Shakespeare in Art

William Shakespeare

You know that old saying ‘never judge a book by its cover’? Well… I did. Back in September I made the dutiful trip to Waterstones to buy some Shakespeare plays for the forthcoming term, and when deliberating on which publication of Macbeth to purchase, I found that my eyes were being drawn toward the Oxford World’s Classics edition, which displayed a most captivating picture of a rather haunted-looking Lady Macbeth on the cover. A few weeks later, when I started reading the play, I became more and more mesmerised by this image and upon closer inspection found that the illustrator, Reginald-Grenville Eves, had based this cover illustration on John Singer Sargent’s portrait of 1889, Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth. After researching this astonishingly beautiful portrait, I began to think about the influence Shakespeare’s works have had upon the visual arts and how they have been able to inspire artists for more than four hundred years.

Widely held as one of the most notorious literary villains of all time, Lady Macbeth is one of the most formidable characters of Shakespeare’s creation. Ravenous at the prospect of becoming Queen of Scotland, Lady Macbeth takes the witches’ prophesy into her own hands and successfully persuades her husband to assassinate Duncan, the King, and frames his serving-men for his murder. In this painting Dame Ellen Terry, a renowned English theatre actress who donned the role in 1888, is seen adopting a very emphatic stance – one that was exquisitely captured by Singer Sargent for the purpose of the portrait – which shows Lady Macbeth presumably on the verge of crowning herself Queen of Scotland for the first time. The opulent colour palette employed by Singer Sargent in this portrait, which consists of rich emerald green, teal and glimmering gold, is most effective in endowing the painting with a sense of the theatrical, however, what I find most wonderful about this painting is how Singer Sargent has managed to capture the two defining aspects of Lady Macbeth’s character in one single portrait. Terry’s haunting, maddened wide-eyes and ghostly pale skin in this painting simultaneously convey her indefatigable determination to ascend to the Scottish throne, as well as presaging her eventual fate when she is driven insane by the guilt of King Duncan’s murder.

The most famous work of art to be inspired by a Shakespeare play is almost certainly Sir John Everett Millais’s Ophelia (1851–52). Millais’s painting depicts the tragic fate of Ophelia from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, who, having been tormented into insanity by the recent deaths of her father and brother, throws herself into a river. Despite being one of the most famous moments in literature, Shakespeare chooses not to stage this scene, leaving it to our imaginations to conjure the gruesome image of Ophelia’s youthful and beautiful body submerged in the murky waters of death. The reason why this image is so potent is no doubt because we are obliged to devise it for ourselves, but Millais’s interpretation of it is, without question, a most peculiar one. Millais’s rendering of Ophelia’s death is profoundly influenced by the painterly style of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of artists of which he was a founding-member in the mid-19th Century. The Pre-Raphaelites were known for their highly elaborate, idealised depictions of nature, and evidence of this can be seen in Millais’s meticulous portrayal of each blade of grass, each leaf, and each petal in Ophelia. However, in this case, the artist’s approach to reproducing nature on the canvas appears to add a further narrative dimension to the subject. This almost obsessive attention to the gorgeous verdure of the flora and fauna surrounding Ophelia’s corpse appears to enhance the sense of tragedy of this scene; here was a young woman who was as beautiful and blooming as the flowers draped over her body, until but a few moments ago, when her life was brought to a devastatingly abrupt end.

William Shakespeare is of course celebrated as being one of the world’s most talented poets of all time and this is mostly down to his extraordinary ability to create a potent visual image, often in as little space as three words. The American abstract painter Jackson Pollock was clearly affected by Shakespeare’s skill for succinct image-making as he titled his ‘drip’ painting from 1947, Full Fathom Five, after a famous phrase from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The fabulously redolent title, which was reportedly suggested to Pollock by a neighbour, derives from a piece of dialogue spoken by Ariel in the play, who informs Ferdinand, with grotesque detail, of the death of his father:

Full fathom five thy father lies

Of his bones are coral made;

Those pearls that were his eyes;

Nothing of him that doth fade

But doth suffer a sea-change

Into something rich and strange.

The combination of seemingly random splashes of black and silver house paint and green spray paint over an assortment of items including nails, coins, cigarette butts and buttons is unquestionably evocative of the murkiness of deepest leagues of the sea. It is this chaotic application of the paint, along with the dark colour palette employed by Pollock, that creates the distinctly disconcerting atmosphere, making us feel as though we also are perpetually trapped at the bottom of the sea, with no hope of escape.

Beyond the few works that I have cited here, there are of course thousands more examples of artworks that are based on subjects from Shakespeare. The fact that multitudes of artists and artworks have been inspired by Shakespeare’s works is testament to his incredible propensity to create timelessly innovative imagery and captivating characters. That one writer has been able to inspire artists for more than four centuries is nothing short of astounding, and I can only hope that he will continue to do so for many more to come.

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