William Sterling

Music and Art Inspired by Shakespeare 1

This is the first of six postings for lectures from the Cruise on the SAGA Pearl II to the Gulf of Bothnia.


This series of Six Talks was devised to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death in 2016. They were commissioned for a cruise to the Gulf of Bothnia so were tailored to fit in with this.

No. 1: Brush Up Your Shakespeare

An introduction to Shakespeare’s plays and the breadth of music and art they inspired. The first examples will be taken from near contemporary sources and those in the following centuries.

Opening Music – “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” from Cole Porter’s “Kiss Me Kate” based on The Taming of the Shrew

2016 marks the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakepeare, the greatest playwright the world has known, one of the greatest writers in the English langauge and arguably the most influential and possibly greatest Briton ever. As a cultural historian it seemed fitting to celebrate his life by examining some of the music and art inspired by his plays. In this first talk I shall be giving a brief outline of Shakespeare’s Life and then looking at some of the earliest music and art inspired by his works from his own time and the century or so immediately afterwards. I shall also look at the works of art inspired by his life and by some of the speeches in the plays rather than art that illustrates the actual scenes. Many of the early paintings are of actors performing the famous roles.

In the second talk called “Love’s Labours” I look at all the love stories in Shakespeare such as Romeo and Juliet and others to acknowledge the fact that many of you, like my wife and I, will be celebrating wedding anniversaries on this cruise. Some of you may be on your honeymoon and some travelling alone hoping to find love. The third talk recognises that we are her during midsummer, an importnat festival in Sweden and I have called in “Midsummer Dreams” looking at Midsummer Night’s Dream and other plays with supernatural elements such as Macbeth and The Tempest. The fourth talk is “The Scandinavian Connection” as we are in Scnadinavia and will look at Hamlet and the art and music by Scandinavian painters, sculptors and composers. The fifth talk is called “All At Sea” and looks at references to the sea and weather in Shakespeare. [As I have had to cut out one of the talks I have chosen this one as much of it was going to be about storms and I do not want to tempt fate.] The final talk is “All’s Well That Ends” and will summarise what I have talked about and look at the art and music from more recent times, mostly the 20th century with musicals and films coming into their own.

Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon on 23rd April 1564, the son of John Shakespeare, a glover, alderman and high bailiff (equivalent of mayor) and Mary Arden, daughter of a well-to-do landowning farmer. John and Mary had eight children between 1558 and 1580 of whom five survived into adulthood, William being the third eldest and eldest surviving. He was educated at the free King’s New School in Stratford, founded by King Edward VI in 1553, 11 years before Shakespeare’s birth. He would have learnt Latin by studying classical authors as well as History and other subjects from which he drew much of the inspiration for his plays. Unlike some of his contemporary writers such as Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Nashe, William did not go to university. He also did not follow his father into the glove trade which was just as well as John was not a good businessman and by 1576 had withdrawn from public life due to his debts. In 1582, at the age of 18 William married 26 year old Anne Hathaway who gave birth six months later to their daughter Susanna (1583). In February 1585 Anne had twins, Judith and Hamnett. Sometime before 1592 William arrived in London where he worked in the theatre which he appears to have started back in Stratford. He left his family in Stratford but returned periodically, presumably for the funeral of his 11 year old only son in 1596, for the purchase of New Place in 1597 and the marriage of his daughter Susanna in 1607 to Dr John Hall and at other times. At least three years before William was definitely in London he had started writing plays (1589) and for the next 24 years he produced at least 39 plays (some in collaboration with his fellow writers), 154 sonnets and two long poems. From 1594, when his plays started to be printed, they were performed exclusively by the Lord Chamberlain’s men which became the King’s Men on the succession of James I in 1603. James continued the royal patronage which Shakespeare had enjoyed under Elizabeth I. From 1599 the company had its own theatre on the Southbank called the Globe and Shakespeare acted in the plays as well. Whenever the plague broke out in London the theatres were closed and Shakespeare probably returned to Startford during these times. He may have retired there permanently in 1613 when he appears to have stopped writing but he returned to London from time to time even after that. He was in Stratford in February 1616 for the marriage of his daughter Judith to Thomas Quiney and wrote his will in March, dying in Stratford a month later on his 52nd birthday, 23rd April 1616. He was buried in Holy Trinity church two days later. Seven years later a monument was erected with a supposed portrait bust possibly by Gerard Johnson, a Dutch sculptor who was in England at the time. In the same year, 1623, the first collection of his plays was published known as the First Folio having been compiled by two of his friends John Heminges and Henry Condell. 18 plays had been published previously but this was the first publication of a further 18 and 2 more authentic versions of the earlier ones. The only plays missing were Pericles, The Two Noble Kinsmen, Cardenio and Love’s Labours Won. The last of these is sometimes thought to be an alternative title to Much Ado About Nothing or All’s Well That Ends Well. Cardenio is lost but Double Falsehood by Lewis Theobald of 1727 may preserve some elements of the original. Of the 39 plays at least 10 contain material by other authors. A 40th play, Edward III, is now thought to be a collaboration between Shakespeare and Thomas Kyd.

