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Oil on canvas, approximately 30 x 43 inches. City of Manchester Art Gallery, Manchester.
A viewer might look a long time at this painting for the source in Shakespeare and never find it, but these lines from Act II, scene vi of King Lear, spoken by Edgar disguised as the madman Tom, accompanied the picture when it was first exhibited at the Royal Academy:
Sleepeth or waketh thou, jolly shepherd?
Thy sheep be in the corn;
And for one blast of thy minikin mouth,
Thy sheep shall take no harm.
The association may begin to come into focus, but the implications of the song from King Lear are not totally clear without these comments from a letter written by Hunt.
Shakespeare's song represents a Shepherd who is neglecting his real duty of guarding the sheep: instead of using his voice in truthfully performing his duty, he is using his "minikin mouth" in some idle way. He was a type thus of other muddle headed pastors who instead of performing their services to their flock--which is in constant peril--discuss vain questions of no value to any human soul. My fool has found a death's head moth, and this fills his little mind with forebodings of evil and he takes it to an equally sage counsellor for her opinion. She scorns his anxiety from ignorance rather than profundity, but only the more distracts his faithfulness: while she feeds her lamb with sour apples his sheep have burst bounds and got into the corn. It is not merely that the wheat will be spoilt, but in eating it the sheep are doomed to destruction from becoming what farmers call "blown." (Quoted by Landow, 39)
The painting, Hunt says, is thus to be read allegorically as a comment on good and bad pastors, a topic of particular concern at mid-century with the debate between evangelical and high church factions in the Church of England. Following Hunt's lead for a religious interpretation of the painting and the passage from King Lear, critics have as well suggested other possible sources in John 10:11-14 and John Milton's Lycidas.
Hunt was perhaps the firmest adherent to the principles of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of which he was a founding member: The Hireling Shepherd is a brilliant and faithful depiction of a natural rural scene (some say that he is the best artist at reproducing the actual effects of sunlight and shadow) and at the same time says something important and timeless that reaches beyond the actual painting itself. As George Landow puts it in William Holman Hunt and Typological Symbolism, the artist wanted to create an art "that could marry realism and elaborate iconography, fact and feeling, matter and spirit. . . . an art that demanded both an immediate emotional response and one that was meditative and analytical. . . . he wanted to create an art that would be simultaneously intellectual and deeply moving, popular and appealing to an elite, objective and subjective" (1).
The allusion to King Lear does not stop here, for Hunt returned again to the subject of lost sheep in another painting, Our English Coasts, 1852, which he exhibited in 1853 and then later renamed Strayed Sheep. Ideas similar to The Hireling Shepherd are, A. C. Gissing notes, hinted at in Strayed Sheep (77).
This picture is displayed on the Tate Gallery's website. Go first to the Tate's homepage. At the top of the column on the left-hand side of the page you will see "Collections" as the first item. When you open this page, you will see on the right-hand side of the page a column where the fourth item says "Search collections." When you open that page, you will find the search engine; simply enter the names of the artist and the painting. If you click on the artist's name, you will see all the works by that particular artist at the Tate Gallery. If you click on the name of the painting, you will be taken to the image. Most of these images can be enlarged by clicking on them. If the picture has a display caption, be sure to read it; the notes will supplement what I have to say about the illustrations. Pages will open in separate windows, so close them to return to Shakespeare Illustrated. The Gallery's site is nicely constructed and easy to navigate; the Tate kindly allows us to link to its pages and to see the works in its magnificent collections.
In this painting the sheep are in imminent danger as they wander along the precipice of the cliff, and here there is no shepherd in sight to protect them from falling over the edge. They are completely abandoned. Critics immediately associated Our English Coasts with Hunt's earlier painting, The Hireling Shepherd and suggested that the painting had another meaning and spoke "of men, and not of sheep." Others read into the painting political overtones and speculated about not only negligent pastors but irresponsible political leaders who allowed the electorate to wander dangerously. Given Hunt's "intense nationalism," Landow suggests that some sort of political as well as religious interpretation may be plausible (43).
A political reading of both the passage from King Lear and the painting is more than plausible in our own century. Critics note that Lear is in a sense the bad shepherd in Tom's song, for his subjects do indeed suffer from the initial act of foolishness when he gives up kingship and throws his country into chaos and civil war. Much like a painter, Grigori Kozintsev graphically depicts this fact in his 1970 film of King Lear. Jack Jorgens in Shakespeare on Film analyzes the opening scenes of this "Christian-Marxist" Russian King Lear and notes that the groups of citizens coming to Lear's meeting with his daughters in the opening scene of the play "become larger until they cover the hillsides like ants. Having gathered, they wait in silence before the massive walls of Lear's castle. . . . Kozintsev shows us a wasteland peopled, masses of subjects who have suffered from Lear's tyranny, blindness, and neglect, who after his rash, fatal act are ravaged by the civil war and must rebuild when it is over" (238). Modern critics of King Lear certainly would not reject a political reading of either The Hireling Shepherd or Strayed Sheep.