William Shakespeare’s artistic vision has been long studied and the playwright has a reputation for being one of the most influential writers to have ever lived. Over the years, artists have been inspired by plays like Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet. Many artists have created paintings based on iconic scenes and characters from Shakespeare’s work. Some of these interpretations are literal and ornate, like Millais’ Ophelia (1852), while works done by artists like Dalí and Hayter incorporate abstraction and surrealist style. The consistent referencing of Shakespeare’s plays in artworks during the centuries following his death in 1616 showcases his status as a cornerstone of modern art and culture.
Who Was William Shakespeare?
William Shakespeare (1564-1616) was an English playwright, poet, and actor best known today for his plays and their effect on the development of the English language. Shakespeare’s body of work consists of approximately 39 plays, as well as many sonnets, verses, and narrative poems. Some of his best-known dramatic works include Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Much Ado About Nothing. He famously used a complex meter called iambic pentameter to write, and even invented and/or popularized English words like bandit, addiction, and lackluster.
Shakespeare addressed universal and relatable aspects of the human condition in his writing, which is one of the major reasons his work has been so influential and stood the test of time.
The 1610 portrait William Shakespeare by John Taylor is often used to depict the playwright for good reason. It is known today as the only portrait that was painted of Shakespeare during his lifetime. This portrait depicts Shakespeare wearing black with a white collar and red background. Some viewers have said the figure in the portrait exhibits melancholy, while others think it represents the rich intellectualism and writing genius Shakespeare exuded.
1. Ophelia (1852): An Iconic Interpretation by Millais
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When it comes to artistic depictions of William Shakespeare’s work, perhaps the most famous painting based on a Shakespearian play is Ophelia (1851-2) by Sir John Everett Millais. This work illustrates a tragic scene from the play Hamlet, where Ophelia drowns in a river. Ophelia’s character is driven mad over the course of the play, as many characters are, and her death scene is something of a rude awakening for both her fellow characters and readers/viewers alike. In addition to Millais’ iconic interpretation, Ophelia has been a popular figure for artists to depict over the years, including in the hit song by the American rock band The Lumineers titled Ophelia.
This Study for Ophelia (1852) by Sir John Everett Millais gives some insight into the meticulous process by which this legendary painting was created. Millais used the Hogsmill River in Surrey as a reference and sketched the foliage with high attention to detail. The breathtaking work is rife with symbolism, and each of the flowers surrounding Ophelia in the painting represents a different aspect of her struggle and personality.
2. Ophelia (1936): An Abstraction of a Recognizable Painting
Inspired by both Shakespeare and Sir John Everett Millais’ painting, Stanley William Hayter’s Ophelia (1936) is a stunning example of abstract art with Shakespearian influence. This painting shows an abstract version of Ophelia’s death scene, taking Millais’ literal illustration and turning it into a colorful exploration of the psyche. Ophelia (1936) is characterized by its intricate background, unique color choice, and almost dissociative forms scattered around the painting. This piece is an excellent instance of William Shakespeare’s influence on modern art, exhibiting that the themes in these plays can be illustrated in many different styles.
3. Scène finale (1967): Dalí’s Surrealist Depiction of Hamlet
Over the years, Hamlet has continued to be one of the most popular plays that inspires artists. Though Ophelia is a popular character Salvador Dalí painted himself, there is much other inspiring content inside Shakespeare’s iconic play. Dalí’s 1967 Scène finale, la Reine empoisonnée, Laertes agonisant et Hamlet tuant le Roi (Hamlet; Acte V; scene 2) illustrates a climactic scene from the play in which the Queen dies and Hamlet, Laertes, and the King have a violent battle. This is one painting in a series of illustrations of Shakespeare by Dalí, and it shows that there can be interpretations of Shakespeare in surrealist art.
Dalí’s surreal interpretation of Hamlet indicates one of the endless ways that artists can explore the work of William Shakespeare. The play deals with themes like mortality, madness, and vengefulness, all of which are depicted in this scene, and surrealism casts a new light on these classic ideas.
4. Miranda – The Tempest (1916) by John William Waterhouse
John William Waterhouse (1849-1917) was an English painter known for his depictions of mythical figures and scenes. Though Hamlet seems to have inspired most pieces of artwork, many of Shakespeare’s other plays have also prompted artists to create excellent paintings. Waterhouse’s 1916 painting Miranda, painted only one year before his death, depicts one of the main characters from the iconic play The Tempest. This play is about a magician named Prospero and his daughter Miranda, who have been banished to an island. Here, Waterhouse depicts Miranda on the island’s rocks, waiting for her lover Ferdinand to be shipwrecked on the island. Compared to Ophelia’s tragedy, Miranda is a Shakespearean figure that represents hope and femininity.
5. Romeo and Juliet (1884) Dicksee’s Painting of Star-Crossed Lovers
Another one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays is Romeo and Juliet, a play set in Verona, Italy. It tells a story about star-crossed lovers who ultimately die for each other. Frank Bernard Dicksee was commissioned to create his 1884 painting Romeo and Juliet for an ornately bound copy of the play. This painting is a highly romantic piece of art. It depicts Romeo and Juliet in a passionate embrace. The romantic style was a type of art that emphasized culturally significant scenes, emotion, and individualism, all things that the play Romeo and Juliet represents well. Dicksee’s illustration is also a testament to the lasting impact of the play, which is estimated to be written between 1591 and 1596. Even hundreds of years later, Dicksee was commissioned to create art for an elaborate version of the play’s manuscript.
6. Mariana (1851): Millais’ Lesser-Known Representation of a Shakespearean Woman
In contrast to Dicksee’s Romeo and Juliet, this 1851 painting by Sir John Everett Millais depicts a character from a lesser-known Shakespeare play, Measure for Measure. Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure involves a character named Mariana who is abandoned by her lover and lives a life of isolation. This play is often cited as a problem play due to its ambiguous characters and the open question of whether it is a comedy or a tragedy. Millais exhibits incredible skill and attention to detail in this painting, capturing the character of Mariana’s wistfulness and longing. This painting was originally accompanied by Tennyson’s poem Mariana, which describes the character’s unfortunate situation in verse.
7. William Shakespeare’s Characters by William Blake
William Blake (1757-1827) was an English poet, printmaker, and painter who found great inspiration in Shakespeare. In addition to Oberon, Titania, and Puck with Fairies Dancing, Blake had an extensive collection of illustrations of Shakespeare’s work. In addition to illustrating the plays of Shakespeare, Blake also expansively illustrated Paradise Lost and other works by John Milton.
Oberon, Titania, and Puck with Faeries Dancing (c. 1779-1825) depicts a scene from Shakespeare’s famous play A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This play is one of Shakespeare’s comedies which tells the story of young lovers caught up in the whimsy of a fairy world. Blake’s illustration shows this beautifully, depicting three main characters with fairies dancing around them. Blake’s unique interpretation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream highlights Shakespeare’s ability to transcend time, culture, and artistic style to inspire artists through the generations.