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Shakespeare’s Sculptural Characters

Written by Louisa McKenzie for The Warburg Institute Library | 08 November 2023

Shakespeare is widely considered to be one of the world’s greatest playwrights. However, his writing displays an interest in art forms other than the written word. One of these is sculpture. Peppered throughout his plays are comparisons between characters and sculptures either via reference to the materials of sculpture or to sculptures themselves. In Act One, Scene 3 of Romeo and Juliet, the Nurse attempts to encourage a reluctant Juliet by describing her would-be husband, Paris, as a “man of wax”. Most scholars interpret this comment as indicating that Paris is a handsome man, and therefore a worthy husband. The wax/physical beauty comparison is possible because wax was widely used in Shakespeare’s time as a sculptural material. Wax models were used by artists of different kinds during the design process to work out poses and lighting and to provide small-scale ‘auditions’ of works for the scrutiny of a patron. In some cases wax was also used for completed works. It was also a common material for votive sculpture during the late Middles Ages and Renaissance. By comparing Paris to a wax sculpture through the Nurse’s words, Shakespeare was hinting that he should be interpreted as an ideal archetype of a suitor rather than a real man.

Brooch ft. portrait of William Shakespeare, c. 1815 (British Museum)

Wax’s multiple possible interpretations and connotations in this period are made clear by another reference to the material in Romeo and Juliet. While for the Nurse wax is a positive comparator, for Friar Lawrence later in the play it is a negative one. After killing Tybalt, Romeo has made his way to see Lawrence, who informs him that his punishment is to be banishment. Romeo is distraught at the prospect of being separated from Juliet and the Friar tries to dissuade him from doing anything rash. While doing so, he argues “Thy noble shape is but a form of wax, digressing from the valour of a man”. This emphasises wax’s malleability. Wax’s shape is easily manipulated by external forces, just as, in the Friar’s estimation, Romeo is allowing himself and his character to be affected by what’s going on around him. Shakespeare uses the same idea in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In the very first scene of the play, Theseus tells Hermia that she is “but a form in wax” who has been created by her father and, therefore, should continue to be moulded by his wishes. Likewise, in Henry VI Part 3, Warwick argues that the king is too easily swayed, as Queen Margaret, Lord Clifford and their allies have “wrought the easy-melting king like wax”. Similar references occur throughout the history plays and tragedies. However, in Romeo and Juliet, the Friar’s comparison goes further, suggesting that there is something defective about wax. A wax figure is a counterfeit human, just like Romeo is, in the Friar’s eyes at that moment, a counterfeit man for having doubts. Pairing the Friar’s statement with the Nurse’s previous reference to Paris as a “man of wax” suggests that in Shakespeare’s terms a wax figure resembled a ‘real’ person on a surface level, and was even attractive, but ultimately lacked inner substance.

Attributed to Michelangelo Buonarroti, A Slave (sketch model), 1516-1519 (V&A Museum)

Alabaster is another material which Shakespeare uses to add layers of meaning to his characters. In Othello Act Five, Scene 2, Othello, wrestling with his emotions, says that the skin of his sleeping wife, Desdemona is “as smooth as monumental alabaster”. This comment carries many connotations. It hints at differences in race between the two characters. However, alabaster was also a popular material used for the tombs of the elite in medieval and Renaissance Europe. In this scene, Othello is contemplating the murder of Desdemona, an act he will ultimately carry out. The comparison between her sleeping figure and alabaster, a material used in funerary monuments, prefigures her death.

