Shakespeare is (pretty much) the undisputed master playwright, poet, and chronicler of the soul and human condition. He has been translated in to almost every language in existence, wrote over 37 plays and 154 sonnets, invented his own words, and is whom Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs gives the same precedence as The Bible.
With the constant re-imagining and referencing of his works (and invented words), it’s almost like he never went away. But he did. He died 400 years ago this week: April 23, 1616 — to be precise.
It might feel like only yesterday, but to cheer you up, we’re celebrating this anniversary with a list of some of the most interesting, and most famous, works of art inspired by Shakespeare and his words.
In 1963 Picasso was approached by the famous art patron, Roland Penrose, to illustrate the cover of Othello being published by the Cambridge University Press. Picasso happily obliged and sketched 3 drawings, taking no more than 5 minutes on each. One of the drawings was exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery where the deputy keeper, Dr Roy Strong, gushed that it was “magnificent”, adding “It’s a remarkable piece of art all right”. Roland Penrose said that it “made Shakespeare the great observer of life”.
During this period Picasso also made a series of drawings referencing Hamlet for Louis Aragon’s Shakespeare.
J. M. W. Turner
J. M. W. Turner, one of Britain’s most famous painters, notorious for his emotive, romantic and dramatic depictions, and deft use of light and shadow during the romantic period, once paid homage to the most famous British writer. The work, a study of Romeo and Juliet — showing Juliet out on the balcony musing over her love; was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1836, and has Turner’s own personal touch as he opts for the more romantic Venice as the setting for the painting, instead of Shakespeare’s Verona. In May 1980 this painting sold for $6.4 million.
World-renowned Spanish surrealist, Salvador Dalí, created a rare series of illustrations for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in 1957, published (999 copies in total) by Rizzoli. Dali’s colourful, often watercolour, illustrations re-imagine and reinvigorate the play, reminding us of its oft-neglected dark and haunting side.
Wiliam Blake (28 November 1757–12 August 1827) was a writer, poet, artist and print maker (he famously wrote the lyrics to the hymn Jerusalem). Blake had an enduring passion for Shakespeare’s many plays and through his life he painted and drew many depictions of them. Including those from A Midsummer Nights Dream, Julius Ceasar, Hamlet, Richard III, and a portrait of the playwrite himself.
In 1975 Chagall produced a series of lithographs to accompany a limited edition print (270 copies) by Editions André Sauret of The Tempest. Chagall was 88 at the time and provided a total of 50, rather personal, interpretations of the play’s plot and characters. It has never been widely mentioned, and has, in my opinion, been a little underappreciated.
Sir John Everett Millais
The endlessly romantic Pre-Raphaelites loved Shakespeare and many representations of his works, by the majority of the group, exist. But it is John Everett Millais’ Ophelia (1851) that is the most recognizable. We see the beautifully clothed Ophelia in heavy, embroidered silks, clutches wild flowers* as she slowly sinks into the stream. The painting is of what appears to be her last breath, and ironically, the delicate realism the Pre-Raphaelites adopted, brings the character, written 250 years (approx.) previously, to life. It is currently held at the Tate Britain in London.
The scene as Shakespeare describes it in Hamlet, Act IV, Scene vii:
There, on the pendent boughs her coronet weeds
Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke;
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide,
And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up;
Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes,
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element; but long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pull’d the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.
* The Victorians had a penchant for the ‘Language of Flowers’ and the wild flowers Ophelia clutches are filled with symbolism: Poppy is synonymous with death, Pansies refer to love in vain, and Violets stand for faithfulness, chastity or death of the young.
In 1979 David Hockney was commissioned to take part in the exhibition Shakespeare: The Globe and The World. The exhibition was put on by the Folger Shakespeare Library and the drawing Hockney produced shows Shakespeare and Elizabeth I. Elizabeth, full of colour, pomp and ceremony, symbolizes ‘The World’, a personification of the entire Elizabethan age; and Shakespeare, depicted in black and white, with a more transient and intangible outline, ‘The Globe’; or, maybe more accurately, the personification of theatre itself.
Henry Fuseli (7 February 1741–17 April 1825) was a Swiss painter and draughtsman had, similarly to Blake, a fascination with mythology, the supernatural, and Shakespeare; painting many scenes from various plays, including Henry IV, King Lear and Hamlet, for the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery in London. But it is his portrait of the three weird sisters from Macbeth, ‘Macbeth’, Act I, Scene 3, the Weird Sisters (1783), is probably his most famous.
Famous surrealist Man Ray produced some fascinating abstract works inspired by Shakespeare, though, originally they were inspired by Math.
In 1934 Man Ray had produced a series of photos inspired by depictions of 3D mathematical models, with the intention to use them as algebraic and geometric teaching tools. However, the next year, Man Ray, rather rashly, announced that photography, his main medium, was not art in his manifesto, La Photographie n’est pas l’Art, L’Art n’est pas de la Photographie.
In 1947 Man Ray returned to these photos and form them created several drawings re-interpreting the mathematical models. He chose to name these abstract models with the titles of Shakespeare’s plays; including The Merry Wives of Windsor, All’s Well That Ends Well and Julius Caesar.
The artist said of identifying which was which, “We would play games, trying to get people to guess what play belonged to which picture,” Man Ray admitted later. “Sometimes they got it right; sometimes of course, they didn’t, and it was just as well!”
These artists are but a few among many inspired by Shakespeare; Keith Haring and Andy Warhol mused upon him and his works, William Hogarth created depictions of Richard III, Joshua Reynolds of Puck, and Windham Lewis created a vorticized depiction of Timon of Athens. And so it seems, however long he’s been dead, we just won’t let Shakespeare ever really die.