Music was important to Shakespeare. Most of his plays contain songs, even tragedies like Hamlet, King Lear and Othello, and there are dances and many other references to music. He includes the text or makes reference to over 100 songs. It is almost impossible to prove which actual pieces of music were performed at the time but many contemporary works have survived and it is wuite clear some were wrttien specifically for the plays. Among those surviving there are three by Robert Johnson, “Hark, Hark! The Lark” from Cymbeline and “Full Fathom Five” and “Where the Bee Sucks” from The Tempest, composed for the King’s Men between 1610 and 1617. He had previously worked for Lord Hunsdon who was one of Shakespeare’s patrons so may have written other songs for the plays. Another contemporary composer, Thomas Morley, wrote a setting of “O Mistress Mine” from Twelfth Night and another of “It Was A Lover And His Lass” from As You Like It but there is no proof they were used in any contemporary productions. There are many anonymous settings of the songs and contemporary settings of the dances which could well have been ones used by Shakespeare.

Music – “It Was A Lover And His Lass” from As You Like It   by Thomas Morley

In Twelfth Night Duke Orsino tries to get over his rejection by Countess Olivia by listening to music:

If music be the food of love, play on;

Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,

The appetite may sicken, and so die.

That strain again! it had a dying fall:

O, it came o’er my ear like the sweet sound,

That breathes upon a bank of violets,

Stealing and giving odour!”

But it fails:

Enough; no more:

‘Tis not so sweet now as it was before.

In The Merchant of Venice Lorenzo invites Jessica to join him on a star canopied bank

Here will we sit and let the sounds of music

Creep in our ears. Soft stillness and the night

Become the touches of sweet harmony.

Sit, Jessica. Look how the floor of heaven

Is thick inlaid with patens of bright gold.

There’s not the smallest orb which thou behold’st

But in his motion like an angel sings,

Still choiring to the young-eyed cherubins.

Such harmony is in immortal souls,

But whilst this muddy vesture of decay

Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.

Since naught so stockish, hard, and full of rage

But music for the time doth change his nature.”

He continues with a warning about those without music:

“The man that hath no music in himself,

Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,

Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils;

The motions of his spirit are dull as night

And his affections dark as Erebus.

Let no such man be trusted.”

Vaughan Williams used these words in his “Serenade To Music” written to celebrate the jubilee of Sir Henry Wood of Proms fame in 1938 for 16 of the leading soloists of the day including Dame Isobel Baillie, Dame Eva Turner and Heddle Nash.

Music – Part of Henry Wood’s 1938 recording of Vaughan Williams’s “Serenade To Music.”

