Shakespeare in Pictures

Drama is a visual medium. One goes to see a play, not to hear it. It's a commonplace observation, but still surprising, that the printed script is not a play. A script is a potential event. A reader is obligated to stage the script, mentally. But dramatic texts can be a tricky business. The words of a play dot the surface of an ongoing action; they lie. "What, ho! Look over there!" Falstaff might say. Pistol, at table, may look up from his meal; if so Falstaff then steals the food and steps around a corner. "Rats!" says Pistol, discovering the trick. The tactic is dramatically effective precisely because nothing in the sentence reveals its intent. But one reads these two lines:

Fal. What, ho! Look over there!
Pis. Rats!

Multiply for subtlety by a factor of 10, and it's possible to approximate the experience of reading, say, a Chekhov script.

If dramatic words are often cunningly misdirecting, it's also true that Shakespeare is a special case in dramatic literature. Not that he doesn't misdirect; he does all the time. But the plays are superbly rich verbal affairs. They reward the literary reading. In fact most people only read them that way, and in such contexts. The vast majority of students who study Shakespeare do so in courses offered by English, not Drama, departments. But it bears repeating that the literary approach can lead us to forget that the primary aesthetic object is not the script, but the evanescent performance of it.

Plays get put on, acted out. Directors make stage-pictures. Artists make picture pictures. Playwright is spelled like wheelwright, so designating the play as a made, not a written thing. Narrative pictures are constructed, built, just like wagon wheels and dramas. These are related activities. The director, the playwright, and the narrative artist all seek to make an action manifest. (A point of diction: I often use the broader narrative artist, or less precisely the unadorned artist, as against the narrower illustrator. For the purposes of this conversation, illustration may be considered a subset of narrative art.)

Consider the early Renaissance painter Masaccio. His frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel (c.1427) serve as biblical illustrations. As with Shakespeare, the text is a big story with lots of characters and events. One of Masaccio's scenes show the Genesis text of the Expulsion. Escorted by a stern angel, Adam and Eve pass beyond the gates of Paradise. They are anguished and ashamed; they seem to half-run, half-stumble out--Adam head in hand, Eve crying out and covering up. The fresco shows an emotional, not a theological, event. True, Genesis is not a dramatic text, but Masaccio directs all the same; he provides a stage-picture. An illustrated Othello can work the same way. See the reptilian Iago provoking the dumbstruck Moor, the latter grasping the handkerchief, thinking: Desdemona! A does X to B; Falstaff fools Pistol and steals his lunch (we laugh); God, in the person of an angel, expels Adam and Eve (we weep); Iago manipulates Othello into a murderous rage (we clutch at our shirts).

I am suggesting that the fundamental insufficiency of a play script provides an opening for the narrative artist. If script=potential event(s), and the artist can read that text not for the words but for the action they betray, then here is an opportunity to direct for the page. Here's a chance to present actions which are not yet visual, but which strain to become so. Sounds good, a plum chance. Is it?

I came to the materials which Anne Posega assembled for the present exhibition with great expectation. The illustrated Shakespeare promises a lot. Just think of the lineup: bleeding Caesar, raging Lear, dreaming Bottom, swilling Falstaff, dithering Hamlet! It seems like big territory, rewarding of ambition. Meaty character, subtle tonalities, lots of sweep. The pictures would be sharp or charming or nervy, or brassy or corrosive, or some terrific combination thereof.

Wrong. Or mostly wrong. There are quite a few charming prints in the exhibition, many which offer pleasure. Sometimes the charm is something closer to politesse, even deference, especially among the British artists. But there isn't much nerve--not big nerve, anyway. By this I mean that the visual composers have not shown an ambition which is comparable to the text; they have chosen not to compete with Shakespeare. One might wonder, who would? But William Blake had the nerve to take on Dante and the Divine Comedy; his watercolors and engravings for the cycle show a range equal to the poet. There are comparable cases. And Shakespeare hasn't got a Blake.

The fault lies not with the exhibition. It's an excellent survey of the material, intelligently presented. Beginning with Hanmer's Oxford edition of 1744 , one can watch the artists work their way through the plays; the 20th century editions show some divergence in approach. And if the collective ambition of these illustrators is less than operatic, there are compensatory pleasures. Surprisingly, the terms of judgment have a great deal more to do with the act of reading than with dramatic imagination and stage-picturing. The most successful book in the room is Eric Gill's Hamlet, which is no bigger than my hand. The satisfactions of thie volume are many, and they all turn on the experience of reading. Gill rethought the quarto page design, and reset it in his own gently-serifed Joanna typeface. The page is clean and the type well-sized for it; the character names, abbreviated in roman at left (as opposed to the traditional italic) announce themselves plainly, and the speeches read well. Each of the five acts is announced by a Gill wood engraving with medieval density and art deco styling; each of these is set off by a large engraved capital beginning the text of Scene I. These pages punctuate the reading, and function like parting stage curtains. The book is magnificently clear and fresh. Eric Gill made me want to read the script, and to do so slowly.

Ron King's Antony and Cleopatra works in an altogether different manner. The Circle Press edition (1978) is baroquely energetic in Pop color. The double-spread photolithographs are constructed intelligently and with verve, and the metaphors--e.g. gambling, for Antony's recklessness--are sound. The text is presented in a minefield of activity, but legibly nonetheless, and "handwritten" margin notes give the work a warmth it might otherwise lack. The total effect is a kind of Vegas humanism.

