Wednesday, September 8, 2010
Keeley Halswelle - The Play Scene in Hamlet
Hamlet: He poisons him i' the garden for his estate. His name's Gonzago: this story is extant, and written in very choice Italian: you shall see anon, how the murder gets the love of Gonzago's wife.
Ophelia: The king rises
Hamlet: What, frightened with false fire!
Queen: How fares my lord?
Polonius: Give o'er the play.
King: Give me some light: away!
All: Lights, lights, lights!'
William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act III, Scene 2.
Price Realized £116,650
William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act III, Scene 2.
signed and dated 'Keeley Halswelle.1878.' (lower left)
oil on canvas
56 x 100 in. (142.3 x 254 cm.)
Commissioned by Andrew G. Kurtz, The Grove House, Wavertree, Liverpool; (+) Christie's, London, 9 May 1891, lot 62 (250 gns to Tooth).
London, Royal Academy, 1878, no. 936.
Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery, Loan Exhibition, 1886, no. 78.
The play scene is at the very centre of Hamlet. Claudius and Gertrude watch their own crimes acted out before them on the stage at Elsinore, and the spectacle of his own guilt causes Claudius to rise up in horror, calling for light, unable to watch the play any longer. This reaction seems to Hamlet to be proof that his father King Hamlet was indeed poisoned by Claudius, and that his mother Gertrude was complicit in the crime.
Halswelle makes Claudius the focal point of his composition. The king storms away from his throne, throwing his arms into the air with a histrionic gesture of both pain and defiance. The eye is also drawn to the dark figure of Hamlet who crouches half-way between the stage and the audience, watching both. He has beside him a sword and a book, presumably the playscript for The Murder of Gonzago which the players are performing. Hamlet himself has altered the script in order to increase the resemblance between the murder in the play and the murder Hamlet believes Claudius to have carried out. The sword and the book might be read as the symbols of action and learning. Shakepeare's play explores Hamlet's fluctuations between the desire for action and his natural inclination to consider and delay. Finding himself unable to avenge his father's death with his sword, it is the playbook which becomes Hamlet's chief weapon when he decides that 'the play's the thing/Wherein [to] catch the conscience of the king'.
The scene has been a fertile subject for artists and Halswelle had one particularly influential predecessor Daniel Maclise. An RA notice for 1878 observed that Halswelle was 'deliberately challenging...comparison' with 'the picture on the same subject by Daniel Maclise in the Vernon Gallery'.
Maclise's painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1842 and much admired. Maclise places the stage at the centre, flanked by the audience on either side. Here is the inspiration for Halswelle's Hamlet whose position is very similar in the two paintings, but Halswelle makes a bold move away from Maclise's example in terms of composition. He swings the scene round, taking a more adventurous angle which opens up the foreground to a great expanse of marble floor, and throws the figures back into the middle distance. The effect is aptly evocative of the theatre itself, as if one were viewing the expansive, almost operatic scene from the raised vantage point of a seat in the circle.
Halswelle does not choose a theatrical setting, however, but a specifically Roman one. Halswelle had built his reputation on Roman history paintings and Italian genre scenes such as A Roman Fruit Girl and Lo Sposalizio. His conception of ninth century Denmark is based on his experience of seventh century Rome. W.S. Fenn, writing in the Magazine of Art 1881, pointed out that Halswelle makes 'a faithful representation of the interior at the Tre Fontane, Rome, the spot on which, it is said, the execution of St Paul took place.' The setting thus has religious connotations which are in keeping with the strong religious thread that runs through the play.
The critic in the Magazine of Art, 1878, commented on the 'particularly happy ... indications of the barbaric splendour of Elsinore'. The Roman grandeur of the architecture, and the hint of exoticism in the tiger rug on the floor, combine with the more Northern European feel of the costumes. The cross-gartering was a common feature of Victorian stagings of the play, worn by Edwin Booth, one of the most noted nineteenth century Hamlets.
The Magazine of Art critic also judged that Halswelle had 'never done a truly more dramatic work.' The artist who had started out as an illustrator working on the edition of Shakespeare published by Robert Chambers and William Nelson had, at the height of his career, returned to Shakespeare and produced a work of grand theatricality. As Punch judged (15 June 1878) 'Halswelle that ends well'.
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