In my Shakespearean Afterlives class (which I’m loving!), we are reading through and discussing Shakespeare’s Hamlet. We are talking about how one has never truly seen Hamlet for the first time, as references from this iconic play have seeped into pop culture so much that we’ve all experienced it in some form or another. For instance, the line “To be, or not to be? That is the question” was included in my vocabulary before I’d even seen any production of Hamlet. Think of the many allusions to this show just in a character dressed in black and holding a skull! We’ve all experienced this play in informal ways. I wanted to look into representations of this play in artworks!

Needless to say, there’s a lot of art based on the characters and plot of this play! If it’s such a prevalent part of our society, it’s bound to be present in art. I’ll be talking about four works of art that I found particularly fascinating.

The first two I came across were by Eugene Delacroix, a French artist who specialized in Romanticism. Here is a sketch of Delacroix’s Hamlet and the Corpse of Polonius from 1835 and his Hamlet and Horatio in the Graveyard from 1839. In both, shading is used to dramatize the scene. The dark clouds and deep shadows in the painting create an ominous ambiance that highlights the faces of all present (most of all, Hamlet’s). In the sketch, the dark folds in the drapery and costumes also provide contrast to the paleness of Polonius’ face, the emotion on Hamlet’s, and the glint of the sword on the floor. Delacroix gives Hamlet a similar face shape in these representations, as well as a similarity in his hand shape and position. There is an emphasis in both on the musculature of the bodies represented, which gives them strength and presence in these scenes.

The other two works I want to examine depict the play scene.

On the left is Daniel Maclise’s The Play Scene in ‘Hamlet’ from 1842, another Romantic representation of Hamlet, and on the right is Edwin Austin Abbey’s The Play Scene in Hamlet Act III Scene II from 1897. The play within a play is such a wonderful thing to portray in art because it adds yet another wonderfully complex layer of art to this scene. For context, Hamlet stages a play to get his uncle to admit to killing Hamlet’s father, the late king. In both of these paintings, the play is unfolding and Claudius (Hamlet’s uncle) is about to admit guilt. Maclise’s does this by having Claudius being just about to jump to his feet and admit everything, and Abbey’s shows Hamlet looking back at his uncle to gauge his reaction to the play, hoping to find guilt in his face. I find it interesting that in Maclise’s we are a part of the audience looking into the scene, whereas in Abbey’s we are being looked at by the audience, thus putting us on stage with the players. The deep, muted tones in the former contrast heavily with the bright colors of the latter, making these two paintings fascinating to look at side by side. Together they serve as a reminder of the darkness and wildness of the entire play, but also in this specific scene.

I loved getting to look at so many depictions of this play! Discussing only four of these artworks is not showing a great sample of all of the brilliant representations out there, so perhaps I’ll come back to this topic after a few more classes. Stay tuned! Have a great week. 🙂

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