Thomas Charles Wageman and Woolnoth, portrait of Mrs Bunn as Hermione in The Winter's Tale, c. 1823, (V&A Museum)

Shakespeare’s fullest exploration of the potential of sculpture famously occurs in the final act of The Winter’s Tale. Sixteen years before the events of the final act, Leontes, king of Sicily, had accused his wife, Hermione, of infidelity with his friend, Polixenes. This led to her death. Leontes also banished his daughter, Perdita. Perdita is raised by shepherds, before falling in love with Florizel, Polixenes’ son. Polixenes is opposed to the match due to the bride’s ‘lowly’ station. Events reach a crescendo in Act Five when Leontes discovers that Perdita is his daughter, the marriage between Perdita and Florizel is approved and Polixenes and Leontes are reconciled. Paulina, a friend of Hermione, who had tried to help her sixteen years before, presents the company with a ‘statue’ of the late queen. This ‘comes to life’ and the family is reunited. In this scene, much is made of how lifelike the statue is: “Chide me, dear stone, that I may say indeed Thou art Hermione”. This is because the statue may be no sculpture at all, but rather Hermione herself, who never died but who instead hid away with her friend Paulina. This would, after all, explain how the statue suddenly comes to life to teach Leontes a lesson, as well as Paulina’s reticence for the statue to be touched before the right time, “O, patience! The statue is but newly fixed; the colour’s not dry”. However, this artifice only works because the other characters, and the audience of the play, initially believe Hermione to be a sculpture. In Shakespeare’s time, the quality of a sculpture (or painting) was often judged on its capacity to be lifelike or resemble ‘nature’. Within this wider framework, it would have been logical for Shakespeare’s contemporaries to have initially experienced the statue of Hermione as an example of excellent sculpture. Whether through comparison to sculptural materials or by referring to wider ways of thinking artworks, Shakespeare’s references to sculpture can add new layers of meaning to his words.

Louisa McKenzie, Graduate Library Trainee, The Warburg Institute Library

First Folios at 400

The First Folio was first entered into the Stationers’ Register on this day (8th November) in 1623. To celebrate 400 years since this historic publication, the School of Advanced Study and Senate House Library are hosting an exciting programme of events and activity including a major new exhibition, Shakespeare’s First Folios: A 400-year journey which opens on the 21 November.

To view the full programme, visit: https://www.sas.ac.uk/shakespeares-first-folio-400 

Bibliography

R. Panzanelli, ‘Compelling Presence’ in, R. Panzanelli (ed), Ephemeral bodies: Wax Sculpture and the Human figure, Los Angeles 2008, pp. 13-40.

J. von Schlosser, ‘Geschichte der Porträtbildnerei in Wachs: Ein Versuch’, Jahrbuch der Kunsthistorischen Sammlungen des Allerhöchsten Kaiserhauses, XXIX, 1910-11, pp. 171-258. 

H. Levin, ‘Form and Formality in Romeo and Juliet’, Shakespeare Quarterly, XI.1, 1960, pp. 3-11 (5).

K. W. Woods, 'Cut in Alabaster. A Material of Sculpture and its European Traditions 1330-1530', Turnhout 2018.

H. Marchitello, 'The Machine in the Text: Science and Literature in the Age of Shakespeare and Galileo', Oxford 2011, Chapter 6.

J. Woods-Marsden, ‘“Ritratto al Naturale”: Questions of Realism and Idealism in Early Renaissance Portraits’, Art Journal, XLVI.3, 1987, pp. 209-16.

Images:

Brooch featuring a portrait of William Shakespeare, c. 1815, gold, garnet, glass, resin and wax, 2.8 cm high, Hull Grundy Gift, British Museum. Photograph: © The Trustees of the British Museum (Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license):  https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/image/1613152910

Attributed to Michelangelo Buonarroti, A Slave (sketch model), c. 1516-1519, wax over metal, 17.6 cm high, Victoria and Albert Museum. Photograph: © Victoria and Albert Museum: https://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O70293/a-slave-model-buonarroti-michelangelo/

Thomas Charles Wageman and Woolnoth, portrait of Mrs Bunn as Hermione in The Winter's Tale, c. 1823, print, 14 cm high, Harry Beard Collection, V&A Museum: https://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O1259361/mrs-bunn-as-hermione-print-woolnoth/