Henry Fuseli. Garrick and Mrs. Pritchard in "Macbeth" (1812)

Oil on canvas, 40 x 50 inches. Tate Gallery, London.

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The source is Act II, scene ii of Macbeth:

Lady Macbeth: Go get some water,
And wash this filthy witness from your hand.
Why did you bring these daggers from the place?
They must lie there: go carry them, and smear
The sleepy grooms with blood.

Macbeth: I'll go no more:
I am afraid to think what I have done;
Look on't again I dare not.

Lady Macbeth: Infirm of purpose!
Give me the daggers.

Fuseli saw the play on stage in 1760 with David Garrick playing Macbeth, and he made a watercolor of this scene; the production must have impressed him, for more than 50 years later he executed the painting. The two almost translucent figures vividly capture this particular moment of horror. Macbeth's hair stands on end and, with an expression of terror, he holds the daggers at arm's length as if attempting to distance himself from the assassination. The scene is set against a background of deep, regal purple, reminding us that this is no ordinary murder and that Macbeth has spilled the royal blood of a king:

Confusion now hath made his masterpiece:
Most sacrilegious murder hath broke ope
The Lord's anointed temple and stole thence
The life o' th' building!

The source of lighting in this painting is difficult to determine, and Peter Tomory suggests that there may be an obscure force at work in the painting's starkly translucent figures: electricity. Artists and writers were drawn to the idea of electricity as soon as Joseph Priestley's The History of the Idea of Positive and Negative Electricity (1775) was published, and they soon began to experiment with his concepts in their works. The moment of terror, Tomory observes, "now becomes a violent electrical discharge, with its accompanying light and smell." (125) His observation about artistic experiments with "electricity" and light helps explain the stark, glowing quality of the two figures, especially when the painting is compared with the earlier watercolor, which is much more conventional in the posing of the figures and the prosaic setting.

Richard Altick notes in Paintings from Books that in the first years when "Shakespeare subjects began to be painted in some quantity (the 1780's), a distinction was made between paintings derived from the literary text and those that originated in the theatre. The former bore the more honored credentials." (256) The distinction can be applied to Fuseli's works; the 1812 painting is so much more powerful and suggestive of the moment of horror than the earlier watercolor. Although they are superficially similar, the painting finally has much more to do with a particularly frightening moment in Macbeth that with either David Garrick or Mrs. Pritchard.