William Blake, Pity (c. 1795)

Color print finished in pen and watercolor, size approximately 17 X 21 inches, Tate Gallery, London.

Blake's watercolor illustrates a passage from the beginning of Act I, scene vii of Macbeth, where Macbeth in a soliloquy debates the contemplated murder of Duncan, who, he says,

Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been
So clear in his great office, that his virtues
Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued against
The deep damnation of his taking-off;
And pity, like a naked new-born babe
Striding the blast, or heaven's cherubin horsed
Upon the sightless couriers of the air,
Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye
That tears shall drown the wind.

Blake worked out the composition of this print in two preliminary pencil sketches, both now in the British Museum. In the first drawing the horses of the cherubim rise at a steeper angle. In the second sketch the horses gallop as they do now in an almost horizontal line, but the figure of the woman is partially raised. Only in this final version does she lie completely flat on the ground and look up at the "sightless couriers" (Johnson 217-18). Blake thus unites Shakespeare's two images of pity--the babe striding the blast and heaven's cherubim on horseback--in this single, striking illustration of the text.

This picture is displayed on the Tate Gallery's site where the Gallery has mounted many of the paintings from its magnificent collection. The site is well constructed and easy to navigate. All the pages will open in separate windows, so close them to return to Shakespeare Illustrated. If a picture has a display caption, read it; the notes will supplement what I have to say about an illustration.

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