Illustrating Shakespeare: A History of Roman Representations in Printed Texts

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By Ella Hawkins, SBT Research Advocate

Ella Hawkins is currently completing a Midlands3Cities-funded placement with the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust as part of her PhD studies in design for Shakespeare. In the coming weeks, Ella will be publishing a series of blog posts about the representation of Shakespeare’s Roman plays across the SBT’s Library, Archive, and Museum Collections.

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s library is a treasure trove. Below ground level, the shelves of two strongrooms are filled with approximately 55,000 books relating to Shakespeare and local history. Ranging from 16th-century first editions of texts used by Shakespeare as source material to 21st-century feminist criticism, the Trust’s library collections are an incredibly rich resource.

Spread across these two strongrooms is a collection of books that reveal a great deal about the visual history of Shakespeare’s plays. The Trust’s library is home to many illustrated editions of the playwright’s work, published between 1709 and 2012. Individually, these volumes offer an insight into contemporary interpretations of Shakespeare’s plays and their representation in printed form; when considered as a collection, the illustrations form a narrative of design for the page and stage spanning more than three centuries.

In 1709, Shakespeare’s works were published with illustrations for the very first time. Editor Nicholas Rowe divided the plays between six volumes, and the title page for each play was printed opposite an illustration relating to the content of the text (known as a frontispiece). At the turn of the eighteenth century, only a small number of Shakespeare’s plays were staged regularly: the publication of Rowe’s edition made lesser-performed texts accessible to many for the first time (Hume 49-51). Each frontispiece was therefore responsible for providing a first impression of its corresponding play’s contents, and enticing the reader to read the rest of each story (Sillars 7).

SR 38/1709 81000529. The Works of Mr. William Shakespear; in six volumes; adorn'd with cuts / revis'd and corrected, with an account of the life and writings of the author by N. Rowe. London: Printed for Jacob Tonson at Grays-Inn Gate, 1709. Each play has a separate title page with the imprint: "Printed in the year 1709.", and an accompanying frontispiece. Engravings: M V...Dr Gucht Sculpt. Volume 4, Titus Andronicus, pp. 2002-3. Binding Dimensions (H x W): 230 x 145mm.

The frontispiece for Titus Andronicus in Nicholas Rowe’s 1709 edition of Shakespeare’s works (n.p.). Illustration designed by François Boitard and engraved by Elisha Kirkall (Sillars 33).

The 1709 frontispiece for Titus Andronicus (pictured above) offers the reader an intriguing insight into the content of the play. The moment selected for pictorial representation – Titus cutting the throat of Chiron or Demetrius into a basin held by the handless Lavinia – is among the text’s most violent episodes. As well as introducing Titus Andronicus’ Roman setting through architecture and clothing, this illustration acts as bait for the unwitting reader: what series of events could possibly lead to the strange situation depicted opposite the play’s title page? Gore, violence, and intrigue have clearly played an important role in advertising Titus Andronicus throughout the play’s visual history.

Over the course of the following century, illustrations began to be interspersed throughout printed editions of Shakespeare’s texts. Rather than selecting a single image to represent an entire play, 19th-century editors tended to include multiple scene-specific illustrations and position them alongside the sections of text to which they related.

39/1851-2 8140195. The Comedies, Histories, Tragedies, and Poems of William Shakspere edited by Charles Knight., Pictorial Shakspere edited by Charles Knight. National Edition. Vol II, Tragedies. London: C. Knight, 1851-1852. pp. 374-75, Julius Caesar.

Engravings depicting an area ‘before the House of Brutus’ (left) and ‘The Capitol’ (right) for Julius Caesar in Charles Knight’s 1850 Pictorial Shakespeare (374-75).

In Charles Knight’s 1850 Pictorial Shakespeare, scenes from each play are bookended with illustrations depicting settings in which the action might take place. Further than indicating specific locations, these images give each scene a distinct feel by creating tone and atmosphere to accompany the words of the play. Claustrophobia, domesticity, or secrecy is communicated through illustrations such as that at the end of Act 2, Scene 4 of Julius Caesar (pictured above); a sense of scale and grandeur is evoked by the image introducing Act 3, Scene 1, as well as placing the action firmly in the centre of the Roman political world. Much like the ‘pictorial’ approach to theatre-making that dominated Shakespearean performance during the Victorian era (Schoch 58), Knight’s edition offers the reader a highly-visual, emotive insight into the world of each play.

