Shakespeare Illuminated

Even though the works of William Shakespeare are easily found in books and taught in English classes, his plays are primarily meant to be interpreted through performance. Since they originated in a day when the recording of performances was impossible, there is no record to indicate what messages Shakespeare’s plays were originally intended to convey. Because of this, it has become a rewarding exercise for artists of every kind to create their own interpretations of Shakespeare’s works, combining what is known of the playwright and the world in which he lived with modern-day sensibilities. My own interpretation of Shakespeare and a handful of his plays entitled, Shakespeare Illuminated (see figure 1), combines my interest in ancient illuminated manuscripts like The Book of Kells, and what the plays mean to me.

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Figure 1 – Shakespeare Illuminated, by Dennis West

The image of Shakespeare that dominates Shakespeare Illuminated is inspired by the portrait from the private collection of the Cobbe family (see figure 2) which many scholars believe to be the only likeness of the playwright painted during his lifetime (Burns). The Cobbe portrait of Shakespeare was used as a reference for my drawing for two reasons: one was because it is a relatively new find that provides new insights on how he may have appeared, and two, because it is the most appealing image of the bard available. Most of the other images claiming to represent Shakespeare show a pudgy, somber man with a receding hairline. Artistic liberties were taken with the likeness, however, so that the finished piece would harken back to the style of The Book of Kells, an ancient illuminated manuscript containing a rich style of illustration (see figure 3). At times, the Kells style of illustration tends to appear more cartoon-like since the monks who created it were more interested in the symbolism than adherence to realistic anatomy. Such was the case with my drawing of Shakespeare and the other characters—by using this graphical style of illustration, I hope to communicate some of the insights I gained from the plays.

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Figure 2 – The Cobbe Portrait is an early Jacobean panel painting of a gentleman which has been argued to be a life portrait of William Shakespeare.
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Figure 3 – Sample of a page from the Book of Kells, an illuminated manuscript created between the late 6th to the early 9th century by monks in monasteries in Scotland and Ireland.

Positioned close to Shakespeare’s heart are images from two plays that show the emotional extremes depicted in his works. The first from the comedy, As You Like It, shows Orlando nailing a love sonnet for Rosalind to a tree in the forest of Arden. The other is from the tragedy, King Lear, and shows Lear and the eyeless Gloucester naked and vulnerable in the wilderness. The extreme emotions these two plays represent, comedy and tragedy, show the breadth of emotions that span all of Shakespeare’s works. Both King Lear and As You Like It feature a Fool who offers comic relief mingled with profound insights and in Shakespeare Illuminated a fool is gesturing towards Lear, Gloucester, and Orlando.

To the left of King Lear is the courtroom scene from The Merchant of Venice which shows Shylock with a knife and scales ready for the “pound of flesh” (4.1.98) owed to him in the forfeiture of the debt by Antonio, who stands ready to give payment. Antonio’s willingness to sacrifice his own life for his friend Bassanio brings to mind images of heroes like Superman, so in the drawing I dressed Antonio in a red cape and blue shirt and on his exposed chest I created a spot of hair that resembles a small “S.” Since much is made of Antonio’s Christianity in The Merchant of Venice I also placed a subtle gold band across his cap which recalls a Christ-like halo, a common element in illuminated manuscripts.

The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, two of the most magical plays in Shakespeare’s works, are coupled together in the initial capital letter of Shakespeare’s name. Both of these plays employ the use of magic as a tool to bring lovers together and both involve supernatural creatures and humans mingling together. The image of Prospero, from The Tempest, shows him wearing his magical mantle adorned with moons and stars—imagery that brings to mind wizards and sorcerers. He is shown waving his arms as he creates the storm that causes the shipwreck which brings ashore the young man he intends as a husband for his daughter Miranda. The image from A Midsummer Night’s Dream shows the brief, mismatched love affair between Titania the Fairy Queen and Bottom the Weaver, also brought together by magic.

For the play Othello, Iago is depicted as a marionette manipulator with Othello as his puppet. In order to convince Othello of Desdemona’s unfaithfulness, Iago uses the strawberry spotted handkerchief as proof that she had been intimate with Cassio (3.3.439–43). Since that was a precious gift Othello had given his wife early in their relationship, it becomes the “ocular proof” (3.3.365) Othello requires as confirmation of Desdemona’s guilt.

Suspicion of betrayal is also a strong theme in The Winter’s Tale, positioned to the left of Shakespeare’s image, but love and forgiveness is the ultimate message. Leontes the king is responsible for the presumed death of his wife Hermione and spends 16 years sorrowing over what he has done. This image shows the King in the cold blue colors of winter as he is brought to see a statue of his dead wife. To his surprise and joy, the statue comes to life and he is reunited with her and absolved of the guilt that had plagued him for so long. His wife, Hermione, is shown in the colors of Spring with a crown of flowers on her head. This represents the emergence from the dark, cold and lifeless winter into a renewed new life brought about by the Spring. The bear, which represents a memorable moment in the play, also signifies the emergence from winter into spring.

Finally, on the far right of Shakespeare’s name, left hanging on the “e” is the King from Richard III, who may be the most unredeemable character ever created by Shakespeare. Depicted as a hunchback, King Richard bears all of the trappings of royalty, but his goals are always evil and self-serving. One of the most memorable moments from this history play is when, in the heat of battle, Richard finds himself without a horse and exclaims, “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” (5.7.7). I interpret this phrase to mean that he is realizing that he will, ironically, lose his kingdom for want of something as simple as a horse, not that he is willing to give up his kingdom in exchange for one. Showing him in Shakespeare Illuminated holding a hobby horse indicates that the help he needed from the few people that he hadn’t betrayed in the end was too little, too late.

The plays shown in Shakespeare Illuminated are just a tiny sampling of the wealth of material left us from this master playwright William Shakespeare. Rendering this illustration as an aged illuminated manuscript emphasizes the timeless nature of the subject matter, while allowing for some of the symbols to reference modern concepts. We may never know what meanings Shakespeare really intended to be taken from the many words that he wrote but through our own study and interpretation, we can discover and express what his words mean to us, as I have attempted to show what they mean to me.

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