The Story in Paintings: Mariana – Shakespeare or Tennyson?

John William Waterhouse (1849–1917), Mariana in the South (c 1897), oil on canvas, 114 × 74 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Artists of all periods since have painted characters and scenes from the plays of William Shakespeare. Some – such as Hamlet, King Lear, the witches from Macbeth, and Romeo and Juliet – have been generally popular. Less well-known characters from the less popular plays have sometimes appeared in several paintings over a short period. In this article, I will look at paintings of Mariana, from Measure for Measure, who suddenly appeared in 1850, only to vanish again by 1900.

Shakespeare’s play is a comedy, although some consider it as a problem, as its themes are not simple humour. It has the complexity and twists of plot more typical of a farce, but deals with more serious matters.

Set in Vienna, it relates the events which take place when the Duke of Vienna makes it known that he is going away on a diplomatic mission. His deputy, Angelo, assumes control, although the Duke doesn’t actually go away at all, but remains in disguise to observe Angelo’s behaviour in his feigned absence.

Angelo has been betrothed to Mariana, but her dowry was lost at sea, so he has refused to marry her, leaving her isolated and in perpetual sadness, with no promise of any solution. During the Duke’s feigned absence, it becomes clear that Angelo lusts after another, Isabella, a novice nun who is the sister of Claudio, who Angelo has engineered to become sentenced to death for fornication. Angelo offers Isabella a deal to spare her brother’s life, in which she lets him deflower her.

The disguised Duke arranges a ‘bed trick’ in which it is actually Mariana who Angelo has sex with, which could be construed as consummation of their frozen marriage. Angelo then has sex with Mariana, believing her to be Isabella, but reneges on the deal to spare Claudio. The Duke arranges for a similar head to be sent to Angelo to ‘prove’ Claudio’s execution – the ‘head trick’.

The Duke then ‘returns’ to Vienna, and is petitioned by Isabella and Mariana, for their claims against Angelo. Angelo attempts to lay blame against the Duke when he was disguised as a friar, so the Duke reveals his role, and proposes that Angelo be executed. Eventually it is agreed that Angelo is made to marry Mariana, and revealed that Claudio was not executed.

In 1830, Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote and published a poem titled Mariana, which focussed solely on her ‘despondent isolation’ before most of the events of Shakespeare’s play. Its 84 lines end with the summary
Then, said she, “I am very dreary,
He will not come,” she said;
She wept, “I am aweary, aweary,
O God, that I were dead!”

A couple of years later, Tennyson rewrote the poem and published his new version under the title Mariana in the South in 1832. That follows more closely the tragic circumstances of The Lady of Shalott, ending in Mariana’s death. This leaves us with a choice of two or even three different Mariana narratives, and a fourth if we include Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel Ruth, published in 1853, which was apparently inspired by Millais’ painting below.

Sir John Everett Millais (1851)

Some of Millais’ sketches for this major painting have survived, and show how from early on in its development, the figure’s posture and location had been decided.

Sir John Everett Millais (1829–1896), Mariana (study) (1850), media and dimensions not known, Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery, Birmingham, England. Wikimedia Commons.
Sir John Everett Millais (1829–1896), Mariana (study) (1850), media and dimensions not known, The Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Wikimedia Commons.
Mariana 1851 by Sir John Everett Millais, Bt 1829-1896
Sir John Everett Millais (1829–1896), Mariana (1851), oil on mahogany, 59.7 x 49.5 cm, The Tate Gallery (Accepted by HM Government in lieu of tax and allocated to the Tate Gallery 1999), London. © The Tate Gallery and Photographic Rights © Tate (2016), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

The final version of Mariana (1851) was first shown at the Royal Academy in 1851, together with lines 9-12 of Tennyson’s original Mariana:
She only said, “My life is dreary,
He cometh not,” she said;
She said, “I am aweary, aweary;
I would that I were dead!”

Millais’ superb and richly-coloured painting is full of symbols: fallen leaves to indicate the passage of time, her embroidery as a means of passing that time, the Annunciation in the stained glass contrasting her with the Virgin’s fulfilment, the motto ‘in coelo quies’ (in heaven is rest), and the snowdrop flower in the glass meaning consolation. Mariana’s posture is intended to indicate her yearning for Angelo.

There is no doubt that Millais was painting Tennyson’s Mariana, not that of Shakespeare; it is also notable that Tennyson was made Poet Laureate in 1850, when Millais made his initial sketches.

Marie Spartali Stillman (1867)

Marie Spartali Stillman (1844–1927), Mariana (1867), watercolor and gouache on paper, 38.1 × 27.4 cm. Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Marie Spartali Stillman’s highly accomplished watercolour may have been inspired by Millais’ painting, and uses the same basic setting of Mariana gazing out of a window with yearning. However she dispenses with Millais’ complex symbols, and fills her paper with Mariana herself, relying on her facial expression and body language alone.

When first exhibited at the Dudley Gallery, it was well-received, but did not sell. It then vanished until re-discovery in the 1980s. It has been suggested that this painting may have been inspiration for Rossetti’s versions, but I am not convinced.

As with Millais, Stillman follows Tennyson’s poem rather than Shakespeare, although the painting’s simplicity allows wider interpretation.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1862-1870)

Rossetti made two quite different studies before painting his finished work of 1870, which are generally accepted as being part of his Aesthetic style rather than the earlier Pre-Raphaelite.

