juliet, King Lear, to name but a handful. The playwright knew that a corollary of violence is a life being lived at the edge of hereafter. One enters a world of startling clarity and directness that so often gets lost in the tranquilizing fog of more temperate times.

Illustrators of Shakespeare's works often make effective use of the visceral nature of violence as an attention grabber, as arresting in our twenty-first century as it was in Shakespeare's late sixteenth. Or in Homer's Bronze Age, for that matter.

Pictured above are two superlative book cover illustrations, for Shakespearean plays that are steeped in violence. At top is the work of the late great British artist Paul Hogarth, whose illustration for The Penguin Shakespeare Henry V is, remarkably, as humorous as it is memorable. Many an arrow flew at Agincourt; one can almost imagine a bemused Shakespeare laughing over Hogarth's whimsy, which might have seemed out of place if Henry V had a darker mood, like Macbeth. In this case, it works very well.

The illustration for the cover of the Signet Classic Julius Caesar is by the renowned, New York City-born Milton Glaser, a 2009 recipient of the National Medal of Arts and an exhibitor of one-person shows at the Museum of Modern Art, Lincoln Center, and in Europe. In Glaser's depiction of Caesar, the bloody deed has been initiated; some of the co-conspirators can be imagined waiting but for a moment to sink their blades into Caesar's body and share in the guilt of so epic a deed.

Artists and photographers alike refer to images such as these as having a "clean" background, devoid of anything peripheral, clear of any distractions that might cause the eye to wander. Sometimes less is more, and these are two compelling cases in point.

Along with the many posts below, most dealing primarily with Shakespearean book illustration, the reader might also like to visit the Agecroft Hall blog   , and in addition get both a visual and audio feel for the fascinating world of Agecroft by clicking on  .

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Remorse, regret, revulsion

Agecroft Hall is presently hosting the annual Richmond Shakespeare Festival; the play of the moment is Richard III, one of the premier tales of villainy in all of English literature. In it, we've got plenty to be dismayed about, not the least of which is the volte face of Lady Anne Neville, who does the unthinkable: she marries the nefarious Richard of Gloucester, the very man who killed her husband and his father: Edward, Prince of Wales and the devout but hapless King Henry VI.

Pictured above, from The Dramatic Works of William Shakespeare; Illustrated (Boston: Phillips, Sampson & Co., 1850) is a D.L. Glover stipple engraving of Lady Anne in an appropriately nauseated posture, obviously disconcerted at the very idea of becoming Richard's bride. But to the altar with the up-and-coming Boar she did indeed go, regretting it for the rest of her short, sad life.

As mentioned in an earlier posting, the volumes of this particular set of Shakespeare's works were evidently published with a woman's sensibilities foremost in mind: each play is accompanied by an engraving of a prominent female character. Of all the engravings, none depicts a more emotionally divided, restless soul than Lady Anne.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Grinding friendship to powder

Artists must find it a bit heartrending to depict the one scene in Shakespeare that virtually no one ever wanted to contemplate: the rejection of Falstaff by his erstwhile friend, Prince Hal, now raised to the English throne as King Henry V and in no mood for nonsense.

The two had enlivened Shakespeare's King Henry IV, Part 1 with their delightful wit. Readers and playgoers can be easily forgiven for harboring hopes that Fat Jack Falstaff would prosper and shine under the protective wing of the new monarch.

But such was not to be: Prince Hal had long since seen the need to

                                           "....imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That, when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wond'red at
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapors that did seem to strangle him...."

                                                           (Act I, Scene 2)

All this required a renunciation of his misspent, benignly feral youth: it was suddenly time to act like a king and act like a king he would. Prince Hal could no longer let the besotted Falstaff besmirch his kingly dignity, as he made clear during his coronation procession in Henry IV, Part 2: 

"I know thee not, old man. Fall to thy prayers.
How ill white hairs become a fool and a jester!"

                                                          (Act V, Scene 5)

Shown above is one of the delightfully whimsical illustrations of the artist Jack Wolfgang Beck (1923-1988), "whose curious figures recall the childhood dreamlife" (Village Voice, Oct. 31, 1956).
The Chicago-born Beck, one of the founding exhibitors of The Loft Gallery in Manhattan, depicted the rotund Falstaff as open-armed in anticipation of the royal affection that was about to be heaped upon him, only to have the newly-crowned Hal suddenly turn cold, disdainfully waving away his former boon companion.

Time and fortune can grind everything, including friendship, to powder.   

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Fuseli and the Boydell enterprise

Henry Fuseli (1741-1825), Swiss-born and with a somewhat iconoclastic temperament, had this feather in his cap: he helped raise the stature of Shakespearean illustration with a prolific outpouring of paintings that reflected his own tumultuous inner nature. Fuseli's work unquestionably furthered the genre of theatrical painting as distinct from the type of historical painting that had characterized much of the previous century.

And evidently nothing inspired him to reach for the brush more than Shakespeare: Fuseli was to become a prominent contributor to John Boydell's Shakespeare Gallery in London's Pall Mall. The gallery enjoyed a high-profile yet short-lived run, from May 1789 until 1803, by which time the Napoleonic menace had wreaked havoc on a great many British commercial enterprises. At least Fuseli's works were in good company: Sir Joshua Reynolds and Benjamin West, among others, also had contributed paintings on Shakespearean themes to the gallery.

