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Tragedy On Canvas: A Visual Guide to Shakespeare’s Women in 19th Century Art

by Madeline Brace

Content Warning: This article, the art and plays it concerns and the articles linked below feature potentially distressing subject matter including suicide, mental illness, forced marriage and murder.

For reasons that have spawned books and debate the women of Shakespeare’s tragedies have inspired innumerable works of art, and their popularity as subject matter would only grow during the Victorian period. These subjects have been utilised to carry diverse and often contradictory meanings, and are imbued with whatever biases and beliefs their creators desired. Below are just a few examples of such paintings, from four of the best known of Shakespeare’s plays; Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, and Othello.

Thomas Francis Dicksee, Ophelia, 1873.
Photo credit: Rochdale Arts & Heritage Service

Hamlet (1609)

The tragedy of a suffering prince, but also the woman he left behind. Depictions of Ophelia often focus upon her suicide by drowning, romanticising it to an arguably disturbing degree. John Everett Millais Ophelia of 1851-2 is perhaps the most famous and has been reproduced hundreds of times as a poster child of the Pre-Raphaelite style, but a less well known evocation by Thomas Francis Dicksee is arguably just as interesting.

Dicksee used Shakespeare’s plays as inspiration on a number of occasions, his subjects also including Ariel, Miranda, and as we will see, Juliet. In this case, Ophelia is painted looking straight out of the canvas at the viewer, and refreshingly she seems alert and even powerful.

Women also took Ophelia as a muse in their art. Henrietta Rae’s portrait does not focus upon Ophelia at or going to her death, but presents a woman alive and in control. While the court that fueled her suffering is shrouded in darkness, she is illuminated and pearlescent, and wearing the white that artists often use to suggest her virtue. But the injustice of her story and tragedy of her death are still arguably under represented.

John Everett Millais, Ophelia, 1851-2
Photo credit: Tate Gallery
Henrietta Rae, Ophelia, 1890
Photo Credit: Walker Art Gallery

John Singer Sargent, Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth, 1889
Photo Credit: Tate Gallery

Macbeth (1606)

Lady Macbeth has proved to be a divisive character since her conception, and her manifestations in art reflect this. Some have taken her as an archetype of a strong if misguided woman, others as a travesty that renounced her femininity in favour of the stereotypically masculine pursuit of power. Henry Fuseli and John Singer Sargent depicted Lady Macbeth in very different ways, the latter being inspired by Ellen Terry’s performance in 1889.

 In both cases she is magnificent but sexualised. Sargent shows her with wild eyes and an indomitable presence, while Fuseli’s Lady Macbeth is a cold and calculating figure coercing her husband into committing the tragedies unspeakable acts.

Théodore Chassériau, “If I do die before thee, pr’ythee shroud me in one of those same sheets”: plate 8 from Othello (Act 4, Scene 3)’’, 1844
Photo credit: The Metropolitan Museum, NY

Othello (1604)

When researching for this article I could find surprisingly few depictions of the eponymous hero Othello’s wife Desdemona.

This illustration by the French artist Théodore Chassériau captures Desdemona readying for bed on the last night of her life, accompanied by her beloved attendant Emilia, the second female casualty of this story. She appears serene and in control, foreshadowing one of the most disturbing elements of the text; her almost docile acceptance when her husband murders her thanks to the conniving of the plays villain, Iago.

Romeo and Juliet (1597)

Thomas Francis Dicksee, Juliet on the Balcony, 1875
Photo credit: Dundee Art Galleries and Museums Collection (Dundee City Council)

Two particular parts of Juliet’s story seem to have captured the public imagination in the following centuries; her death and her balcony. Thomas Francis Dicksee’s Juliets are much like his Ophelia – serene, idealised Victorian beauties caught in moments of strife but maintaining their unnerving composure. His focus is not on the passion or tragedy of Juliet’s story, but it’s potential for visual splendour. Lucy Madox Browne, meanwhile, the overlooked daughter of the more famous Ford Madox Browne, depicts Juliet as Romeo finds her entombed at the plays denouement. The agency Juliet has taken in escaping her forced marriage is displayed here, as she is caught in a moment of magnificence. But the tension of the story is restored once the viewer sees the poison bottle in Romeo’s hand.

Lucy Madox Brown, The Tomb Scene from Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ (Act V: sc.3), 1870
Photo credit: Wightwick Manor © National Trust / Paul Highnam

The women featured above are complex and interesting characters deserving of scrutiny and reimagining. Some picture them as docile, weak or unfeminine, as the above 19th century representations show. Other’s undermine the mental illnesses they suffered from, or present their untimely deaths as a perverse fulfilment of female subservience to man. In many cases the problematic elements of Shakespeare’s original texts are only exacerbated by the artist on canvas. But their stories have also been captured in more favourable terms, and the visual culture of the 20th and 21st centuries has treated them more fairly.

By Madeline Brace