Edwin Austin Abbey, Hamlet (1897)

Oil on canvas, 61.25 x 96.5 inches. Yale University, New Haven.

When the painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy it was accompanied in the exhibition catalogue by these lines when Hamlet tells Horatio to watch Claudius carefully:

Give him heedful note
For I mine eyes will rivet to his face;
And after, we will both our judgments join
In censure of his seeming.

When Abbey painted the play scene from Hamlet for exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1897 his challenge was to avoid a hackeyed rendition of a popular subject and not duplicate Daniel Maclise's famous and familiar painting on the same theme. His solution was innovative and in some respects more critically valid than Maclise's. In his 1842 painting Maclise made the play of Gonzago the main focus of his composition, putting it in the center of the canvas with Hamlet, Ophelia and Horatio on the left side and Gertrude and Claudius on the right. Abbey restores the correct emphasis in Hamlet to the reactions of Claudius and Hamlet's careful observation of his uncle. He does this by placing them in the center of the painting and putting the play within the play completely outside the frame and in the viewer's space. Now everyone looks out from the painting at us and the space occupied by the "mousetrap" play so that we can see and accurately judge the characters' reactions. Everyone--Claudius, Gertrude, Ophelia and the courtiers--looks outward, with the exception of Hamlet and Horatio (the figure at the far right with just his face visible), who study Claudius's reactions to what he is seeing. Claudius watches the play with a stern gaze that betrays no emotion; Gertrude, on the other hand, distances herself from Claudius, shrinks into a corner, and draws her veil about her face. Ophelia, judging by her benign, open expression, has no idea of the meaning of the play she witnesses. In a scene where facial expressions and physical reactions are so important, Abbey's solution is masterful.

Lucy Oakley notes that some details of Abbey's painting may have been inspired by stage performances he had seen. "Hamlet's purple leggings, cross-gartered in black, resemble those worn by Edwin Booth," whom Abbey could have seen in New York in the 1870s or in London in 1880. Ophelia's dress, first white then pink in progressive versions of the painting, "match those of two of Ellen Terry's costumes in Henry Irving's production, which Abbey must have seen in London during the early 1880s." Irving's play scene also "featured a large cast, including the Fool, a crowd of torch-bearing guards and noblemen, and harpists, all extratextual elements also included by Abbey" (45). Oakley could add another detail from this production as well; the wolf skins upon which Hamlet lies were a vivid touch in Irving's Hamlet.

The torches in Abbey's painting add a sinister and lurid atmosphere; the "infernal glow" behind Claudius, Oakley notes, anticipate the end of the play scene when Hamlet says,

'Tis now the very witching time of night,
When churchyards yawn, and hell itself breathes out
Contagion to this world. Now could I drink hot blood
And so such bitter business as the day
Would quake to look on.

These satanic fires that light the scene also reinforce the allusions to Claudius when Hamlet asks his mother about the "devil" that "thus hath cozen'd" her and warns Gertrude to "master the devil, or throw him out" (III, iv). The diabolical nature of Claudius is likewise reiterated in the serpentine figure on his robe, which graphically hearkens back to the conversation between Hamlet and the ghost of his father in Act I, scene v. It had been let out to the court that old Hamlet had been bitten by a snake, but the ghost tells Hamlet that "The serpent that did sting thy father's life / Now wears his crown."