Shakespeare Illustrated will always be a work in progress; Richard Altick calculates in Paintings from Books that "pictures from Shakespeare accounted for about one fifth--some 2,300--of the total number of literary paintings recorded between 1760 and 1900" (255). And those are just the paintings by British artists. Many of these canvasses have disappeared and are known to us only through catalogs of exhibits, reviews, and passing references; how many gather dust in attics, basements and junk shops we have no way of knowing, nor can we guess how many paintings still hang on the walls of private owners. The finest paintings by the best artists, however, are preserved and exhibited in museums all over the world, and the renewed interest in nineteenth-century British art in the last few decades makes it easier for us to identify and see reproductions of the many paintings based on Shakespeare's plays.
These "history paintings," as they were called, demonstrate how profoundly painters, actors, directors and critics influenced one another and how interdependent they were in their critical interpretations, depictions and productions of Shakespeare's plays. In the nineteenth century the relationship between literature and the graphic arts was much closer and the definition of "literary" criticism was broader than it is now. A critic like John Eagles blurs most of our modern distinctions when he says of Daniel Maclise's painting The Play Scene in "Hamlet" (1842) that "It is the business of the dramatist to make good pictures, and whether it be done by the players or the painter, what matter, so they be effective, and the story worth telling; and how shall they be better told than as the author intended they should be represented? The boards of the theatre and the canvass are the same thing--the eye is to behold, and the mind to be moved." Maclise, he adds, "has all the materials of a poet painter" (24, 28). Martin Meisel remarks in Realizations that Eagle appeals here not only to the concept of ut pictura poesis and the traditional analogy between painters and poets, but that he is "identifying the painter with the players, as artists equally capable of realizing the narrative import and the dramatic potential of the poet's imagined picture" (69). Painters and performers can, like critics, interpret and comment on works of literature.
Ralph Cohen pushes the relationship between literature and illustration back into the eighteenth century in The Art of Discrimination; he begins his study of James Thomson's The Seasons with the assumption that "illustrations are non-verbal interpretations" and that poetry and painting can serve as interpretation or explanation of one another (2, 248). Kester Svendsen is more inclusive, maintaining that the history of a "great literary work" is incomplete if it does not include the interpretations "put upon the masterpiece by artists" (64). But despite the impressive scholarship of Ralph Cohen, Martin Meisel and Richard Altick, the "graphic" criticism and interpretation of literature by painters and artists have been largely neglected and some interesting questions are left unanswered.
Questions concerning the influence of art on literature are all the more pertinent when we recall how popular paintings on literary subjects were in nineteenth-century Britain and how familiar they became to the general public through exhibitions, engravings, inexpensive reproductions, book illustrations, albums--the Victorian equivalent of our modern coffee-table books--and even postcards. Once we begin to explore the influence not only of literature on painting but the influence as well of the artists on literature, then, as Richard Altick puts it, "questions abound." What correlation, he asks, existed between, for example, a play's critical standing and its popularity as a subject for artists? Paintings are obvious indicators of the public's taste in art; are they equally valid indicators of literary taste? How influential were paintings in determining which part of a writer's canon was most popular? Did the appeal of some works for artists mean they were ranked higher by the public, or did the artists, through the subjects they chose to depict, help fix the hierarchy of works in an author's canon and thus make them more popular? And finally, what part did the artist play in whetting the public's appetite for particular literary works? The artists, he says, "performed in their particular manner the popularizing function of writers-about-books like Lamb, Hazlitt, and Leigh Hunt. . . . Essayists and artists in effect collaborated to advertise the attractions of books to a public of indifferently educated but potentially educable men and women" (248-50).
Bram Dijkstra in Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-De-Siecle Culture (1986) examines yet another set of questions involving the cross-currents of literature and art in Victorian Britain, and these we shall address in part when we turn to the character of Ophelia and her representation by various artists. Male artists, he maintains, did their part in squelching nascent feminist stirrings and fixing the image and identity of women in ways with which men were comfortable and women could be dominated and controlled. The artists who defined Shakespeare's female characters in their paintings will play a significant role in our examination of art and the plays of Shakespeare.
Questions do indeed abound and, although Shakespeare Illustrated is concerned with only one author, we will search for answers to some of the issues raised here. For the time being and for the purposes of this introduction, we will content ourselves with a demonstration of the relationships among play, painter, actor and critic with several examples from a single scene in Hamlet--the play within the play (Act III, scene ii)--where we will examine the question of Gertrude's guilt and a curious bit of stage business we shall call "Hamlet's crawl."