by Anne Posega

Since therefore other nations have taken care to dignify the works of their most celebrated Poets with the fairest impressions beautified with the ornaments of sculpture, well may our Shakespear be thought to deserve no less consideration it is desired that this new Edition of his works, which hath cost some attention and care, may be looked upon as another finall monument designed and dedicated to his honour.
--Sir John Hanmer's Preface to The Works of Shakespear, Oxford: Printed at the Theatre, 1744.

With these words Hanmer voiced England's growing national pride in Shakespeare, a pride materially represented by the numerous editions which were produced in the 18th century. Different editors argued for their textual emendations in prefaces, footnotes, and advertisements, and the debate fueled layer after layer of criticism and responses. In a similar way, the illustrations in these editions were themselves transforming, starting with the first illustrated edition in 1709. Edited by Nicolas Rowe and printed for Jacob Tonson,The Works of Mr. William Shakespear, in Six Volumes was the first edition to be "Adorn'd with cuts". The illustrations in this edition were generally theatrical in nature, with many looking like illustrations of a production. Several more illustrated editions were published between 1709 and 1744, but the next significant effort was the Hanmer edition of 1744, printed at the Oxford University Press. The French rococo style of Hubert Gravelot was combined with the more English, Hogarth-influenced style of Francis Hayman, an artist trained as a scene painter; the illustrations they produced were taken more directly from the text.

An obvious problem for the illustrators approaching Shakespeare was the fact that the plays were intended for theatre production, and visual representations of the work had been done through performances many times. They had to decide whether or not to ignore the theatrical aspect of the work. Many chose not to, and illustrated theatre scenes from the play, with staging and costume design from contemporary productions. Others produced portraits and book illustrations of famous actors and actresses in their most well-known roles, from David Garrick through Ellen Terry.

The blending of book illustration and painting was another common problem. During the late 18th century a massive undertaking known as the Shakespeare Gallery was commissioned by John Boydell. The intent was to produce a gallery of paintings on subjects from Shakespeare and to have engravings of these paintings gathered together in a printed edition of Shakespeare's works. The obvious problem was that these pictures were from the start to serve two very different purposes. Boydell himself admits the problem of trying to illustrate Shakespeare at all: subject seems so proper to form an English School of Historical Paintings, as the scenes of the immortal Shakespeare; yet it must be always remembered, that he possessed powers which no pencil can reach; for such was the force of his creative imagination, that though he frequently goes beyond nature, he still continues to be natural, and seems only to do that which nature would have done, had she o'erstepped her usual limits--it must not, then, be expected, that the art of the Painter can ever equal the sublimity of our Poet.

Charles Lamb protested the project, saying:

What injury did not Boydell's Shakespeare Gallery do me with Shakespeare. To have Opie's Shakespeare, Northcote's Shakespeare, light headed Fuseli's Shakespeare, wooden-headed West's Shakespeare, deaf-headed Reynolds' Shakespeare, instead of my and everybody's Shakespeare. To be tied down to an authentic face of Juliet! To have Imogen's portrait! To confine the illimitable!

Numerous artists were involved in the project, which was completed in 1805. It was unsuccessful for Boydell, who was virtually bankrupted by the project; the French war destroyed the market for the prints, and the venture was not without criticism for its commercialism. It was the culmination of a century of ever-increasing Shakespeare production.

Illustrated editions continued to proliferate in the 19th and 20th centuries, although with the advent of photography some editions were illustrated with photographs from staged productions. Illustrators had the choice of attempting contemporary work, imitating older styles of illustration, or depicting scenes from the theatre. Editions ranged from large commercial productions to more opulent limited editions from private presses. Today there are countless images of Hamlet; Lady MacBeth has been done in every style; Lear is favoured with hundreds of faces and poses. But Shakespeare has not been exhausted yet. Edward Gordon Craig, illustrator of the Cranach PressHamlet and a well known Shakespearean producer and actor, wrote in 1905 of Hamlet:

When no further addition can be made so as to better a work of art, it can be spoken of as finished--it is complete. Hamlet was finished--was complete--when Shakespeare wrote the lst word of his blank verse, and for us to add to it by gesture, scene, costume, or dance, is to hint that it is incomplete and needs these additions.

Seven years later, he staged the play in Moscow. It is fortunate that, like Craig, illustrators cannot resist Shakespeare's plays, no matter how intimidating they may be. While not all of the illustrators are successful, they are nonetheless adding to the history of visual commentary on the plays. This exhibition is to show some of these layers of commentary, and the plays themselves, a pentimento.




Merchant, W. Moelwyn. Shakespeare and the artist. London: Oxford University Press, 1959.

Boase, T.S.R. "Illustrations of Shakespeare's Plays in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries." Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, v. 10, 1947.

Roatcap, Adela Spindler. "Designing Literature: The Book as Theatre: The Cranach Press Hamlet." Fine Print, v. 14, January 1988.

Franklin, Colin. Shakespeare Domesticated: Eighteenth-Century Editions. Aldershot, Hants, England: Scolar Press; Brookfield, Vt.: Gower Publishing Co., c1991.