Paintings of William Shakespeare’s Plays: Introduction to a new series

Thomas Stothard (1755-1834), Shakespearean Characters (1813), oil on paper, 26.7 x 93 cm, The Tate Gallery (Bequeathed by Henry Vaughan 1900), London. © The Tate Gallery and Photographic Rights © Tate (2016), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

I’ve now retold the stories in nine major works of literature, from Ovid’s Metamorphoses to Goethe’s Faust, alongside their many paintings and illustrations. Over the coming months, I’ll be doing the same in this new series covering the plays of William Shakespeare.

Shakespeare is the best-known and greatest writer in the English language, whose plays are still performed around the world. In many countries, they are even better-known than the works of local playwrights. English and other languages continue to use phrases and words which first appeared in these plays, and quotations such as to be or not to be have been well used since his audiences first heard them in the early seventeenth century. Plots from Shakespeare’s plays have been adapted and used in almost every narrative medium, and many have been painted repeatedly as well.

Shakespeare was born before 26 April 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon, in the middle of England. A few years after his marriage to Anne Hathaway at the age of eighteen, he went to London, where he pursued a successful career in the theatre. He acted, wrote around thirty-nine major plays, and was one of the owners of a company of actors. Just before he turned fifty, he retired to the town of his birth, where he died on 23 April 1616, at the age of fifty-two.

His surviving plays divide into three main groups:

  • Comedies, including The Tempest, Measure for Measure, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Twelfth Night.
  • Histories, of Kings John, Henry IV to VI and VIII, Edward III, and Richard II and III.
  • Tragedies, including his most famous works such as Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Hamlet, King Lear and Othello.

Many of these have been painted by artists from Europe and North America, sometimes on a concerted basis. At the end of the eighteenth century, several of the more prominent painters in Britain were invited to produce works for what was to become the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery in London. John Boydell was an engraver and publisher who decided to exploit popular interest in Shakespeare’s works in an ambitious plan for a gallery of paintings of scenes from the plays, prints for general sale, and an illustrated edition of the plays.

This was launched in 1786, the gallery opened in Pall Mall, London, and his books published from 1791 to 1803. Unfortunately he failed to secure the support that the project needed, and the paintings which he commissioned were sold off in 1805, leaving Boydell’s company in bankruptcy. Later in this series, I will tell more of the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery and its disappointed artists.

Gaetano Previati (1852–1920), The Kiss (Romeo and Juliet) (c 1890), tempera on paperboard, dimensions not known, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

One of Shakespeare’s most enduring plots is that of Romeo and Juliet, one of his earlier tragedies, written between 1591-95. In about 1890, Gaetano Previati painted this meticulously detailed account of The Kiss between the doomed lovers.

His tragedy of Macbeth has remained popular since its first performance in 1606, and has frequently been used for narrative paintings. In an early scene in its first act, three witches meet with Macbeth and Banquo on a “heath”. Macbeth, the Thane of Glamis, and Banquo are generals of King Duncan of Scotland, who have just defeated the allied armies of Norway and Ireland. The witches address Macbeth as Thane of Glamis, Thane of Cawdor (which he is not), and “King hereafter”. They’re more enigmatic in their pronouncements for Banquo’s future, before they vanish.

John Martin (1789–1854), Macbeth (1820), oil on canvas, 86 x 65.1 cm, Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh, Scotland. Wikimedia Commons.

In John Martin’s account, three witches materialise from a swirl of mist and lightning bolts on the left, and Macbeth and Banquo appear surprised at their sudden arrival. Winding around the shores of the distant lake is the huge army, and Martin has turned the Scottish Highlands into rugged Alpine scenery of the Burkean sublime, an indication of the greater outcome of this meeting.

Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret (1852–1929), Hamlet and the Gravediggers (1883), oil on canvas, 40 x 33.5 cm, Dahesh Museum of Art, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

The French Naturalist painter Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret explored some narrative subjects, including Hamlet and the Gravediggers (1883), which shows what is probably Shakespeare’s most famous scene, from the start of Act V of Hamlet. The prince is just about to lament the passing of the jester Yoric with the words “alas, poor Yorick”, leading into his contemplation of mortality, against a rich floral background.

This precedes the arrival of Ophelia’s funeral procession. Her death has inspired more great paintings than any other event in drama, although it’s only reported by Hamlet’s mother and not shown explicitly.

John Everett Millais (1829–1896), Ophelia (1851-2), oil on canvas, 76.2 x 111.8 cm, Tate Britain, London. Wikimedia Commons.

One of the best-known Pre-Raphaelite paintings is John Everett Millais’ Ophelia, painted between 1851-2, which makes explicit Queen Gertrude’s account in which Ophelia drowns in the “weeping brook”. Its background was painted en plein air near Ewell, Surrey, England, during 1851. The figure of Ophelia was painted in over the following winter, using as the model Lizzie Siddal in a bathtub full of water.

Millais used extensive symbolism in the flowers shown: roses for love, and possibly alluding to her brother calling her the ‘rose of May’; willow, nettle and daisy for forsaken love, suffering, and innocence, respectively; pansies for love in vain; violets (in her necklace chain) for faithfulness, chastity, or young death; poppies for death; forget-me-nots for remembrance. Each was painted in the studio from life, and superimposed on the background to form a composite image which never existed in reality.

Lizzie Siddal herself died from an overdose of laudanum ten years later.

Shakespeare’s tragedy of King Lear, written in 1605-6, was based on the legend of a pre-Roman British king Leir, and shows gradual descent into the madness of old age. As in several of his other plays, the role of Fool gives the playwright great scope for mockery, and to give deeper insight into Lear himself.

This particular scene from Act II occurs after Lear rages at Regan for putting his messenger in the stocks. Lear rushes out into a storm, accompanied by his Fool, where he rants against his ungrateful daughters, Regan and Goneril.

William Dyce (1806–1864), King Lear and the Fool in the Storm (c 1851), oil on canvas, 136 × 173 cm, Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh, Scotland. Wikimedia Commons.

In his painting of this scene from about 1851, William Dyce shows King Lear having a good rant into the wind of the storm, his body language profuse. Resting with his head propped on the heels of his hands, the Fool also looks up to the heavens.

Of Shakespeare’s comedies, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is not only the play which has been most painted, but it was the platform on which ‘faery painting’ was developed during the middle of the nineteenth century.

Richard Dadd (1817–1886), Titania Sleeping (c 1841), oil on canvas, 59.7 x 77.5 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Richard Dadd’s Titania Sleeping (c 1841) is fairly typical of the genre, with its intricately detailed human-like creatures. Other faery painters include Robert Huskisson, Joseph Noel Paton, and Daniel Maclise, whose works were shown at the Royal Academy, and became quite popular around 1850.

Characters in Shakespeare’s plays became so well-known that some artists painted for their fans, for example Thomas Stothard’s Shakespearean Characters (1813), below.

Shakespearean Characters exhibited 1813 by Thomas Stothard 1755-1834
Thomas Stothard (1755-1834), Shakespearean Characters (1813), oil on paper, 26.7 x 93 cm, The Tate Gallery (Bequeathed by Henry Vaughan 1900), London. © The Tate Gallery and Photographic Rights © Tate (2016), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

The figures and scenes shown include (from the left) Twelfth Night (Olivia, Malvolio, Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek), The Merry Wives of Windsor (Falstaff and friends), As You Like It (Celia and Rosalind), The Tempest (Prospero and Miranda), King Lear (Lear and Cordelia), Hamlet (Ophelia and Hamlet), and Macbeth (Macbeth and the witches).

I hope that you’ll join me exploring Shakespeare’s plays and their paintings.