Charles Hunt. The Play Scene in "Hamlet," 1868.

Oil on canvas, approximately 18 x 26 inches. Yale Center for British Art.

Charles Hunt found a sure-fire formula for success for this picture: the Victorians loved paintings of children as much as they did depictions of Shakespeare, and Hunt combined the two to produce this amusing and whimsical version of Act III, scene ii of Hamlet. The play scene, first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1863, was so popular that Hunt painted three more versions of the same subject, including the one dated 1868 that is reproduced here. Similar paintings of children performing Shakespeare followed: The Banquet Scene: "Macbeth" (1864) and The Trial Scene: "The Merchant of Venice" (1868).

The older children playing Claudius and Gertrude seem to take the business much more seriously than the younger children playing the parts of the king and Lucianus in the play within the play. Ophelia, played by a perhaps reluctant boy, wears a garland of flowers, a property that will not be necessary until later in the play. Behind the chair stands an amused Horatio. Hamlet peeks from behind a fan, Hunt's subtle allusion to a bit of stage business used effectively in actual productions of the play by several actors, including Edwin Forrest. On the left are several children who provide the musical accompaniment and on the right is an "audience" of family members. The catch-all nature of the costumes and Gertrude's pasteboard crown suggest that this is truly a makeshift performance furnished from the old-clothes bin.

The painting is an affectionate depiction of children playing as grown-up actors, but the picture resonates with allusions to other more serious versions of the same scene. The Victorian viewer would recall the popular painting exhibited in 1842 by Daniel Maclise (judged the best painting in the Royal Academy Exhibition that year) and find amusing the contrasts between this painting and others on the same subject.