Daniel Maclise. The Play Scene in "Hamlet," 1842


This painting is watercolor, body color and varnish on paper, 14.25 x 25.5 inches, owned by the Forbes Magazine Collection, New York, New York. This water color is a replica of the painting Maclise exhibited in 1842. The original at the Tate Gallery is oil on canvas, 60 x 108 inches.

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.


The details of Maclise's painting suggest interesting assumptions about the play and give the scene some ironic touches. The play of Gonzago dominates the painting, but just beneath the scene is the figure of Hamlet, tense, crouched like an animal about to spring, and intently watching Claudius's reactions to the play and the murder of a brother. Claudius clutches his knee and looks away, unable to confront the action before him. Gertrude, however, sits with her hands folded serenely and watches the play, apparently unaware of Claudius's crime or the significance of what the scene she beholds might be. Ophelia sits vacantly looking down at Hamlet. Her demeanor and her expression were negatively commented on by several critics, but there may be an aspect of the scene they have overlooked. Suppose that the bawdy and embarrassing punning by Hamlet that precedes the play was spoken loudly enough to be overheard by the entire assembled court; her humiliation, like that of the scene where Hamlet rejects her and tells her to get herself to a nunnery, might well account for her dazed, dejected, almost vacant stare.

The background of the painting is as interesting as the foreground. First there is the sinister shadow on the back wall of the little stage, looking, as Thackeray says, like some kind of gloating, evil demon [see the detail of the painting]. Along the walls are four tapestries depicting scenes from Genesis; they are the temptation, the expulsion from the garden, the sacrifice of Abel, and, most significant, the murder of Abel by Cain. The statue above the head of Ophelia is a figure representing Prayer, and the statue above the head of the king and queen is Justice.

John Eagles reviewed the 1842 Royal Academy Exhibition for Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine (Vol. 52, July 1842), and these are his remarks on Daniel Maclise and his painting, The Play Scene in "Hamlet."

He dares to tell the whole of a story, some will say, do say, theatrically--that we consider no dispraise. It is the business of the dramatist to make good pictures, and whether it be done by the players or the painter, what matter, so they be effective, and the story worth telling; and how shall they be better told than as the author intended they should be represented? The boards of the theatre and the canvass are the same thing--the eye is to behold, and the mind to be moved. Nor is there a lack of originality in Mr. Maclise; he knows how to assist, and by his art to bring out the whole conception of the poet; a conception not be discovered as embodied, or capable of being embodied, in distinct words and in parts, but gathered from the feeling of the whole, and which to embody by another art, is no small test of genius. . . . This is perhaps the most striking picture in the Exhibition; it is very fine, and yet has very great defects. The story of the murder is very finely and originally told; the play is enacted on a platform in the centre; the king turns away his head, yet you see that, by an irresistible power, he will again look towards the scene; however slight that look, the murderous act will fasten upon it, for there, too, is an awful "handwriting upon the wall." The light of a lamp is intercepted by the hand pouring the poison into the sleeping king's ear, and there is the large shadow of the transaction awfully depicted on the wall. Mr. Maclise had no precedent for this--it is original, and evinces great genius. Parts of the picture are so beautifully coloured, that we are surprised Mr. Maclise does not generally pay more attention to this part of his art. If the principal figures should be Hamlet and Ophelia, the picture is a failure, but they are perhaps only among the incidents. The Hamlet is an ungentlemanly ruffian, who never would have waited for the play, but would have taken a pleasure in killing the king upon suspicion. He is not the philosophic, the doubting, the delaying Hamlet. As to Ophelia, she is little better than a barmaid of an inn, and we are at first sight reconciled to her drowning. The queen is good; she shows she was not cognizant of the deed. Old Polonius is too mean, his advice to his son will ever stamp him the gentleman. The general grouping is most masterly; we like not the brown figure behind Ophelia--who is he? Take it with all its faults, . . . it is a very fine picture. (24, 28)

Eagles's conclusion is that "Mr. Maclise has all the materials of a poet painter." (28)

Like John Eagles, William Makepeace Thackeray also admired the paintings of Maclise, calling The Play Scene in "Hamlet" one of the "most startling, wonderful pictures that the English school has ever produced." Thackeray wrote a review of the 1842 exhibition for Ainsworth's Magazine (I:319-22) entitled "An Exhibition Gossip"; the pseudonymous author of the review is "Michael Angelo Titmarsh," writing to a Frenchman, "Monsieur Guillaume, peintre." Maclise's painting, Thackeray says, "is by far his best, to my thinking, that the artist has ever produced." He then goes on to describe the painting itself:

Fancy Hamlet, ungartered, lying on the ground, looking into the very soul of King Claudius, who writhes under the play of Gonzago. Fancy the Queen, perplexed and sad, (she does not know of the murder,) and poor Ophelia, and Polonius, with his staff, pottering over the tragedy; and Horatio, and all sorts of knights and ladies, looking wondering on. Fancy, in the little theatre, the king asleep; a lamp in front casts a huge forked fantastic shadow over the scene--a shadow that looks like a horrible devil in the background that is grinning and aping the murder. Fancy ghastly flickering tapestries of Cain and Abel on the walls, and all this painted with the utmost force, truth, and dexterity--fancy all this, and then you will have not the least idea of the most startling, wonderful pictures that the English school has ever produced.