Ever since Shakespeare’s day composers have set the songs to music and added incidental music for productions of the plays. The most famous of this incidental music is by Mendelssohn for Midsummer’s Night Dream. In the 20th century composers found another outlet with film music: William Walton and Dimitri Shostakovich are among the many great composers who have contributed to this. An obvious extention to this was to turn the plays into operas and some of the greatest opera composers such as Rossini, Verdi, Gounod and Wagner have written operas based on Shakespeare. From the 19th century onwards composers have also written symphonic works such as Concert Overtures and Symphonic Poems based on the plays. Others have also written works that are more obliquely inspired by Shakespeare such as Beethoven’s so called Tempest Piano Sonata. Some of these will be examined in the later talks.

When it comes to art the inspiration of Shakepeare took somewhat longer to take off. Shakespeare’s own life became an inspiration for some artists and the speeches and solilquies inspired works that are not direct representations of the plays. There are virtually no art works survivng from Shakespeare’s time or that of his immediate successors that have a direct connection to him. The well known anonymous portrait was painted after his death and may or may not be a true liekness.

Swiss born Angelica Kauffman was one of two women artists to be founder members of the Royal Academy in 1768, according to some contemporaries only because she was the mistress of Sir Joshua Reynolds, the first president, but her art speaks for itself and her reputation is higher today than ever. She was inspired by Shakespeare’s plays and by the man himself as shown in her imaginative paintings of the 1770s. Other late 18th/early 19th century artists similarly inspired include George Romney, Henry Fuseli and Richard Westall. Artists such as Geoge Cruikshank, Charles Cattermole, John Faed and Solomon Hart imagined scenes from Shakespeare’s Life whilst others like Thomas Stothard and Sir John Gilbert imagined processions of Shakespearean characters.

The First Folio has a portrait of Shakepseare ascribed to Martin Droeshout which influenced later artists such as William Blake and American Thomas Sully. The monument in Stratford dates from the same time as the First Folio as mentioned above and the Victorian artist Henry Wallis imagined Gerard Johnson carving it. These contemporary protraits were also an influence of later monuments in Westminster Abbey and Southwark Cathedral (which also has a memorial window with some of the characters from the plays and the Seven Ages of Man).

One of the very few art works that can be dated to Shakespeare’s lifetime is by an artist called Henry Peacham and is in a manuscript at Longleat House owned by Lord Bath. It can be dated to about 1595 and shows a scene from Titus Andronicus, one of the most popular of Shakespeare’s plays at the time. It is one of the most bloodthirsty and appealed to the gruesome taste of the period that resulted in the gory plays of Jonson, Middleton, Beaumont, and Fletcher in James I’s reign. It shows Tamora, queen of the Goths, pleading for the life of her son before Titus. His refusal to grant mercy leads to the gruesome events of the play. One of the difficulties of ascribing artworks is that a number of Shakespeare’s works are on subjects that were already the inspiration for artists. The delivery of the heads of Titus’s sons to him is compared to the similar Greek myth of Tereus and his son Itylus. Rubens’s version of this might be referring to Shakespeare. His poem Venus and Adonis was a theme that was already an inspiration for artists so when Rubens painted them in the early 17th century it is more likely that he was inspired the myth itself rather than Shakespeare’s interpretation of it. However, Rubens worked in England for James I and Charles I both as a painter and a diplomat. It is very likely that he would have seen Shakespeare’s plays in London and might have seen Titus and read Venus and Adonis. This difficulty also applies to many of the history plays – unless the artist specifies that his or her depiction of the Princes in the Tower is inspired by Shakespeare’s Richard III it is just as likely to be inspired by the plight of the princes themselves. Northcote, Delaroche and Millais all painted well known verisons of the two princes.