The Circle Press Antony might actually grate a little in another context. But amid the dust and plod of some of these books, one is thankful for King's brass and cheek. In a league all its own for bombast is the elephantine Boydell's Illustrations of the Dramatic Works of Shakespeare (American edition 1852; English edition 1805). This collection of engravings-after-paintings by England's best academy painters now looks like a British anticipation of the Hollywood award show--the all-star line-up, the stilted group scenes, the technical astonishments achieved by the engravers. It's idiotically prideful, the nationalization of a world talent. But those engravers! One can scarcely believe the extraordinary range of value and texture made manifest in the prints. (That the skill seems weirdly empty is a different matter.) Certain of the images are really quite solid. Fuseli's version of Bottom's dream holds up well, as do some others. But what, after all, are we to do with an engraver's superb translation of a subject like The Infant Shakespeare, Attended by the Muses of Comedy and Tragedy?

Engraved treatments of paintings commissioned by Boydell dot editions (in smaller formats) throughout the exhibition. More than anything they betray the limits of 18th century pictorial convention. In the Othello scene I described earlier, the Iago-Othello exchange turns on character and behavior. The physical space in which the two might operate is a lesser value, since the primary logic of the image is narrative. The primacy of narrative in image construction is a hallmark of medieval art, and other forms, too. (Cartooning, for instance.) An especially good example can be found in the Bayeaux tapestry (c. 1100), a commemoration of the Norman Conquest. The horses and men and ships seem to "float," but in truth they are arrayed so as to make the action of a given episode clear. The spatial incongruities do not reveal incompetence, but rather reflect a different prime value--the imperative of communication. Note that this is true in Gill's Hamlet engravings. The spaces don't make much sense, nor need they. In a different way this is true of Claire Van Vliet'sKing Lear prints (Theodore Press, 1986). She wants us to see the interiors of character, so it's big heads we get. Eyes, brows, mouths. Nothing else is shown. (This Lear's problem is scale: the book is too big to invite reading.)

By contrast the Boydell Shakespeare painters assume that the physical environment of the "stage" must be authoritative. Scale and placement are thus dictated by spatial, not narrative, values. Since often the scene in question involves many characters, the space must expand to accomodate them. Consequently the figure shrinks, and becomes subservient to the space. This explains the sleepiness of certain images, the cocktail-party-in-period-costumes problem.

Certain works ought not go unmentioned. Among the most satisfying is the Cranach Press Hamlet (1930), ably illustrated by Edward Gordon Craig with silhouetted wooden shapes, mostly of figures and architectural elements. (Craig also contributed some awful drawings for the Limited Editions Club Macbeth, in 1939.) Count Harry Kessler's snappy page design is commanding. The blackletter typeface (a modified version of 15th century German psalter faces) can be difficult to decipher, but remains legible.

Ben Shahn's drawings for a CBS teleplay adaptation of Hamlet(1959?) are urgently winsome. They don't much bear on the action of the play, but please primarily because Ben Shahn draws like Ben Shahn, regardless of the subject. Rockwell Kent supplies a huskily effective if now ideogrammatic image of Hamlet with Yorick's skull, in Doubleday's Complete Works of 1936, as well as some handsome images for an edition of Shakespeare's long poem Venus and Adonis. Edmund Dulac's work for Hodder & Stoughton's 1908 edition ofThe Tempest is a treat, too--Caliban's torment is real, but there's a comic sense, too, and the balance between them seems right.

The Limited Editions Club of New York commissioned and published Eric Gill's exemplary Hamlet in 1933. Six years later the Club took on a more systematic project: the complete plays, designed by the venerable Bruce Rogers. The visual accompaniments, provided by a different illustrator for each of the volumes, are ghastly doodads: too few to provide a parallel experience, too limited in aspiration, too decorous. Well to leave it there, except that certain illustrators provide case studies of avoidance. Demetrius Galanis' illustrations forTroilus and Cressida (1939) qualify as interpretive malpractice. Troilus is the Trojan War play, arguably Shakespeare's most modern work, a kind of Elizabethan Waste Land. The late medieval world bursts apart. There are deep suspicions that meaninglessness underlies the Great Campaign. Not to worry. Galanis illustrates the work by painting Greek pots. Cultural collapse is at hand, and we get Attic vase painting. This was a job for Otto Dix! Thankfully, Eric Gill steps in with a set of wood engravings for Henry VIII, and Robert Gibbings does well with Othello.

Of Shakespeare's visual interpreters, Eric Gill is the strongest of the bunch. His work remains sensitive, rigorous, extremely skilled, and acute. But his was not an operatic reach. As an engraver-designer, Eric Gill might properly be compared to the best landscape or still life painters of years past, whose territories were confined and who excelled within them: Jacob van Ruisdael, or Chardin. This is not a question of medium: Goya and Rembrandt both achieved operatic scale in their graphic oeuvres, in plain old black-and-white. Gill, for all his gifts, did not. Few do. It may be that the very insufficiency of the printed script serves as a disincentive for narrative artists. I had imagined the opposite. But forget the Bard. Recall or imagine other examples of dramatic literature done up for such treatment. The illustrated Moliere? The illustrated Mamet? No. The script is a secondary aesthetic object, in a way that printed works of prose and poetry are not. In all likelihood, the greatest interpreters of Shakespeare are going to be the primary ones: the directors and the filmmakers. Brook, Kurosawa, et. al.

In the meantime, visual artists in the centuries since Shakespeare have provided works which are worth enjoying, even celebrating, especially as they support and focus the act of reading. Suffer the bombast, and glory in the verve, refinement, and insight currently housed in the Special Collections at Olin Library.

Douglas Dowd
Professor of Art and American Culture Studies
July 1996