Despite the minor flaws of the painting, most reviewers admired Maclise's work. S. C. Hall, the editor and critic for the Art Union, judged the painting completely worthy of Shakespeare.

It is, in all respects, a chef-d'oeuvre of the British school. Faultless it is not; but its faults are of very minor import in comparison with its perfections. There may be too much horror expressed by the group to the left, who ignorant of the consequences of the experiment on the "conscience of the King;" and in the perspective to the right, there seems to us to be something wrong; but in all the grander qualities it approaches very near perfection. Ophelia has been objected to for the very reason in which we think the merit lies--she expresses sympathy, rather than love, for Hamlet; and in the countenance of Hamlet there is just the character we look for from familiar acquaintance with the poet's work--a mingling of horror, abhorrence, and vengeance to be taken--yet still a "letting I dare not wait upon I would." How famously is this contrasted with the calm but resolute watching of Horatio! How grandly depicted is the sudden and amazed remorse of the King; how admirable the wonder, mixed with suspicion, and yet conscious innocence, in the Queen! But the triumph of the picture, unquestionably, "the play" acted in the background. What a sublime conception! --how intrinsically full of poetry is the figure of the murderer seeking to shadow his face for the yet lingering light of day--and the dim gigantic form, his huge outline, reflected from behind! The play is, indeed, "the thing." As an example of fine drawing it is unsurpassed; in all the highest attributes of Art it will rank among the most memorable productions of our school. (4:120-1)

Five years later in 1847 Hall had an opportunity to reflect further on Maclise's painting. The Play Scene was bought by Robert Vernon for his private gallery, and Hall wrote an article on Vernon's collection. He again commends Maclise's precision of detail and then further notes how the artist draws the viewer into the painting, where "all eyes save those of the King and Hamlet are fixed upon the act." He describes how we are forced to share the fascination of the murder as we merge with the audience of the painting: "we cannot separate ourselves from the common interest" (9:366). Robert Vernon, incidentally, admired the painting so much that he paid Maclise 600 rather than the asking price of 500; he later gave his entire collection, including The Play Scene, as a gift to the nation.

More than 1400 paintings were exhibited in 1842, including some that we now regard as masterpieces, but Maclise's canvas was judged the best of the lot; the critic for The Times echoed the general enthusiasm when he pronounced it "the lion of the gallery" (May 3, 1842, p. 5). Charles Dickens, a friend of the painter, called it a "tremendous production. There are things in it, which in their powerful thought exceed anything I have ever beheld in painting" (Forbes 102).

John Ruskin, however, did not number himself among the enthusiasts. Although he respected Maclise's ability as an artist, "we most devoutly wish he would let Shakespeare alone." In what is perhaps an unconscious memory (we hope) of Eagles' review written some years earlier, Ruskin objects in Modern Painters to the "state of prostration" of the "Irish ruffian" depicted as Hamlet and to the "maudlin expression" of his Ophelia (which Hall of the Art Union expressly admires), who would be better explained to the viewer by "an empty gin bottle on her lap." He deplores the immense popularity of Maclise's painting, because it so completely demonstrates "the total ignorance of the public of all that is great or valuable in Shakespeare." We cannot permit Maclise, Ruskin adds, "thus to mislead the English public . . . in all their conceptions of the intentions of Shakespeare" (3:619). Ruskin perhaps later moderated his view of the painting; these comments appear only in the first two editions of Modern Painters and he dropped the remarks from subsequent editions.

Here seems to be the rub: a difference in critical approaches and interpretations of Shakespeare and his "true" intentions. Ruskin objects not the to painting itself and the obvious power and skill of Maclise as a painter, but to what the painting says and the way in which it interprets this crucial scene in Hamlet. If, as Eagles asserts, the "boards of the theatre and the canvass are the same thing," then Ruskin objects to Maclise's critical assessment of Hamlet just as he would to what he might consider a wrong-headed production of the play or a critic's observations with which he disagreed. He has a point; The Play Scene in "Hamlet," as we note in the Introduction, did affect the ways in which critics and readers responded to this scene, to Hamlet as a character, and ultimately to Hamlet as a play. But Ruskin often speaks in matters of opinion as if he were the final arbiter and leaves little room for disagreement.

The pages that discuss Hamlet's crawl and Gertrude's guilt also deal with aspects of Maclise's painting.