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Shakespeare in Art

Jane Martineau and
Desmond Shawe-Taylor, Eds.

256 pages, 149 color illustrations
© September 2003 Merrell Publishers
ISBN 1-85894-229-2
Hardcover, $49.95

Many eighteenth-century critics had seen the supernatural plays as Shakespeare's special achievement, and recognized their close connection with the art of imagination. But the imagination was often treated as slightly suspect; Johnson called it "a licentious and vagrant faculty, unsusceptible of limitations, and impatient of restraint". For Schlegel and Coleridge, by contrast, the supernatural and the Sublime led not to the fringes of experience, away from the general nature, but to the imaginative principle without which nature could not be perceived and organized. It is no coincidence that Shakespeare's supernatural subjects -- the weird sisters in Macbeth, the fairies in A Midsummer Night's Dream, the ghost in Hamlet, Prospero's magical spirits -- were among the most frequently painted in this period. The art of William Blake (pls. 17-22) and Henry Fuseli (who was especially compelled by Macbeth, see pl. 12) was of a piece with this revolution in aesthetic theory.

-- from Shakespeare in Art

The Shakespeare Revival of 1730-1860 represented the golden age of the works of William Shakespeare, raising the playwright to a cult figure of international importance. From a humble Elizabethan actor-manager, he became exalted, sublime; "'god of our idolatry'" with, for a great while, David Garrick as "high priest at the shrine." Shakespeare in Art offers a richly manifold, highly readable study of this period of Shakespeare's ascendancy, focused on the easel arts and rounded out with references to printmaking and theatrical practice. From Fuseli's tormented Macbeth to Millais's glowingly realistic Ferdinand, Kean and Kemble in period costume to Eugene Delacroix's swift, emotive sketch in oil of Hamlet cringing before his father's ghost, the art is a diverse and vibrant selection -- over 140 color illustrations, 88 of them plates with full annotation. Eleven scholarly essays detail various aspects of the indelible creative mark the Shakespearean phenomenon left on Western art and culture. Surefooted, concise, and beautifully illustrated, Shakespeare in Art is well worth reading.

In his day William Shakespeare was a competent playwright among many other competent playwrights, John Webster and Ben Jonson among them, all celebrated talents in their time. Shakespeare's plays continued to be performed after his death in 1616, appreciated by actors as offering superb roles, and reprinted in several editions. But "If we had to identify a single decade in which the 'cult of Shakespeare' took root -- in which his celebrity and influence came to outstrip that of his contemporaries once and for all -- it would probably be the 1730s". The charming and celebrated actor-manager David Garrick found in Shakespeare's scripts the perfect vehicle for his art, and the Bard's drama -- already good business -- reached unprecedented heights of popularity. Thirty years later the Garrick Jubilee completed the apotheosis: "the point at which Shakespeare was finally transformed from primus inter pares (first among equals) to 'god of our idolatry'." From Britain the movement spread to the Continent, hindered at first by imperfect translations, but eventually taking firm root. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Shakespeare was hailed as the 'national poet' of Germany, then France, who found in the words of the immortal Bard resonances for the national soul.

Shakespeare in Art is a deft exploration of these two hundred years of Shakespearean ascendancy. One of the most striking impressions is the sheer breadth and scope of the Bard's influence between 1730-1860, entwining in an intricate dance of cause and effect among theatre and art, and inspiring major artistic traditions in both Britain, and on the Continent. In presenting such material the book's multiple-essay format works well, each contributor detailing a facet of the movement. Johnathan Bate's "The Shakespeare Phenomenon" opens as an adroit overview of the entire period, while essays such as "'Our Divine Shakespeare, Fitly Illustrated': Staging Shakespeare 1660-1900" and "The Shakespeare Galleries of John Boydell and James Woodmason" provide more specialized studies. These necessary excursions into social and theatrical context are enhancements, not distractions; throughout, Shakespeare in Art remains true to its main focus, the easel arts.

