Drawing Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet

Romeo and Juliet. Paul Glenshaw.

This is the third post in a series by artist Paul Glenshaw about drawing the bas-reliefs by sculptor John Gregory on the front of the Folger Shakespeare Library building. The series examines 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 Romeo and Juliet.

Henry Folger originally wanted this scene to show Romeo wooing Juliet at her window. After he died, John Gregory wrote to Paul Cret, the building’s architect, that the six-by-six-foot format of the reliefs could not accommodate the two full-size figures; he was pleased that Mrs. Folger had agreed to this scene instead. He later wrote to Mrs. Folger, “I was delighted to hear that Juliet makes a good impression, she was a hard girl to bring up.”

After I finished all the intricacies and fussy details of drawing Midsummer, I looked over to my next target, Romeo and Juliet, with a sense of relief. How much easier it looked. I wouldn’t have to draw any leaves. Just three figures in a row, boom, boom, boom. How wrong I was. By drawing this sculpture, I learned with humility how nuanced John Gregory’s storytelling is—and how much I had to learn about the story itself.

The scene Gregory depicts is from Act III, Sc. 5. It’s the last moment Romeo and Juliet share together alive, an excruciating, beautiful, terrible moment of letting go. The romantic timeline is so compressed in Romeo and Juliet—they meet on a Sunday evening, get married on Monday afternoon, and then die that Thursday—that each moment the two doomed lovers connect is profound and fleeting. Gregory gives us arguably the most potent moment of all: just after their one and only night together, and just before or just after their last kiss. As the night gives way to dawn, they linger before they part forever.

Romeo is leaving Juliet’s chamber and fleeing Verona. It’s agony for each of them. They argue, banter, tease about the song of a bird—it’s a nightingale (it’s still night, we have a few more minutes); no, it’s a lark (it’s morning, and our time is up). Juliet’s Nurse enters and prods them into reality. The beauty of the sculpture is that it holds this fleeting moment forever—and yet Gregory loads it full of dynamic, contrasting motions.

The Composition and Drawing Challenges

Reading the action left to right, the furthest things to the left (which are barely visible in the bottom left corner) are Romeo’s foot, turning away, and his right hand. He’s already leaving. But he and Juliet almost seem to erupt toward one another. The folds of their capes lift away as if each has suddenly moved toward the other. The pattern the folds create—like an upside-down fan—visually compresses the two together. The hands echo the tensions of the evaporating moment. Although Romeo’s right hand points away, his left hand clasps Juliet’s right, hidden between them. Juliet’s left hand is flung behind her. The Nurse leans on a walking stick and touches the feathered fan that hangs from her waist. Gregory also gives us both inside and outside. There are hints of architecture in the upper corners, but there are smoky forms in the center, suggesting how the dawn of “envious streaks do lace the severing clouds in yonder east.” Taken together, they create the tension between needing to move and not wanting to move.

Drawing Romeo and Juliet was all about balancing the bold dynamics with the tiny moments—neither sacrificing the implied movement nor losing the bits of storytelling in the details. For example, Romeo’s one visible knee and lower leg jut out from the folds of his cloak. The cloak loops over his thigh, creating an upside-down U-shape, which is then answered in reverse by the curve of Juliet’s outer garment falling over her skirt. It’s all motion—visual action and reaction. By contrast, the Nurse’s skirt has no dynamic motion. It’s a symmetrical, domelike shape, broken only by the almost regular vertical folds that reach the floor and the feathered fan that also hangs vertically, implying that she is practically motionless—a visual goalie preventing any going back.

When the drawing was done, I felt growing confidence that I could complete the series, that doing Midsummer was not a one-off. I also began to learn more deeply how Gregory could distill each story to a richly layered moment. It was clear to me that each sculpture would have styling consistencies with its companions, but that it would also be a unique composition. When I looked over to the next sculpture, I saw a drawn knife, a central figure keeping two very angry figures apart, buckled shoes, books, and a globe. Something very serious was going down next door with The Merchant of Venice.

The Drawing Process: Because the sculptures are on the north wall of the library, they remain in shade much of the day. This is a great advantage for drawing, since the natural light on them remains fairly consistent for long periods of time. But as we’ll see in later posts, sometimes the raking light of early morning and late afternoon reveals details the shade hides.

Previous: A Midsummer Night’s Dream | Next: The Merchant of Venice


Read the introductory post to this series and see a slideshow of Paul Glenshaw’s drawing process.