3,000 Illustrations of Shakespeare’s Complete Works from Victorian England, Neatly Presented in a New Digital Archive


“We can say of Shake­speare,” wrote T.S. Eliot—in what may sound like the most back­hand­ed of com­pli­ments from one writer to another—“that nev­er has a man turned so lit­tle knowl­edge to such great account.” Eliot, it’s true, was not over­awed by the Shake­speare­an canon; he pro­nounced Ham­let “most cer­tain­ly an artis­tic fail­ure,” though he did love Cori­olanus. What­ev­er we make of his ambiva­lent, con­trar­i­an opin­ions of the most famous author in the Eng­lish lan­guage, we can cred­it Eliot for keen obser­va­tion: Shakespeare’s uni­verse, which can seem so sprawl­ing­ly vast, is actu­al­ly sur­pris­ing­ly spare giv­en the kinds of things it most­ly con­tains.

Ophelia ckham18

This is due in large part to the visu­al lim­i­ta­tions of the stage, but per­haps it also points toward an author who made great works of art from hum­ble mate­ri­als. Look, for exam­ple, at a search cloud of the Bard’s plays.

You’ll find one the front page of the Vic­to­ri­an Illus­trat­ed Shake­speare Archive, the PhD project of Michael Good­man, doc­tor­al can­di­date in Dig­i­tal Human­i­ties at Cardiff Uni­ver­si­ty. The cloud on the left fea­tures a galaxy com­posed main­ly of ele­men­tal and arche­typ­al beings: “Ani­mals,” “Cas­tles and Palaces,” “Crowns,” “Flo­ra and Fau­na,” “Swords,” “Spears,” “Trees,” “Water,” “Woods,” “Death.” One thinks of the Zodi­ac or Tarot.

Roman Forum ckcor4

This par­tic­u­lar search cloud, how­ev­er, does not rep­re­sent the most promi­nent terms in the text, but rather the most promi­nent images in four col­lec­tions of illus­trat­ed Shake­speare plays from the Vic­to­ri­an peri­od. Goodman’s site hosts over 3000 of these illus­tra­tions, tak­en from four major UK edi­tions of Shake­speare’s Com­plete Works pub­lished in the mid-19th cen­tu­ry. The first, pub­lished by edi­tor Charles Knight, appeared in sev­er­al vol­umes between 1838 and 1841, illus­trat­ed with con­ser­v­a­tive engrav­ings by var­i­ous artists. Knight’s edi­tion intro­duced the trend of spelling Shakespeare’s name as “Shakspere,” as you can see in the title page to the “Come­dies, Vol­ume I,” at the top of the post. Fur­ther down, see two rep­re­sen­ta­tive illus­tra­tions from the plays, the first of Ham­let’s Ophe­lia and sec­ond Cori­olanus’ Roman Forum, above.

Tempest kmtemp41

Part of a wave of “ear­ly Vic­to­ri­an pop­ulism” in Shake­speare pub­lish­ing, Knight’s edi­tion is joined by one from Ken­ny Mead­ows, who con­tributed some very dif­fer­ent illus­tra­tions to an 1854 edi­tion. Just above, see a Goya-like illus­tra­tion from The Tem­pest. Lat­er came an edi­tion illus­trat­ed by H.C. Selous in 1864, which returned to the for­mal, faith­ful real­ism of the Knight edi­tion (see a ren­der­ing of Hen­ry V, below), and includes pho­tograu­vure plates of famed actors of the time in cos­tume and an appen­dix of “Spe­cial Wood Engraved Illus­tra­tions by Var­i­ous Artists.”

Henry V hcseloushv4

The final edi­tion whose illus­tra­tions Good­man has dig­i­tized and cat­a­logued on his site fea­tures engrav­ings by artist John Gilbert. Also pub­lished in 1864, the Gilbert may be the most expres­sive of the four, retain­ing real­ist pro­por­tions and mise-en-scène, yet also ren­der­ing the char­ac­ters with a psy­cho­log­i­cal real­ism that is at times unsettling—as in his fierce por­trait of Lear, below. Gilbert’s illus­tra­tion of The Tam­ing of the Shrew’s Kathe­ri­na and Petru­chio, fur­ther down, shows his skill for cre­at­ing believ­able indi­vid­u­als, rather than broad arche­types. The same skill for which the play­wright has so often been giv­en cred­it.


But Shake­speare worked both with rich, indi­vid­ual char­ac­ter stud­ies and broad­er, arche­typ­al, mate­r­i­al: psy­cho­log­i­cal real­ism and mytho­log­i­cal clas­si­cism. What I think these illus­trat­ed edi­tions show us is that Shake­speare, who­ev­er he (or she) may have been, did indeed have a keen sense of what Eliot called the “objec­tive cor­rel­a­tive,” able to com­mu­ni­cate com­plex emo­tions through “a skill­ful accu­mu­la­tion of imag­ined sen­so­ry impres­sions” that have impressed us as much on the can­vas, stage, and screen as they do on the page. The emo­tion­al expres­sive­ness of Shakespeare’s plays comes to us not only through elo­quent verse speech­es, but through images of both the stark­ly ele­men­tal and the unique­ly per­son­al.

Taming Of jgtos81

Spend some time with the illus­trat­ed edi­tions on Goodman’s site, and you will devel­op an appre­ci­a­tion for how the plays com­mu­ni­cate dif­fer­ent­ly to the dif­fer­ent artists. In addi­tion to the search clouds, the site has a head­er at the top for each of the four edi­tions. Click on the name and you will see front and back mat­ter and title pages. In the pull-down menus, you can access each indi­vid­ual play’s dig­i­tized illus­tra­tions by type—“Histories,” “Come­dies,” and “Tragedies.” All of the con­tent on the site, Good­man writes, “is free through a CC license: users can share on social media, remix, research, cre­ate and just do what­ev­er they want real­ly!”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear What Ham­let, Richard III & King Lear Sound­ed Like in Shakespeare’s Orig­i­nal Pro­nun­ci­a­tion

Read All of Shakespeare’s Plays Free Online, Cour­tesy of the Fol­ger Shake­speare Library

Free Online Shake­speare Cours­es: Primers on the Bard from Oxford, Har­vard, Berke­ley & More

A 68 Hour Playlist of Shakespeare’s Plays Being Per­formed by Great Actors: Giel­gud, McK­ellen & More

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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