Drawing Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Titania and Bottom

This is the second post in a series by artist Paul Glenshaw about drawing the bas-reliefs by John Gregory on the front of the Folger Shakespeare Library building. The series will examine the bas-reliefs one by one; each sculpture depicts a scene from a different Shakespeare play. Today’s post is about the bas-relief of a scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

⇒ Read the introductory post in the series and see a slideshow of Paul Glenshaw’s drawing process


There’s a document in the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art dated August 28, 1929, that lists the scenes that Gregory was to depict, according to Henry Folger’s wishes. The first is “Titania with Fairies,” from Act II, Sc. 2 of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But Gregory carved instead a moment from Act IV, Sc.1—when Titania invites Bottom, still with the head of an ass, to sleep entwined her arms, like “…the woodbine the sweet honeysuckle/Gently entwist; the female ivy so/Enrings the barky fingers of the elm./O, how I love thee! How I dote on thee!”

It would appear Emily Folger changed the scene after her husband’s death. Gregory wrote to her on May 16, 1930, saying, “I will at once set about preparing another version of the Dream, incorporating your plan…”

It’s a perfect moment to represent the play. We’re in the woods where all the mayhem takes place, with Titania and Bottom representing the misplaced, drug-induced affections in the play. In contrast to the frenzied, tangled-up emotive energy of many of the other scenes in the woods, this one is quiet. Titania is happily smitten with her donkey man, and Bottom is charmed, blithely unaware of his grotesque transformation (but hoping for some oats). It’s the moment before the knotty mess of infatuations begins to get resolved. It’s a quiet scene in terms of narrative, but visually, it’s exploding with activity.

Gregory plays with symmetry throughout the series. In Midsummer, he sets up a deceptively simple-looking scene. It’s bisected right down the middle, with the two figures sitting sideways on either side of a semicircular rock, leaning their shoulders together, with a tree behind each at the outer vertical edges of the square. But that’s where the symmetry ends.

The biggest difference between the two halves is the size of the two figures. Bottom is huge. His ass head is gigantic, dominating the top half of the sculpture. His hands and feet are enormous; his arms, torso, and legs muscular. His elbow crosses the centerline into Titania’s space. The other arm has a sleeve of foliage. An oak tree (not an elm as the text suggests) emerges behind his foot from the base of the square and wraps itself around the outer edge, its leaves overlapping in clumps, dotted with acorns.

Titania is much smaller. Her crown almost dwarfs her face, and her fingers are raised up in a delicate, graceful gesture. Gregory renders her gossamer garment (despite being marble) in delicate folds. The folds both cling to her and drop gently down. Yet she sits firmly on the rock—she’s a queen after all, not a Kleenex. She sits next to a tree whose leaves resemble the honeysuckle, as the text indicates. Like the oak leaves, they spread out in fan-like shapes to the upper corners, as if they’re magically growing before our eyes.

Finally, Bottom looks down toward Titania, and she faces out. Is she looking at us? Or is she lost in her reverie?

The greatest challenge in drawing Midsummer was the leaves. They hold together visually as very active areas, but each leaf has a part to play in the overall busy pattern—and there’s a lot of them. The accumulated grime on the sculptures, particularly the leaves above Titania’s head, served me very well graphically. The darkness of the grime enhances shadows and provides contrast, which typically makes things more visually dynamic.

Next up: Romeo and Juliet

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