The Garrick Revival in 1730s London fueled a new interest in theatrical painting, which drew, for absence of precedent, on history painting for its tradition. William Hogarth's oils are among the earliest surviving examples, and works such as his Falstaff examining his Troops (2 Henry IV, III. ii) (1730) reflect both a tidy classicism, and the earthy quality characteristic of both Hogarth and the era. Hogarth's portrait of the charismatic Garrick (a personal friend) in his famous role as Richard III captures the essence of the vocabulary of striking postures which was the accepted method of acting for the age. A generation later, changing tastes downplayed Garrick's posturing as "the tableau and attitude school"; Shakespeare, formerly an "inspired rustic", was wafted to even higher heights as "the poet of exalted contemplation and sublime states of mind". Correspondingly in art, classical restraint gave way to an aesthetic of new emotional intensity, the Sublime:

The Sublime, as Edmund Burke explained in his treatise of 1756, arises from "terror" -- from inflicting the maximum of danger and anguish on spectators, who know themselves to be safe from these things but are nonetheless profoundly stirred by them. To achieve this, an artist's formal language had to abandon the composure and restraint of Classicism and exaggerate expressions, disturb compositions, and shock the audience with its singularity...

Henry Fuseli (1741-1825)
Lady Macbeth seizing the Daggers
II. ii) (1812)
(detail of Macbeth)
Oil on canvas
40 x 50 in.

Though numerous artists, Runciman, Romney, and Blake among them, took up this new expression, Henry Fuseli most compassed it in the Shakesperean realm. His "stay in Rome, from 1770 to 1778, settled him in his determination to become the 'painter of Shakespeare', and he was to make his name as such." The Dispute between Hotspur, Glendower, Mortimer and Worcester (I Henry IV, III. i. 92-130) (1784) draws on the classical tradition in its arrangement of the four figures, with a new infusion of energy and emotion. The Witches show Macbeth Banquo's Descendants (c. 1773-79) reveals a dramatic, energetic handling of light and shadow as the heroically nude Macbeth throws his hand up against the blazing light of the vision. As "painter of Shakespeare" Fuseli's diverse, dramatic works receive much attention in Shakespeare in Art, reappearing throughout the essays and well-represented in the plates and figures with attention to his strength in evoking the imaginative and the fantastic. The grotesque fantasy of a fairy with male dancer's body and wasp's head, capering in the corner of Titania embracing Bottom (A Midsummer Night's Dream, IV. i. 1-44) (1792-93) is one example; his dark, guilt-ridden figures in Lady Macbeth seizing the Daggers (Macbeth, II. ii) (1812) another:

But what is the meaning of these strange ghostly figures that seem to be skeletons clothed in faded fashions and dipped in phosphorous? They remind one of Hayden's first taste of Fuseli's art in 1805; "Galvanised devils -- malicious witches brewing their incantations -- Satan bridging Chaos, and springing upwards in a pyramid of fire -- Lady Macbeth -- Paolo and Francesca -- Falstaff and Mrs. Quickly -- humour, pathos, terror, blood, and murder, met one at every look!" (Autobiography). It is probably no accident that the figures here seem more like troubled spirits than mortals. There are many hints that Shakespeare intended his hero and heroine to be literally damned... Fuseli, as a lover and inspired illustrator of Dante, knows better than most what Hell looks like. Hell is where the guilty relive their crimes for all eternity. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth seem here condemned to re-enact this scene of horror, in a cell of empty darkness, without ever ridding themselves of the bloody daggers, just as, in her nightmares, Lady Macbeth can never wash her hands clean.

The variance between Hogarth's Falstaff and Fuseli's Macbeth illustrate a basic aesthetic evolution that can be perceived throughout Shakespeare in Art's plates and figures, which encompass a wide variety of work including theatrical portraiture, imaginative works, and scenery designs. (The plates, it should be noted, are fully annoted with details of source material, provenance, and intriguing notes on contemporary reception of the work.) Earlier artwork evoked the aesthetics of the stage, either directly, as in Samuel Drummon's portrait Edmund Kean as Richard III (Richard III, V. iii) (1814) or indirectly, as in Francis Hayman's The Wrestling Scene from 'As You Like It' (I. ii.; Hanmer edition, I. vi) (c. 1740-42). Whether real or imagined, the pictorial space never departed from what might be recreated with live actors and scenic settings. In contrast, Fuseli's dark visions, as noted above, and as well works such as David Scott's unusually modern, strangely surreal and stylized Puck fleeing before the Dawn (A Midsummer Night's Dream, V. i) (1837), with its coy cannoball of a Puck, and its eerily deserted Hopper-like walkway at the bottom left, or Gustav Moreau's spectral Lady Macbeth (Macbeth, V. i) (?1851-52), a melting swath of pale yellow, featureless save for two riveting eyes, reflected a new emergence of expression and invention. Desmond Shawe-Taylor notes that "Shakespeare seems to have struck all generations as the poet of copiousness, who celebrates the fecundity and variety of Nature and a parallel universe of elves, ghosts, dreams and monsters" -- and the variety of visions in Shakespeare in Art are equally copious, showing artists re-creating, then transcending ideas of the stage, visions coming to be realized only in pure imagination, with Shakespeare's theatrical fantasies as the catalyst.

