What’s So Hard About Painting Shakespeare?
Johan Zoffany, “Thomas King as a touchstone in” As You Like It “” (1780), oil on canvas, 91 x 55.5 cm, Garrick Club, London (Image courtesy of the Garrick Club)
A few weeks ago, Stig Abell, editor (until this week) of London-based TLS (formerly known as The Times Literary Supplement), told us in his weekly diary the enriching comfort of Shakespeare’s words in these difficult lock-up days .
The playwright, although 400 years dead, was an incomparable “companion of isolation” who “gave a radiant voice” to our present worries. Stig then quoted Hamlet who “could be put in a nutshell and consider myself the king of infinite space if I didn’t have bad dreams,” and also King Richard II, who “has studied how I can compare this prison” where i live for the world. “
Stig’s serious deliberations on the subject of the comforting power of Shakespeare’s words ended in a great poetic-rhetorical drum roll of an outbreak:
Provided we have a framework and context for our experience, provided there are words to speak, things have not quite reached the point of desperation. Shakespeare always provides us with the resource of the language we need.
My goodness! Verily! I said, jumping out of my locked chair in high spirits.
Yes, I saw from what Stig wrote – both in praise itself and in the terms he used it – how much he, a mere fool of a twenty-first century man, had found it necessary to himself to exalt his own self. generated, self-inflated Shakespearean opportunity.
In short, in his response to Shakespeare’s greatness, he seemed almost bound to become a poet and rhetorician himself. Call it Shakespeare jealousy if you want … the fact is, all you have to do is measure yourself when you get near a mountain the size of Shakespeare!
John Taylor (attributed to), “The Chandos Portrait of William Shakespeare” (around 1600), oil on canvas, 21 3⁄4 in × 17 1⁄4 in, National Portrait Gallery, London (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
And therein lies a big, big problem that never went away and probably won’t go away anytime soon.
Not only for poets and us poor, creeping professionals, but also for artists. Shakespeare is too high for us creatives. He blinds too much. His example is too brilliantly unique and unsurpassable. It’s not just a kind of climax for poets. It leaves many poets feeling hopeless because the best a poet could do has already been done. From Shakespeare.
Furthermore, one cannot learn from him easily because he is too much of himself. It is less of a starting point than an end point. In short, the show is over, boys and girls.
How different things seem in the whole world! If you told an engineer or metallurgist that a limo car designer from the old days when he could never be hit would laugh in your face. He would tell you about new materials, new technologies, and other kinds of sorcery of our passing moment.
However, this cannot be the case with Shakespeare, since he is manipulating the common currency of an ancient language that changes enough, but not excessively, and his concerns are of urgent and constant concern: murder, betrayal, vanity, jealousy, ambition, etc. etc. In short: the stuff of all human life.
Artists have found it quite difficult with Shakespeare too. Many paintings based on Shakespeare feel mawkish or literally-minded, flat-footed, or lack emotional depth when placed alongside the bard’s lofty language.
It’s as if the kind of psychological complexity and linguistic density that Shakespeare specializes in just can’t be captured in pictures. Too often artists have given us rigid visual magnificence, reworked emotions, exaggerated theatrics, or mere documentation. Good works of art emerged from the pieces, but very few.
John Everett Millais, “Ophelia” (1851-52), oil on canvas, 76 x 112 cm, Tate Gallery, London (image via Web Gallery of Art)
In general, the comedies were easier to handle than the tragedies. The simplest is the Midsummer Night’s Dream, a visible gift. The Irish painter Daniel Maclise shows us Bottom, for example how he awakens from his dream in “The Disenchantment of Bottom” (1832). The entire fantastic scene swirls with images while Bottom, jerking in alertness in the middle, roughly expands and yawns.
A couple of other successes come to mind. Think of Johan Zoffany’s “Thomas King as the touchstone in” As You Like It “(1780), who portrays the court jester in one of Shakespeare’s wonderfully complicated, shape-changing, gender-merging comedies, or of John Everett Millais'” Ophelia “(1851) -1852 ) from Hamlet.
Touchstone, played in the painting by actor Thomas King, feels like the direct transcription of a live performance that took place on the London stage in the 18th century. It’s light of touch, a piece of visual amazement that seems to come to life before us.
The parti-striped costumes seduce as well as the pose and the attitude of the actor. Touchstone enters from the wings in the ears of his ass, ripe for stupid things, and looks every inch like the fool, the scoffer, the rogue …
Millais, a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and the man who stole Ruskin’s wife from under his extremely discerning art-critical nose make a good experiment with Ophelia. And yet we also ask ourselves: how much of the predicament of character in this piece has this painting brought?
We, of course, admire the brilliant complexity of the painting, its sheer, meticulous attention to natural details. But is it really much more than just another example of the kind of costume-drama faux-historicism that the Pre-Raphaelites specialized in? We have great pity for the ordeal of 19-year-old model Lizzie Siddall, who had to lie in a bathtub of water for so long. Did she wish she still worked in a hat shop? No wonder she caught a cold.
Fortunately, Millais, chivalrous and masculine, agreed to pay the doctor’s bills, of which there were 50. Lizzie survived.
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