A famous line of the English playwright and poet William Shakespeare is “All the world’s a stage.” Fine artists throughout the centuries have used The Bard of Avon’s words as inspiration to visually stage his scenes through their own mediums.
William Hogarth (1697–1764) was something of a Renaissance man, albeit one who lived in Georgian London. He was a talented engraver, political and social satirist, writer, and painter. His paintings range from small-scale genre scenes and conversation pieces to life-sized portraits and historical works. “Ferdinand Courting Miranda (From William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Act I scene ii)” shows the first encounter between the love-struck royal prince Ferdinand and the heroine of “The Tempest,” Miranda.
Miranda lives on a remote Mediterranean island with Prospero, her exiled magician father. In the painting, Prospero is depicted to Miranda’s right and his slave, Caliban, is to her left. A bat circles above Caliban as he crushes a dove beneath his foot, which symbolizes his threat to the two lovers. The spirit Ariel is playing music overhead. Professor Robin Simon, a leading expert in British art and literature, says, “We know that Hogarth studied Shakespeare’s text directly because, at the time, The Tempest was only ever played in the form of a musical … in which this scene does not appear.”
This small-scale 18th century history painting is one of the earliest known images of a Shakespearean scene and among Hogarth’s most highly significant works. The National Trust describes how it is the artist’s imagined version of the “The Tempest” scene, rather than how the passage would have been performed on stage. Hogarth wanted to create an English school of history painting, and there is nothing more English than Shakespeare.
A sea of change occurred in the British art world in the mid-19th century with the founding of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The group, inspired by medieval and early Renaissance art, championed the creation of artworks with a naturalistic purity, minutely realized details, rich, bejeweled colors, and poetic symbolism in the Victorian era.
Sir John Everett Millais (1829–1896) was one of the founders. His painting “Ophelia,” made early in his career, is arguably the most famous Shakespeare painting of all time. The scene portrayed in the painting derives from “Hamlet,” Act IV, scene vii.
After Prince Hamlet has broken their engagement and killed her father, Ophelia goes out to pick flowers. While doing so, she falls from a willow tree into a stream and drowns. However, the actual event of her death is depicted offstage, giving artists further license to let their imagination guide their illustration.
Millais spent several summer months sitting by a river in Surrey, using close observation to paint the minutiae of the natural world in “Ophelia.” The flora in the painting has symbolic significance and many plants are also mentioned in the play itself. The weeping willow tree that leans over Ophelia symbolizes forsaken love; nettles by the willow’s branches represent pain; daisies floating near her right hand represent innocence; fritillaria signify her sorrow; violets characterize faithfulness and chastity; pansies imply unfulfilled love; and the poppy denotes death. They are all depicted with accurate botanical details.
Millais’s son later recounted a story that a professor teaching botany, who was unable to take his students into the countryside, instead took them to see this picture, considering the artwork as informative as seeing the natural world in person.
In the winter of 1852, while working on this painting in his studio, Millais worked on the figure of Ophelia, using Elizabeth Siddal as his model. She stoically posed in an antique silver embroidered gown for hours on end in a bath warmed by candles, which sometimes went out and led to chilly water that made her ill. Siddal was a great muse of the Pre-Raphaelites, later marrying co-founder Dante Gabriel Rossetti, but she was also an artist and poet in her own right.
‘Antony and Cleopatra’
In the Victorian era, the leading traditional artistic style was Academic art. Practitioners trained at European academies of art and produced scenes of the ancient classical world and historical subjects. The Dutch-born Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836–1912), who settled permanently in London in 1870, was one of the most famous and popular Academic artists of his day. Alma-Tadema’s specialty was making the luxurious past come alive through the portrayal of precise archaeological details and textures, resulting from his meticulous scholarly study, superb draftsmanship, and use of lush colors.
“The Meeting of Antony and Cleopatra: 41 BC,” which sold at Sotheby’s in 2011 for an astounding $29.2 million, surpassing an estimate of $3 to $5 million, is among Alma-Tadema’s masterpieces. It shows Act II, scene ii from Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra,” a reminisce of the first meeting between the titular characters.
Their actual historic summit is one of the most famous events of antiquity: Cleopatra, who had been Julius Caesar’s lover until his assassination, was summoned by Mark Antony, one of his avengers and subsequent rulers of the Roman Empire, to prove her loyalty. Antony was dazzled by the entrance she made, a spectacle she engineered to display her empire’s staggering riches. As Stacy Schiff writes in her biography“Cleopatra: A Life,” this real-life tale “would elicit from Shakespeare his richest poetry.” Christie’s cataloging notes that in Alma-Tadema’s day, “Antony and Cleopatra” was frequently performed on the London stage. Furthermore, in addition to painting Shakespearean scenes, Alma-Tadema designed sets and costumes for important productions of the playwright’s work.
The painting’s complex composition, characteristic of Alma-Tadema’s oeuvre, is built upon a series of diagonal and horizontal lines. This aids the viewer’s eye in traveling through the narrative and absorbing each detail before moving on. Sights, sounds, and smells from Shakespeare’s lines—such as the barge, cloth of gold, flutist, perfume—are spectacularly conjured by Alma-Tadema, along with accurate Egyptian hieroglyphic inscriptions, jewelry, furnishings, and decorative motifs. Alma-Tadema’s arrangement of the painting’s scenery and props masterfully sets the stage for his figures’ storyline. Cleopatra’s alluring pose and dress is met by Antony’s awe and fascination. A 19th-century critic deemed this painting “second to no work.”
Setting the art of the Bard in pictorial form has a long and rich history. Resultant artworks bring Shakespeare’s words to life, making them accessible in a visual way. Furthermore, great artists that have pursued this theme have created magnificent works—what dreams are made on—which still captivate the public.