There were other aspects to the Shakespearean influence. In Britain, two galleries dedicated to Shakespearean paintings aspired to establishing a national style rooted in classicism and Shakespeare. Johnathan Boydell's gallery opened in London in 1789; James Woodmason's, in Dublin in 1792. Ultimately, as business ventures, both succumbed to time and changing tastes; but for nearly two decades they showcased art and artists with national endorsement, as well as popularizing the paintings with annual books of engravings. On the Continent, Shakespeare's ascendancy, inspired in France by the performances of the actor Talma, led to a new popularity of Shakespearean subjects and, meeting the rising tides of the Romantic Era, "stirred the imagination of artists. They tended to interpret his work with a new kind of painting -- with a careless abandon of technique, a dynamic use of outline and strong contrasts of colour," as in Eugene Delacroix's Hamlet sees his Father's Ghost (Hamlet, I. v. 9-25) (?1825).

Samuel Drummond (1765-1844)
Edmund Kean as Richard III
(Richard III,
V. iii) (1814)
Oil on canvas
80 x 48 in.

The Victorians put the final flourish on the phenomenon with their own brand of thriving, Industrial-Era vulgarity, mass-producing Shakesperean images and cheap illustrated editions for the middle classes. The Victorian passion for all things 'fairy' found its outlet in copious, often vapid representations of Shakespeare's flitting sprites, preferably resembling sweet young ladies; Robert Huskisson's "Come unto these Yellow Sands" (The Tempest, I. ii. 375-81) (1847) has a floating cadre of such nubile sylphs. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood countered such affectations; works not always well-received, as in Sir John Everett Millais's Ferdinand lured by Ariel (The Tempest, I. ii 387-402) (1849), his Ariel described by a contemporary critic as "a hideous green gnome, [who] precipitates himself against Ferdinand with an action extremely ungraceful".

For Millais and the Pre-Raphaelites, Shakespeare was second only to the Bible as a source for subjects worthy of the emotion and moral content they sought to illustrate.But the Shakespearean mania itself had run its course, the public's interest turning away from formal literary figures to the more popularly accessible depiction of landscape (which itself established the British school of painting, as Boydell's Shakespeare Gallery had not) and new tastes for the modern. In one of those twists and connections it is so intriguing to make among the essays in Shakespeare in Art (in the earlier essay, "'Our Divine Shakespeare, Fitly Illustrated'"), Christopher Bond notes a further, technological footnote to the decline of the Shakespeare movement. The 1880s introduced electric lighting to the stage, and sets which had glowed with warm, gentle fantasy in gaslight now seemed harsh, fake, and ugly. Producers cut large swaths of text from Shakespeare's plays to compensate for interminable scene changes required by the new sets, thus butchering the immortal prose and inspiring in viewers only distaste. Shakespeare, the classic, the divine, yielded at last to the pressures of Modernism; and although a few artists continued representing his works into the early 20th century, the Bard's heydey had passed.

The Shakespeare phenomenon reflected the changing attitudes of generations: the rude vigor of the eighteenth century, the mal du siecle of the Romantic Era, the Victorian taste for vulgar fantasy. The single truth that compasses Shakespeare in Art is that "every age remakes Shakespeare in its own image." Shakespeare in Art is an excellent introduction to the Shakespearean Revival of 1730-1860, the major aspects of its art and the traditions it established. It takes significant editorial sleight of hand to organize a book as diverse as this, and Shakespeare in Art balances its pleasures well. The annotations and essays complement, never compete, and the illustrations are a visual cornucopia. For not only the indelible influence on Western culture it describes, but also for the sheer pleasure it provides, Shakespeare in Art is highly recommended.

A new release from Merrell Publishers in September 2003, Shakespeare in Art is the companion to the exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery in London from July 16, 2003 - October 19, 2003.

--Katherine Rook Lieber

Katherine Rook Lieber has edited ArtScope.net's Visual and Performing Arts reviews since 1998. Ms. Lieber is Editor and Associate Producer for ArtScope.net.

Editorial Note: All quotes, unless otherwise identified, are from the reviewed book itself.

Shakespeare in Art, and other books mentioned in www.artscope.net reviews, may be purchased through this site's Amazon.com link.

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