Boydell's overall plan had involved using the gallery not only as a profitable venture in itself, but as a publicity vehicle for the subscription sale of sets of Shakespeare's works featuring fine engravings done from the Gallery paintings. Evidently, some of the engravings turned out to be somewhat less than fine, and the production of the entire set of works slowed to a crawl, creating a great deal of unfavorable publicity for Boydell. Ultimately, the works of Fuseli, Reynolds, and the others were auctioned off in 1805.

Despite the gallery's demise, Fuseli continued to create paintings of Shakespearean scenes; they clearly appealed to his sense of the dramatic. Pictured above is his Lady Macbeth Seizing the Daggers (1812, oil on canvas, now at the Tate in London). In his younger days, Fuseli had done a watercolor of the famous actor David Garrick in this same scene; the version above shows the interest he developed in the starkly rendered human form. In Shakespeare's Macbeth, he could hardly have chosen a darker moment.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Delacroix and Shakespeare

Our posting of June 10th makes passing reference to one of the giants of Romanticism in art: Eugene Delacroix. His painting Liberty Leading the People (1830; oil on canvas, now in the Louvre) has long been regarded as an iconic masterpiece that is as relevant in our own time as it was when the Frenchman laid hand to brush in the 19th century.

Delacroix did not wish to submit to the restrictions of classicism. His varied interests extended to both French and English literature, with Shakespeare and Sir Walter Scott among the writers who most appealed to his imagination. Moved by the depth of feeling in Shakespeare, the painter tried to translate that human dimension onto canvas, working and re-working scenes, gasping for a breath of the poet's rarefied air.

Delacroix saw no reason not to paint such non-classical subject matter, and the rebelliousness in his nature ultimately led him to join a relatively small number of other Romantic artists in smashing through the walls of convention and focusing attention on themes and subjects that had previously been all but disregarded.

He seems to have been particularly affected by Shakespeare's Hamlet, painting several different versions of the graveyard scene, of the drowning of Ophelia, and of Hamlet seeing the ghost of his father. Pictured above is his Hamlet and Horatio in the Graveyard (1859; oil on canvas, Louvre). Delacroix had a predilection for the use of strong color in many of his works, and he often chose not to set those colors aside, even while painting a cemetery scene, abundant with allusions to life and death. Such was the palette with which Eugene Delacroix painted the soul of Romanticism.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Rogue's gallery

With the creation of chronically thirsty characters like Sir John Falstaff, Sir Toby Belch, and Christopher Sly, Shakespeare undoubtedly knew he was tapping into one of comedy's undeniable truths: a mug of ale can lend itself to laughter.

Peering through the fog of inebriation only seemed to sharpen the wit of Sir John in Henry IV, Part 1 and Sir Toby in Twelfth Night. The same can hardly be said for Sly, a tinker who passes out drunk in the Induction of The Taming of the Shrew. He awakens, only to be tricked into believing that he is a wealthy gentleman of the leisured class, encouraged to enjoy a play.

All three characters provide can't-miss material for book illustrators and engravers; during the last decades of the nineteenth century in particular, a great deal of ink was spilled in their image.

The upper illustration features Sly in a stupor, scolded by a hostess whose tolerance is clearly being put to the test. In the case of both characters, posture says it all: the days of stiff 18th-century formality in illustration are long past. In the second scene, Falstaff, whose fondness for food and drink is matched only by his carefully considered cowardice, plays dead under a shield on the battlefield at Shrewsbury. Honor? Falstaff will have none of it. Not the typical battlefield scene, by a long shot.

The engraving at bottom displays a rare moment of feigned martial effrontery on the part of Sir Toby Belch, who has to be restrained by Olivia before he and the disguised Viola go at it with swords. Sir Toby's girth, inflated by years of overindulgence, makes him instantly recognizable as the comic centerpiece of Twelfth Night. He can be overshadowed only by Falstaff in Shakespeare's comic pantheon.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

It's pronounced "Zzhay-queez." Go figure that one.

Any artist or engraver seeking inspiration from Shakespeare's plays need not fear a dry well; it is one filled with iconic moments of beauty and of pain. From the balcony scene of Romeo and Juliet to the three witches huddling in Macbeth (like those in the masthead at the top of this page), the illustrator faces an embarrassment of riches.

One poignant moment from this medley of human experience, perhaps too often overlooked in our own century, is that of Shakespeare's melancholy philosopher Jaques in As You Like It, ruminating at the side of a stream on the lonely fate of a wounded stag that has appeared at

"the extremest verge of the swift brook,
Augmenting it with tears.... thy sum of more 
To that which had too much..."                            (Act II, Scene 1)


The stag's abandonment by a herd that does not share its misfortune is equated by Jaques with the heartlessness, cruelty and indifference of human behavior. Jaques sees, in the halting movements of the wounded forest animal "left and abandon'd of his velvet friends" the vicissitudes of life.

Pictured above is William Ridley's engraving of the scene, as it appears in an octavo copy of  As You Like It, with a notation at the bottom of the page, "Published by Vernor & Hood, 31 Poultry, Jan. 1, 1799." Also included in the volume are Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream and Love's Labours Lost.

Seen from the sublime heights of early-nineteenth century Romanticism, the ruminations of Jaques provided ample nourishment for the gods. The scene has been painted by the likes of Eugene Delacroix and William Blake, among many others. For the Romantics, life was meant to be a rush downstream, with occasional brief pauses in pools of stillness apt for reflection.