The Heart of the Night (Mariana in the Moated Grange) 1862 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1828-1882
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882), The Heart of the Night (Mariana in the Moated Grange) (1862), watercolour and gum arabic on paper, 27 x 24.4 cm, The Tate Gallery (Purchased with assistance from Sir Arthur Du Cros Bt and Sir Otto Beit KCMG through the Art Fund 1916), London. © The Tate Gallery and Photographic Rights © Tate (2016), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

The Heart of the Night (Mariana in the Moated Grange) (1862) is an intriguing watercolour study quite unlike any of the other depictions of Mariana, but clearly referring to Tennyson’s first poem. The figure is obviously yearning deeply, but instead of facing a window, she inhabits the dark. Some symbols are apparent in the distance, including a spinning wheel indicating time, and there are love letters scattered in the foreground.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882), Mariana (Study) (1868), red, brown, off-white and black chalks on tan paper; four sheets butt-joined (and slightly tented), 90.8 × 78.1 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art (Gift of Jessie Lemont Trausil, 1947), New York, NY. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

His next study of 1868 is tranformed by his use of Jane Morris (wife of William Morris) as the model, and this probably developed from a study of her head alone. There is also a link to reality, in that the Morris’s marriage was going through a difficult period, and Jane and Rossetti were becoming increasingly close.

The rest of this study is vaguer in its context and any intended meaning, and the result is probably primarily taken from Tennyson, but broad enough to cover Shakespeare too.

Rossetti, Dante Gabriel, 1828-1882; Mariana
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882), Mariana (1870), oil on canvas, 109.8 × 90.5 cm, Aberdeen Art Gallery, Aberdeen, Scotland. Wikimedia Commons.

Rossetti’s finished painting of Mariana (1870) strangely reverts to Shakespeare’s play, and depicts the moments in Act IV scene 1 in which a boy sings to Mariana. Rossetti dresses the woman in the same blue as Millais, and uses Jane Morris as his model. Mariana now sits full of yearning, her embroidery on her lap, as she listens to the boy’s song – bringing in the art of music. There appears very little in common with Stillman’s painting, though.

Philip Hermogenes Calderon (undated, probably 1870-85)

Philip Hermogenes Calderon (1833–1898), Mariana (date not known), oil on canvas, 61 × 45.7 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Calderon’s fairly sketchy painting is even more obviously linked to the Shakespeare play, and the same events in Act IV scene 1. The boy is not shown in song, though, as he stares at Mariana’s face, which we cannot see, as she is looking into the canvas. Her purity is confirmed by the white lily flowers.

Valentine Cameron Prinsep (c 1888)

Valentine Cameron Prinsep (1838–1904), Mariana (c 1888) from the The Graphic Gallery of Shakespeare’s Heroines, Sampson Low, Marston & Co. Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Image Collection, via Wikimedia Commons.

Prinsep’s Mariana (c 1888) was intended to serve as an illustration for a printed edition of Shakespeare’s play; this version was printed by Goupil in Paris in 1896. Instead of following Rossetti and Calderon, he uses a very similar composition to Stillman. Mariana is here dressed in white, symbolising her purity, and stares out of anachronistic diamond-pane windows, full of yearning.

Prinsep thus followed Tennyson’s poem, to accompany Shakespeare’s play!

John William Waterhouse (c 1897)

Almost fifty years after Millais’ first painting, Waterhouse chose to use Tennyson’s later reworking of his poem, Mariana in the South.

Waterhouse, John William, 1849-1917; Mariana in the South
John William Waterhouse (1849–1917) Study for Mariana in the South (c 1897), oil on canvas, 134.5 × 86.3 cm, The Cecil French Bequest Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.

One study has survived, showing how Waterhouse has moved much closer to the popular images derived from The Lady of Shalott. The moated grange is now kept in permanent darkness, shutters closed. Mariana yearns in front of a large mirror, as if dressing herself in preparation for her death.

John William Waterhouse (1849–1917), Mariana in the South (c 1897), oil on canvas, 114 × 74 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Waterhouse’s finished Mariana in the South (c 1897) places her in a posture more closely derived from that of Millais. On the floor are some of her love letters, and there is a large red rose (of love) on her breast. At the left edge, on a distant mantelshelf, a candle burns its vigil for her lost betrothal, and her prayers that she will one day marry.

This matches Tennyson’s words “And in the liquid mirror glowed the clear perfection of her face” from his second version of the poem.


Mariana became quite a popular motif for the Pre-Raphaelites and Aesthetics in the latter half of the nineteenth century, but does not appear to have had any appeal to painters before or since.

Although some of these paintings show the arrangement of figures quoted from Shakespeare’s play, the underlying story shown in each of them is flavoured if not dominated by Tennyson’s poem. The resulting confusion is best exemplified by Prinsep, who uses a Tennysonian motif to accompany Shakespeare’s play, and Rossetti, who switched from Tennyson to Shakespeare when he painted his final version in 1870.

None of the artists included any hints of the eventual, happier outcome which was a central thread in the play – a development which Tennyson also avoided. Instead, the figure of Mariana became a symbol of despondent isolation, leading to death.


Wikipedia on Shakespeare’s play.
Wikipedia on Tennyson’s poem.