Some of the earliest art works were illustrations for printed editions of the plays or portraits of some of the great actors and actresses in the parts they excelled in. Both of these continued into the 19th and 20th centuries. As early as 1662 prints of Falstaff were being produced as part of a pamphlet showing several plays by different authors. Nicholas Rowe’s 1709 edition of the plays also had numerous illustraions, for Henry VI, The Tempest and Titus Andronicus, for example. The death of Tamora’s sons who were then baked in a pie and fed to their mother was still popular. However, by the mid 18th century some artists such as William Hogarth, Francis Hayman (another founding member of the Royal Academy) John Wootton and Francis Wheatley had started to create work inspired by events in the plays and these became increasingly popular. One of the earliest French editions of the plays from 1744 was illustrated lavishly by Hubert-François Gravelot. One of the earliest portraits of an actor in a role is by John Laguerre showing Theophilus Cibber as Pistol in Henry V in 1733. David Garrick was one of the greatest actors of the 18th century and a huge admirer of Shakespeare, producing many revivals and adaptaitons of his plays. He even built a temple to Shakespeare in his grounds as depicted in 1762 by the German artist Johann Zoffany, a favourite of King George III and Queen Charlotte. Both Hogarth and Hayman depicted Garrick as Richard III, as favourite role, as did Nathaniel Dance-Holland, another founding Royal Academician. Swiss-born Anglophile Henry Fuseli was something of a Shakespeare obsessive and twice painted Garrick as Macbeth opposite Hannah Pritchard. Zoffany painted them in a rather more realistic way. His portrait of Garrick is recognisably the same actor as in the French artist Jean-Louis Fesch’s protrait of Garrick as Benedick from Much Ado About Nothing. A popular print also shows Garrick as Hamlet. One of Garrick’s adaptations was “Petruchio and Catherine” based on the Taming of the Shrew and Henry Woodward was painted in the role of Petruchio from this production. Other actors decpicted in plays include Richard Yates as Launce in Two Gentlemen of Verona by Henry Roberts, Charles Macklin as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice by Zoffany, and a series of actors and actresses engraved by James Roberts. One of the greatest actresses of the 18th century was Sarah Siddons. Having seen her as Lady Macbeth Reynolds painted her as the Tragic Muse and George Henry Harlow painted her in the role. Lady Macbeth was also a role made memorable in the 19th century by another great actress, Ellen Terry, and the celebrated American artist John Singer Sargent painted her in that role. Emma Hart is better known under her married name of Lady Hamilton, Nelson’s mistress, but George Romney was obsessed by her and painted her many times including as Miranda in The Tempest. He also painted John Henderson as Macbeth. After Garrick one of the most famous actors of the 18th century was John Philip Kemble who was painted as Richard III by William Hamilton and as Coriolanus and Hamlet by Sir Thomas Lawrence, a favourite artist of the Regency court. In the 19th century Charles Keen was depicted as Hamlet and Richard III and the black American actor Ira Aldridge was painted as Othello on tour in Dublin by William Mulready in 1831.

When it comes to depicting speeches, Jacques’s speech in As You Like It describing the Seven Ages of Man has inpsired several artists like Mulready but also Robert Smirke in 1801 and Henry Moore in 1982 who both painted series of seven paintings to illustrate these:

All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players:

They have their exits and their entrances;

And one man in his time plays many parts,

His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,

Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.

And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel

And shining morning face, creeping like snail

Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,

Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad

Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,

Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,

Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,

Seeking the bubble reputation

Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,

In fair round belly with good capon lined,

With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,

Full of wise saws and modern instances;

And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts

Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,

With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,

His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide

For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,

Turning again toward childish treble, pipes

And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,

That ends this strange eventful history,

Is second childishness and mere oblivion,

Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

Other allusions are even more obscure with some abstract artists from the 18th to 20th centirues giving their works titles from Shakespeare without an otherwise obvious connection. Some of William Blake’s pictures still cause controversy as they can be read as inspired by Shakespeare’s allusions but not always clear which. He was a one off, a maverick in his day and still something of a Marmite artist. Many of his works were mystical and he illustrated several lines from Shakespeare without it always being clear which play they come from. His “Dance of Albion” of about 1794 was earlier known as Glad Day or Jocund Day, because Blake’s biographer Alexander Gilcrest assumed that it illustrated a passage from Act III, Scene v of Romeo and Juliet. Romeo prepares to leave at dawn after their wedding-night and says:

Night’s candles are burnt out, and jocund day

Stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops.

