Shakespeare as a Painter

I have always been a terrible artist, but have recently enjoyed playing around a little bit with drawing and painting. So much so, in fact, that I decided to take part in a project called Inktober and because I’m, you know, me, I thought it would be great fun to do a Shakespeare-themed Inktober. (If you’re interested, you can follow my Shakespeare Inktober posts on Instagram.) When I decided to give it a go, I sat down and brainstormed a quick list of objects that stood out pretty vividly to me from Shakespeare’s canon.

“Blow, winds, blow, and crack your cheeks!”

I was kind of surprised at how easily I was able to come up with a list of objects that I associated with Shakespeare for some reason or other, and as I have been working over the last {nearly} two weeks to create these simple (and admittedly still very bad) paintings and drawings, it’s made me think a lot about the role that imagery plays in Shakespeare.

I hadn’t even realized until I began this project how vividly Shakespeare paints images for his audience. There are very few images in theatre more iconic than Hamlet holding a skull. And who can forget the image of a forest peppered with trees that have Rosalind carved crudely into their bark, from As You Like It? Or King Lear raging against (or with) a fierce storm, with the famous lines “Blow, winds, blow, and crack your cheeks!”

I hadn’t thought about how visual Shakespeare was until I sat down to brainstorm through that lens. Once I did, it felt ridiculous that I hadn’t realized this earlier.

Theatre is very much a visual format. Of course there would be vivid and intense imagery in Shakespeare’s work.

“There is a man haunts the forest, that abuses our young plants with carving Rosalind in their barks.”

His writing isn’t just about clever wordplay and lovely rhythms. More than any other writer I’ve ever read, I think we can call Shakespeare a painter of words. To me, there isn’t any better way to describe what he does.

I’ve never really considered literature to be a visual art form before, but my Shakespeare project and my Inktober project have taught me a lot about the role that our senses play in every art form.

“There’s a daisy. I would give you some violets, but they withered all when my father died.”

Often, the best literature is the best literature precisely because it engages our brain and our senses. We feel the storm in King Lear. We see Ophelia with flowers, and we hear the music in many of Shakespeare’s plays.

Most other forms of art are more visual or, in a way, more tangible than literature. You see dance moves. You hear music. You see a painting (and sometimes feel it, if you’re allowed to touch it).

Literature is different.

Writing is different.

The writer’s job is to use language so well, so clearly, and so vividly, that you don’t have to see what’s happening to see it. You don’t have to hear what’s happening to hear it. You don’t have to meet someone and shake their hand to feel like they are real.

“Is it not strange that sheeps’ guts should hale souls out of men’s bodies?”

They say a picture is worth a thousand words.

Writers paint pictures just as much as musicians or artists or actors.

But when you’re painting inside someone else’s head instead of a canvas or stage or screen, are we surprised it takes a little bit more space and time?

And isn’t there something about it that is just undeniably magical?

“Alas, poor Yorrick. I knew him, Horatio. A fellow of infinite jest.”