Shakespeare in art

Happy 450th birthday William Shakespeare! Here's how the Bard and his writings have inspired some great works of art.

1. Joseph Wright of Derby, Romeo and Juliet, 1786-1791

Art Funded for Derby Museum and Art Gallery in 1981

This scene depicts the moment when Juliet, kneeling beside Romeo, hears a footstep and draws a blade to kill herself; 'Yea, noise? Then I'll be brief. O happy dagger!'.

Wright's proposal for a painting of 'Juliet waking in the tomb' was agreed by Alderman John Boydell, who wanted it for his Shakespeare Gallery. However, the piece was the cause of a major row between the two after Wright discovered that Boydell had classified the painters he commissioned into two classes. Wright, in the second class, was to be paid £300, while some artists were getting around £1,000. He claimed his objection was more to do with the damage to his reputation than the loss of income. In the end, the piece was rejected and remained with the artist.

2. William Hamilton, John Kemble as Richard III, 1788

Art Funded for University of Bristol in 1978

'Now is the winter of our discontent, Made glorious summer by this sun of York.'

Both the sitter and painter of this work had strong connections to Shakespeare. John Philip Kemble is generally regarded as the greatest tragic actor of his day. He was frequently cast in Shakespearean roles, appearing in Othello, King Lear, The Merchant of Venice and Macbeth to name but a few. He is depicted here in his Richard III garb by William Hamilton – a prolific portrait painter specialising in sitters connected with the stage. Hamilton often produced illustrations for Boydell's Shakespeare and other lavish publications. 

3. Henry Fuseli, Lady Macbeth Seizing the Daggers, 1812

Art Funded for the Tate Collection in 1965

This painting captures the moment immediately after Macbeth has murdered Duncan, King of Scotland, who was a guest at his castle; 'I am afraid to think what I have done; Look on't again I dare not'. It is at this point in the play that Lady Macbeth takes control; 'Infirm of purpose. Give me the daggers'. 

Fuseli was introduced to Shakespeare's work during his student days in Zürich, and while in Switzerland he worked on translating Macbeth into German. After attending a production of the play in London in 1766, he made several drawings inspired by the dagger seizing scene. The Tate piece has also become known as 'Mrs Siddons as Lady Macbeth' as it is said to depict her in the title role. Siddons became famous for playing Lady Macbeth ever since appearing as the murderess at Drury Lane in 1785 and she even chose it for her farewell performance in 1812.

4. Richard Dadd, Puck,1841

Art Funded for Harris Museum & Art Gallery in 2011

Puck, Oberon's jester in A Midsummer Night's Dream, is captured sitting on a toadstool while smaller fairy figures dance around him in moonlight; 'that shrewd and knavish sprite... that merry wanderer of the night'.

The fairy genre flourished during the Victorian era and Dadd was seen as one of its leading painters. This piece was his very first fairy picture and it was exhibited at the Society of British Artists in 1841. Sadly, Dadd was plagued by mental illness and he murdered his father just a few years later in 1843. After this he spent the rest of his life incarcerated, first in 'Bedlam' asylum and later in Broadmoor. Although he continued to paint, he only ever finished about 12 fairy oil paintings. The dark undertones of this work can be seen as a possible allusion to the unrest that would follow. 

5. Philip Sutton, William Shakespeare in the Globe Theatre, 1988

Art Funded for Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in 2002

'Some are born great, others achieve greatness' - Twelfth Night.

Sutton originally painted this piece for the Royal Academy of Arts 1988 Summer exhibition, but hoped it would eventually be displayed at the new Globe Theatre, for which building had begun in April. His inspiration for the portrait came after discussing the Globe project with its architect, Theo Crosby. 

You can learn more about the the writer, his life and his work at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Warwickshire. Comprised of five properties in and around Statford-upon-Avon, it includes Mary Arden's Farm, the childhood home of Shakespeare's mother; Shakespeare's Birthplace; Anne Hathaway's Cottage, the home of the playwright's wife; Hall's Croft, where Shakespeare's daughter lived; and Nash's House and New Place, where Shakespeare died in 1616. Free entry with the National Art Pass.

Venue details

Shakespeare's Family Homes The Shakespeare Centre, Henley Street Warwickshire CV37 6QW 01789 204 016 www.shakespeare.org.uk

Entry details

Free with National Art Pass (standard entry £26.25)

Please see the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust website for individual opening times