“Pity” is based on a line from Act 1 of Macbeth when he is debating with Lady Macbeth prior to the assassination of Duncan:

And pity, like a naked new-born babe,

Striding the blast, or heaven’s cherubim, hors’d

Upon the sightless couriers of the air.

In “The Night of Enitharmon’s Joy,” often called “The Triple Hecate,” Blake appears to be making an allusion to the opening of Act IV of Macbeth where the three witches stir their cauldron in the presence of Hecate (offstage but making a brief appearance) a Greek goddess of magic.

The second witch says:

Fillet of a fenny snake,

In the cauldron boil and bake;

Eye of newt and toe of frog,

Wool of bat and tongue of dog,

Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting,

Lizard’s leg and owlet’s wing,

For a charm of powerful trouble,

Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

Blake entitled one picture of 1809 “A spirit vaulting from a cloud to turn and wind a fiery Pegasus”, known as “Fiery Pegasus”. He said that “The Horse of Intellect is leaping from the cliffs of Memory: it is a barren Rock: it is also called the Barren Waste of Locke and Newton.” It is based on Henry IV Part 1 Act IV, Scene i, where Sir Richard Vernon at the Battle of Shrewsbury comments on the sudden transformation of Prince Hal into a soldier who:

vaulted with such ease into his seat

As if an angel dropp’d down from the clouds

To turn and wind a fiery Pegasus

And witch the world with noble horsemanship.

Blake made two versions of Queen Katherine’s Dream from Act IV, scene ii of Henry VIII in 1809 and 1825. The two figures with their heads bowed are Queen Katherine and her usher, Griffith. Katherine, gravely ill, asks Griffith to cause the musicians play. While she sleeps, this vision comes to her:

Enter, solemnly tripping one after another, six personages clad in white robes wearing on their heads garlands of bays, and golden vizards on their faces, branches of bays or palm in their hands. They first congee [bow] unto her, then dance; and, at certain changes, the first two hold a garland over her head; at which the other four make reverent curtsies. Then the two that held the garland deliver the same to the other next two, who observe the same order in their changes, and holding the garland over her head; which done, they deliver the same garland to the last two, who likewise observe the same order; at which (as it were by inspiration) she makes (in her sleep) signs of rejoicing and holdeth up her hands to heaven. and so in their dancing vanish, carrying the garland with them.

The music continues. Katherine asks Griffith if he has seen this masque-like vision, which she interprets thus:

Saw you not even now a blessed troop

Invite me to a banquet, whose bright faces

Cast thousand beams upon me like the sun?

They promised me eternal happiness

And brought me garlands, Griffith, which I feel

I am not worthy yet to wear; I shall assuredly.

Like Blake, Henry Fuseli was somewhat obsessed with Shakespeare and also a bit of a mystic. He liked some of the allusions in Shakespeare such as in 1804 with Queen Katherine’s dream and in 1814 and 1825 with Queen Mab in Romeo and Juliet when Mercutio teases Romeo about his lovesickness:

O, then, I see Queen Mab hath been with you.

She is the fairies’ midwife, and she comes

In shape no bigger than an agate-stone

On the fore-finger of an alderman,

Drawn with a team of little atomies

Athwart men’s noses as they lies asleep;

Her wagon-spokes made of long spinners’ legs,

The cover of the wings of grasshoppers,

The traces of the smallest spider’s web,

The collars of the moonshine’s wat’ry beams,

Her whip of cricket’s bone; the lash of film;

Her waggoner a small grey-coated gnat,

Not half so big as a round little worm

Pricked from the lazy finger of a maid:

Her chariot is an empty hazelnut

Made by the joiner squirrel or old grub,

Time out o’ mind the fairies’ coachmakers.

