shakespeare agecroft1

shakespeare agecroft1

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Seeing apparitions

"Horatio says 'tis but our fantasy
And twice will not let belief take hold of him
Touching this dreaded sight, twice seen of us:
Therefore I have entreated him along
With us to watch the minutes of this night,
That if again this apparition come,
He may approve our eyes and speak to it."

                                                              Hamlet    (I, i)

Horatio is a skeptic. He's listened to the claims of Marcellus and Bernardo that they've seen some kind of apparition on the battlements of Elsinore Castle, but he's been hard to convince. So they've brought him along to see for himself, as they'll do for Hamlet shortly thereafter. The appearances of the ghost of Hamlet's father make for some of the most illustrated scenes in all of Shakespeare.

Pictured above is a scene from a production of Hamlet at Agecroft Hall during a Richmond Shakespeare Festival of several years past, featuring one of the reappearances of the ghost to exhort Hamlet on to revenge. It's a scene that artists (and photographers) can't seem to resist; at least three hundred years of illustration of Shakespeare's plays attest to the hold that Hamlet and his ghostly father have on the imagination.

Above is a nineteenth-century engraving of the same scene from Hamlet, with the armor-clad ghost on the right, standing before a clearly astonished Prince of Denmark. "Engraved by Hollis from an Original Painting by Reid in the possession of the Publishers," identified as The London Printing and Publishing Company. Perhaps not so surprisingly, book publishers of the time liked to identify figures in their engravings with specific actors and actresses that were popular at the moment: under this particular illustration, it is noted that Hamlet is played by William Charles Macready (1793-1873), a very highly regarded actor of the period. Evidently that helped sell books.

Apparitions also loom large in Shakespeare's Macbeth: there can be little doubt that the scenes that involve Macbeth and the three Weird Sisters (or witches) are among the most memorable in that remarkably memorable play. Like the ghost in Hamlet, book illustrators have long found the witches in Macbeth to be irresistible. Below is an engraving from another nineteenth-century volume of Shakespeare's works that features Macbeth's reaction to being shown by the three witches that a line of Banquo's sons, and not Macbeth's, will reign in a dynasty stretching out to "the crack of doom."

There are quite a few other scenes from the plays of Shakespeare that illustrators keep coming back to, again and again. Hamlet's contemplation of Yorick's skull; Ophelia in her madness bestrewn with flowers and weeds, or perched on a precarious limb above a gurgling brook; Lady Macbeth walking in her sleep; Nick Bottom wearing the head of an ass in A Midsummer Night's Dream; Othello creeping up on Desdemona as she sleeps; King Lear and his fool on the blasted heath, with the old man raging at the tempestuous sky; certainly the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet. Book illustrators have always loved to illustrate scenes of emotional intensity, and for centuries they have found a great abundance in the works of Shakespeare.

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