An assemblage of portraits and views
The 1793 volume Shakspeare Illustrated… is a visual guide to Shakespeare as both an historical figure and a writer of historical plays. Images of monarchs, cities and buildings key to his plays are accompanied by representations of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, including Elizabeth I and fellow actors.
Such key successors and proponents as Alexander Pope and Samuel Johnson also feature. This is explicitly an ‘assemblage’, an anthology: rather than a single artist’s interpretation of the historical figures, or of their onstage portrayals, the book consists of versions of previously existing images, sourced largely from paintings, prints and drawings but also from coins and stained glass. The character ‘Richard III’ is not illustrated, for instance; but the historical figure is (as is the first actor to play him, Richard Burbage).
The multiplicity of Richards is a rare instance of the anthology implying something about the plays’ influence upon public perception: history is not single-faceted, it seems to say, and theatre’s mirror can add reflection, inversion, to the refractions of interpretation. A similar dynamic is explored in the juxtaposition of two images of Elizabeth ‘Jane’ Shore (Edward IV’s mistress, referred to as ‘Mistress Shore’ in Richard III): on one hand she is defined by her sexuality, and is, on the other, a powerful political influence.
But these moments of suggestiveness about the ambiguities of history and theatre are few enough that to notice them at all might be merely fanciful: if the volume has practical theatrical applications, they are likely less about thematic exploration than about providing visual reference points for costume designers and casting directors. Images of figures from the Roman plays are taken from currency, and therefore are aesthetically distinct from more recent images drawn from, for instance, court portraiture: there is, as such, not much suggestion of the immediacy with which performances of these plays might explore the dynamics of temporally distant societies.
Locations, too, are depicted as grounded far more in mundane reality than in theatrical artifice. Distant glimpses of cityscapes give little indication of how those places would be represented on stage. The external architecture of the Tower of London says nothing about the mood inside; Venice’s Rialto area is mentioned in The Merchant of Venice but is not the setting of any of the onstage action; and Dunsinane and Dover are pictured with none of the unnerving atmosphere that is brought to them by Macbeth and King Lear respectively.
That said, it might be argued that the understated nature of the illustrations enhances the significance, the symbolic connotations, of the people and places they represent. Viewing Dunsinane as a geological feature, one that empirically exists separate from the notion of the fulfilment of supernatural prophecy, gives a sheen of credence to the fiction: some of this is true; you can go there. Likewise, London Stone and Herne’s Oak, through being presented without transcendent or fantastic properties, look accessible; their mythological connotations therefore seem accessible too.
This could be the true weight of the volume: the calm and implicit acknowledgement of all that Shakespeare admitted into his ken, all that is funnelled into and transmitted from his work.
This Special Collections Spotlight article was contributed on 16 January 2019 by Adam Crothers, Special Collections Assistant.