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Illustrating Shakespearean comedies

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Illustrating Shakespearean comedies
Illustrating Shakespearean comedies
It would hardly be an overstatement to say that Shakespeare’s works are the most illustrated of any English poet. His plays have always been popular and by the 18th century one out of every six plays shown in London was by Shakespeare. (Although there were the obvious crowd-pleasers, and some plays were never or hardly ever staged.) With such popularity, it was a natural step for The Bard’s works to appear in the visual arts. It is without doubt a challenge for any artist to bring the dramatic energy of the Shakespearean plays into the static one dimension of the illustration.

But what is illustration? Is it inferior to fine art? The aim of the Boydell project was certainly to prove the opposite. John and Josiah Boydell opened the Shakespeare Gallery in Pall Mall, London in 1798, and they invited the most famous and talented contemporary artists to illustrate Shakespeare’s dramatic works. The paintings were exhibited in the gallery and were remade as engravings to be published as illustrations next to the dramatic texts. A great number of these engravings were also published in a two-volume folio, which is this exhibition’s source material. The Boydell Venture was an ambitious project, but sadly was not well received by critics at the time. The negative reviews were mainly due to the fact that most of the pictures are “unimaginative” theatrical tableaus, and they lack unity in style.

Josiah Boydell addressed these critiques in the preface to the folio. He writes that the art presented cannot reach “the sublimity of our Poet”, and asks the viewer not to expect from painting, what it cannot perform. Yet he believes that “in every picture there is something to be praised”. Hopefully this exhibition proves that point.

The following exhibition concentrates on the Shakespearean comedies. Illustrating tragedies might be an easier task for a skilled artist, since tragedies have a lot of dramatic elements and events that can be transferred onto the canvas. Dramatic tension often creates iconic images that one immediately associates with the play, such as Macbeth and the Witches; Hamlet and the grave-diggers; Ophelia’s madness; the conflicted Othello with a dagger in hand, leaning over the sleeping Desdemona; just to name a few. But illustrating comedies is a tougher challenge, because much of the comic element lies in the words not the actions. Luckily, however, Shakespeare knew that good tragedy cannot exist without comedy, and good comedy also needs dramatic tension in order to truly capture the audience. This of course helped produce equally iconic scenes from comedies, like Petrucchio’s ranting in Taming of the Shrew, the fairy court from Midsummer Night’s Dream – typically with Bottom with his ass’s head. But the ambitious aim of the Boydell venture was to illustrate every Shakespearean drama, even the lesser known and definitely the lesser illustrated ones. So, a lot of the engravings of the comedies depict the climax or the conclusion of the plays, since these have the most dramatic tension, and thus best suited for visual representation. But there are several highly comedic scenes illustrated, and even some that do not specifically stand out as either.

This online exhibition displays 26 comedy illustrations, amongst which we can find rarely illustrated dramas, like Love’s Labour’s Lost and The Comedy of Errors, as well as several rarely illustrated scenes from the more well-known comedies.