The 20th century saw a flurry of publications featuring stylised artistic interpretations of scenes from Shakespeare’s plays. Herbert Farjeon’s 1939 edition of Antony and Cleopatra brings specific moments of the text to life with a vibrant collection of hand-coloured wood-engravings, designed by Enric-C. Ricart. The illustration featured below captures the colour, splendour, and chaos of Cleopatra’s arrival by river barge as she travels to meet Mark Antony – an event described, but not staged, as part of the play’s narrative. The reader, likely to be familiar with Shakespeare’s work, gains access to an element of the text that cannot be realised fully in performance. This image is therefore indicative of an approach to illustrating Shakespeare that reimagines the playwright’s work: further than introducing the content of a play, or suggesting an environment in which its scenes might take place, the illustrations in Farjeon’s edition could exist as standalone artistic responses to Antony and Cleopatra.

SR OS 40/1939-40. Fine Print Collection 83300805ii. The Comedies, Histories Tragedies of William Shakespeare. New York, Limited Editions Club, 1939. Edited by Herbert Farjeon from the text of the first folio and quarto editions. It was designed by Bruce Rogers and printed at the Press of A. Colish, New York. The illustrations are hand-coloured wood-engravings by Enric-C Ricart of Spain. No. 559 of 1950 copies. p.32 opposite, Act 2 Scene 2. Cleopatra's Barge. Dimensions (H, W): Binding 330 x 225mm, Page 325 x 215mm, Wood Block illustration 230 x 140mm.

‘The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne | Burned on the water; the poop was beaten gold’. Enric-C. Ricart’s illustration for Act 2, Scene 2 of Antony and Cleopatra (1939; n.p.).

Illustrated editions such as those discussed here contain a huge amount of information regarding the evolving significance of Shakespeare’s texts and the cultural moment in which each was created. However, falling somewhere between the study of literature, theatre history, and art history, the visual history of Shakespeare in print has been afforded little attention to date (Sillars 3).

Can illustrations be mined for information about staging practices for Shakespeare during of the past three centuries? Maybe. Might they reflect artistic styles popular at the time of each text’s publication? Probably. More than this, though, these images can be woven together to tell stories of the ever-changing relationships between strands of culture, and the ways in which Shakespeare’s works have been reimagined in the centuries since they were first crafted, performed, and published.

To view the editions featured in this blog post, or to find out more about Shakespeare and illustration, visit the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s Reading Room.


Works cited

Hume, Robert D. ‘Before the Bard: “Shakespeare” in Early Eighteenth-Century London’. ELH 64.1 (1997): 41–75. Web. 19 Feb. 2017.

Schoch, Richard W. ‘Pictorial Shakespeare’. The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare on Stage. Ed. Stanley Wells and Sarah Stanton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. 58–75. CrossRef. Web. 30 Mar. 2016.

Shakespeare, William. Antony and Cleopatra. Ed. Herbert Farjeon. New York, The Limited Editions Club, 1939. Print.

—. Knight’s Pictorial Shakespeare. Ed. Charles Knight. Vol. 2. London: Charles Knight, 1850. Print.

—. The works of Mr. William Shakespear. Ed. Nicholas Rowe. Vol. 4. London: Jacob Tonson, 1709. Print.

Sillars, Stuart. The Illustrated Shakespeare, 1709-1875. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Print.


Images included with kind permission from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.


The views expressed in this post are the author’s own.

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Author:Ella Hawkins

Ella Hawkins is currently studying for a PhD in Shakespeare Studies at the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon. Her research focuses on the significance of Jacobethanism in 21st-century stage and costume design for Shakespeare, and is funded by the Midlands3Cities AHRC Doctoral Training Partnership. Ella is currently completing a placement with the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust as a ‘Research Advocate’: her role is to explore the Trust’s Collections and identify potential future research projects. In the coming weeks, Ella will be publishing a series of blog posts about the representation of Shakespeare’s Roman plays across the SBT’s Library, Archive, and Museum Collections. As well as tying in with the Royal Shakespeare Company’s upcoming ‘Rome’ season, these posts will provide a way into looking at wider research possibilities relating to items in the Trust’s care. You can also find Ella on... WordPress: Twitter: @EllaMcHawk Instagram: ellamchawk

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