And in this state she gallops night by night

Through lovers’ brains, and then they dream of love;

O’er courtiers’ knees, that dream on court’sies straight,

O’er lawyers’ fingers, who straight dream on fees,

O’er ladies’ lips, who straight on kisses dream,

Which oft the angry Mab with blisters plagues,

Because their breaths with sweetmeats tainted are:

Sometime she gallops o’er a courtier’s nose,

And then dreams he of smelling out a suit;

And sometime comes she with a tithe-pig’s tail

Tickling a parson’s nose as a’ lies asleep,

Then dreams, he of another benefice:

Sometime she driveth o’er a soldier’s neck,

And then dreams he of cutting foreign throats,

Of breaches, ambuscadoes, Spanish blades,

Of healths five-fathom deep; and then anon

Drums in his ear, at which he starts and wakes,

And being thus frighted swears a prayer or two

And sleeps again. This is that very Mab

That plaits the manes of horses in the night,

And bakes the elflocks in foul sluttish hairs,

Which once untangled, much misfortune bodes:

This is the hag, when maids lie on their backs,

That presses them and learns them first to bear,

Making them women of good carriage:

This is she—”

Turner also painted Mab’s Cave in 1847. Berlioz was another Romantic obsessed with Shakespeare. Although he understood little English he was captivated when he saw the Irish Actress Harriet Smithson perform Ophelia and Juliet in Paris. This partly inspired his first great success, his Symphonie Fantastique in 1830 but more especially his extraordinary Romeo and Juliet Symphony which is a fantasy or meditation in several movements, some orchestral, some solos and chorus. The only named character is Friar Lawrence but another soloist sings the above Queen Mab words and another movement is know as the Queen Mab Scherzo which is the nearest Berlioz got to Mendelssohn. When they met in Rome Berlioz told Mendelssohn about it and then immediately regretted it as he feared Mendelssohn, another Shakespeare fan, would write his own version better than Berlioz’s. He became something of a stalker to Harriet and finally persuaded her to marry him in what was always doomed to be a disastrous relationship. His love of Shakespeare continued and one of his three completed operas was based on Much Ado About Nothing, called Beatrice and Benedict.

One of Blake’s followers George Richmond was also inspired for his “Fatal Bellman” by Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s speech whilst her husband murders Duncan:

That which hath made them drunk hath made me bold;

What hath quenched them hath given me fire. – Hark! – Peace!

It was the owl that shrieked, the fatal bellman

Which gives the stern’st good-night. He is about it.

The doors are open, and the surfeited grooms

Do mock their charge with snores; I have drugged their possets

That death and nature do contend about them

Whether they live or die.

Like his fellow Pre-Raphaelites William Holman Hunt was  keen on Shakespeare and exhibited his “The Hireling Shepherd” in 1851 with the following quote from King Lear:

Sleepest or wakest thou, jolly shepherd?

Thy sheep be in the corn;

And for one blast of thy minikin mouth,

Thy sheep shall take no harm.

Edwin Landseer’s 1861 painting “The Shrew Tamed” has an all too obvious illusion in the title if not the painting itself which is more typical of his animal paintings. Daniel Maclise’s 1867 “A Winter Night’s Tale” was inspired by the line near then end of Richard II when he is taking leave of his queen before going to prison:

In winter’s tedious night, sit by the fire

With good old folks, and let them tell thee tales

Of woeful ages long ago betid.

And ere thou bid goodnight, to quite their griefs

Tell thou the lamentable tale of me,

And send the hearers weeping to their beds;

 An illusion is made to the speech mentioned earlier in Twelfth Night when Duke Orsino reflects on music being the food of love in Sir William Orchardson’s painting of 1890 although the outcome is left to our imagination.

This talk has been an introduction to some of the ways that artists and composers have been inspired by Shakepeare and in the further talks we shall look and listen to some of the specific inspirations starting in the next talk with the continuation of the last allusion, to love.

Below is a printable PDF version of the slides.

Lecture 1 slides to print

These episodes from Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time might be of interest

Shakespeare’s Life

Shakespeare’s Work