Trying not to think about it casually, we must soon realise that there is actually no good reason why the dynamics of the Bard should translate successfully into art. What we are really witnessing at Dulwich’s cramped parade of Shakespearian pictures from the heyday of Bardolatry, the 18th and 19th centuries, is two art forms with essentially opposing ambitions trying unsuccessfully to sink their differences. One side, art, deals in essences. The other, theatre, deals in complex unravellings over time. A picture may, indeed, in most circumstances, be worth a thousand words, but not if the words are written by Shakespeare. In that circumstance, the picture can be nothing more than a gross oversimplification, the vaguest of vague impressions.
Thus, the Hamlets, the Lears, the Shylocks, the various royal Henrys and Richards, the Macbeths and the Romeos who display themselves here so unconvin-cingly usually adopt the same pose: they stand with their legs apart and their arms raised, mouths half open in the aghast mode, eyes staring madly straight ahead, as if the whole lot of them had just seen a ghost. Everybody ignores their partners onstage and addresses the eternity beyond. So, are we watching a recurring portrayal of the mad egos of actors through the ages, refusing to share their stage? Or have the artists settled on a selection of melodramatic postures that make painting Shakespeare easier? Whichever it is, this show offers reliable proof of the basic incompatibility of the art forms. Art turns every Garrick into a Donald Sinden: it’s a most unfortunate magic.
If you cannot paint the essence of Shakespeare — because Shakespeare doesn’t have an essence; he is so many things in so many different ways — what can you cram into the single shy at the coconut that art has available to it? You can turn your canvas horizontally, of course, and record the appearance of a production on a stage. Horizontally turned canvases are naturally stage-shaped. Thus, the show’s earliest attempts at Shakespeare, from the middle of the 18th century, offer a charming range of doll’s houses filled with emoting Georgian Lilliputians.
In 1748, the great Garrick played Romeo at Drury Lane, alongside George Anne Bellamy as Juliet. Benjamin Wilson’s unintentionally amusing record of this performance shows it was set in the garden of a dilapidated English country house dotted with ivy-covered follies, which already feels cold and wrong. History has decided on the greatness of Garrick, the finest of the early actor-managers. But can the final scene of his Romeo and Juliet at Drury Lane have been anything other than ludicrous? Not if Wilson’s testimony is to be believed.
We are watching a moment of Garrick’s invention, when the dying Romeo breaks into Juliet’s tomb and, forgetting he has swallowed his own fatal poison, sees her awake before him. His beloved is not dead after all. But he soon will be. Garrick wears contemporary clothes, a Mozart wig and a flapping frock coat, and appears at least 20 years too old for the part of the besotted teenager. Mrs Bellamy, pushing 40 as well, sits up on her deathbed and claws at the space between them as if she were at a shop window marked “Closed” and he were outside. Wherefore art thou, credibility? Dredging up all my reserves of fair-mindedness, I admit it’s unreasonable of me to judge the effectiveness of Garrick’s production from this huge historical distance. We, after all, are a society that cast Leonardo DiCaprio in the same role, evincing an equally horrid slippage of taste. But surely some passion or sexiness is demanded of the two principals in the piece? Neither Garrick nor Bellamy possesses an atom of either stuff. Thus a critical crescendo of love and death has been turned into the polite interaction between two porcelain figures on a mantelpiece.
Picture after picture supplies proof of this chronic inability of English artists to follow Shakespeare upwards to his emotional peaks. Hogarth, who usually floundered when his tongue wasn’t pressed into his cheek, provides a strikingly awful moment from The Tempest that purports to show Ferdinand’s first meeting with Miranda, but looks more like a wonky Christmas crib scene in my local church. Miranda is the Virgin Mary, Ferdinand one of the three kings. It’s horribly obvious that Hogarth has based his setup on a Renaissance nativity. Ariel has become a Renaissance angel hovering on a cloud, while Caliban, one of the clunkiest monsters I have encountered in art, is a pantomime Satan covered in scales. It is a spectacularly feeble effort.
The Bard clearly causes stage fright among his people. He is just too big for them. So I don’t think it is a coincidence that several of the better contributors are foreigners. Delacroix skulks around the graveyard with Hamlet and gets the endless twilight right, while the contributions of the Swiss eccentric Henry Fuseli always cut through the fog. Titania Embra-cing Bottom, from 1792, takes the dreamy atmospheres of A Mid-summer Night’s Dream and makes them stern and scary. A huge, brooding Bottom, in his creepy donkey’s head, is surrounded by all manner of trilling fairies and seems ready to eat the lot.
While the tragedies prove generally to be beyond the range of art, the fairy stories and comic pieces have their moments. At the end of the show, the pre-Raphaelites emerge rather surprisingly as decent translators of Shakespeare. They invariably locate him outdoors, in a magic garden, over-flowing with beautiful specimens of the delicately symbolic nature that the Bard loved to take clippings from, and quote. In Millais’s splendid Ferdinand and Ariel, the hovering fairy seems to have turned into some sort of plant life. She is green. Whispering to Ferdinand, this chlorophyll-coloured Ariel achieves an excellent reversal of one of those daffy Prince of Wales moments when the man speaks to his plant.
Another of the show’s short-comings is the absence in it of the handful of crucial Shakespeare paintings that might have altered its impact. The most famous of all, Millais’s gorgeous and unflaggingly popular Ophelia, from the Tate, floating wide-eyed and dead among her flowers, is missing. As is Hogarth’s huge Garrick as Richard III, from Liverpool. Or what about Richard Dadd’s fanatically detailed Oberon and Titania, which Lord Lloyd-Webber owns? Not even Sargent’s sumptuously over-the-top Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth has made it to this underpowered survey. It is, alas, like watching one of Sven-Goran Eriksson’s England friendlies where the B team gets sent out.