The works of Shakespeare have inspired great art as have some of the powerful performance and personalities associated with his work. The Art of Lady Macbeth exhibition currently on at the Shakespeare Institute Library focuses on four actresses whose performances as the dark Lady M inspired artists to immortalise them in paint: Mrs Pritchard, Sarah Siddons, Sarah Bernhardt and Ellen Terry.
Many thought that the pairing of Garrick and Pritchard as the Macbeths was unequalled. The excellence of their performances was the subject of immediate acclaim. In the opinion of actor Thomas Davies, stated, the ‘merits of both were transcendent’.
Johan Zoffany painted an image of the damned couple in a marvellous Gothic setting. The tall, statuesque figure of Hannah Pritchard—particularly in contrast to the smaller, slighter Garrick—holds the dagger in one hand while pointing towards Duncan’s chamber with the other, capturing something of the physical power of her performance.
Fuseli was the most Gothic of Shakespeare’s painters and was drawn to Macbeth as a subject for obvious reasons. He was introduced to Shakespeare’s plays during his student days in Zürich with the Swiss scholar Jacob Bodmer and while in Switzerland he translated Macbeth into German. In 1766 he attended the production of the play with Garrick and Mrs Pritchard in the lead roles. Inspired by the assassination scene, he made a drawing, ‘I have done the deed’ (c.1766) in which Macbeth points the daggers towards his wife as if terrified by her as well as his own actions.
Similar in composition is Fuseli’s Lady Macbeth Seizing the Daggers (1812), but far less realistic in approach. Pritchard and Siddons were so iconic in their performances that there is some debate as to whether Fuseli was inspired by one, or both of their performances for this particular painting. It’s clearly not a portrait of either actress but captures the metaphysical terror of the scene through Macbeth’s expression, prominent bloody daggers and Lady Macbeth breaking into a pitch-black room as if loosed from hell.
Mrs Siddons is known as one of the greatest actresses of all time and first played Lady Macbeth on 2 February, 1785 at Drury Lane. It quickly became one of her most celebrated parts. In The Oxford Illustrated History of Shakespeare on Stage, Jonathan Bate described how Siddons’s:
…most memorable moments were the terrifying, not the tender ones… This Lady Macbeth elicits the language of the Gothic: ‘It was something above nature… Power was seated on her brow, passion emanated from her breast… She glided on and off the stage like an apparition.’
The startling effect may be glimpsed in Henry Fuseli’s wide-eyed painting of the sleep-walking scene.
In this wonderful passage, the actress herself eloquently described the terror which the play elicited in herself whilst memorising her lines:
I went on with tolerable composure, in the silence of the night (a night I never can forget), till I came to the assassination scene, when the horrors of the scene rose to a degree that made it impossible for me to get farther. I snatched up my candle, and hurried out of the room, in a paroxysm of terror. My dress was of silk, and the rustling of it, as I ascended the stairs to go to bed, seemed to my panic-struck fancy like the movement of a spectre pursuing me. At last I reached my chamber, where I found my husband fast asleep. I clapped my candlestick down upon the table, without the power of putting the candle out; and I threw myself on my bed, without daring to stay even to take me clothes off.
Siddons obviously transmitted something of this terror to the audiences who watched her, inspiring art which still ranks amongst some of the most startling and disturbing images of this character.
The great French stage actress Sarah Bernhardt played the coveted role of Lady Macbeth in 1884. One of the first truly international stars, she had a huge following in Britain and America as well as her native France, and was the inspiration for many artists and playwrights. Even her stage failures were immortalised—and Macbeth was one of them. We see a completely different, softer and more sensual image of Lady Macbeth in this portrait by Franz von Lenbach (1892).
Her portrayal of Lady Macbeth was different from previous versions. Bernhardt brought a dominant, femme fatale quality to the character, and she designed costumes that would hug her body, showing off her shape and enhancing her seductiveness.
It might have been that the public weren’t ready for Bernhardt’s performance or the translation of the text by her lover Jean Richepin. It was a modern take on the play which Berhardt’s biographer Ernest Pronier described as ‘very literary, unafraid of plain, coarse language, extremely vivid, and very close to the original,’ qualities which were not necessarily appreciated by the French public. When it first opened in Paris in June1884 it closed within a month.
Virtually the only person who praised it was Oscar Wilde who was on honeymoon in Paris when he saw the production. He thought Macbeth Sarah’s finest creation – Sarah’s, because ‘Shakespeare is only one of the parties. The second is the artiste through whose mind it passes…There is no one like Sarah Bernhardt’.
The failure of her Macbeth made Bernhardt ill and she spent the summer brooding at Sainte-Adresse. Richepin disappeared which made matters worse. In order to encourage communication she insisted that Richepin’s version was revived at the Porte Saint-Martin Theatre. It closed within two weeks; the production, like their relationship, doomed to fail.
Ellen Terry starred as Lady Macbeth in Sir Henry Irving’s production which opened at the Lyceum, Theatre London on 29 December 1888, and ran for 150 nights closing on 29 June 1889. Sargent was at the first night and according to his biographer Charles Merrill Mount was impressed, uttering ‘I say!’ as Ellen Terry made her entrance.
Her spectacular gown, designed by Alice Comyns Carr, was crocheted using a soft green wool and blue tinsel yarn from Bohemia to create an effect similar to chain mail. It was embroidered with gold and decorated with 1,000 iridescent wings from the green jewel beetle. On seeing her costume Oscar Wilde quipped: “Lady Macbeth seems to be an economical housekeeper and evidently patronises local industries for her husband’s clothes and servant’s liveries, but she takes care to do all her own shopping in Byzantium.” The restored costume can be viewed at Smallhythe, Terry’s early 16th century house.
Sittings for the portrait began soon after despite her reluctance to be painted in the role until the success of the production was assured. Sargent painted Lady Macbeth about to put the crown of Duncan on her head. The scene depicted in not in the play, and there is no evidence in the prompt books to indicate that it was in Irving’s production. Nevertheless, the image of Lady Macbeth became one of the most iconic of the character and has been much copied.
The exhibition ends on the 9th of September so there are still a couple of weeks to come along and see these and many more images of the fiend-like Queen. Of course, the Shakespeare Institute Library holds a wealth of information on Shakespeare in art which proves an endlessly fascinating and illuminating subject.
Karin Brown, Shakespeare Institute Librarian