Drawing Shakespeare: Macbeth

Macbeth bas-relief. Drawing by Paul Glenshaw.

This is the fourth 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 Macbeth.


It is one of the most recognizable props in all of Shakespeare—the Weïrd Sisters’ cauldron of “Double, double toil and trouble” fame. Yet in John Gregory’s sculptural depiction of the famous scene from Act VI, sc.1 of Macbeth, the cauldron is small, sitting unobtrusively on the ground. But out of it spews a mighty column of smoke, which separates the witches from Macbeth. They’re gesturing to him. It could be that he’s just entered their cave, saying, “How now, you secret, black, and midnight hags? What is ’t you do?” To which they reply, “A deed without a name.” Or it could be that the apparitions they summon—the Armed Head, the Bloody Child, and the Child Crowned, with a tree in his hand—have just appeared, at which point Macbeth challenges the witches to tell him if Banquo’s descendents will occupy the throne, to which they reply, “Seek to know no more.”

Either way, Gregory drops us into the moment when Macbeth’s ongoing murderous power grab is about to backfire, as he misinterprets the meanings of the apparitions. Macbeth thinks they show he’s secure, but they mean exactly the opposite. He doesn’t know it, but his doom is sealed. As always, Gregory builds visual tension between the characters to bring the moment alive.

The staging is asymmetrical. The three witches line up almost like Greek caryatids—columns shaped like female figures—but jammed together. They seem like a multi-headed, multi-armed monster, opposed to the solitary figure of Macbeth. One of them looks like an apparition herself and seems to rise out of the smoke. Gregory sends us on a visual roller coaster through the witches’ frozen poses. Part of the motion is vertical. Their robes hang down with dagger-like folds and form crazy S-curves, moving up and down. Part of the motion is horizontal. Their bent arms—with two of them pointing at Macbeth—form a horizontal zigzag. Their grotesque faces send our eyes across to look at the killer who confronts them through the smoke. They take up more than half the square and, with the smoke, seem to almost push Macbeth off the edge. Macbeth himself is a brilliant depiction of contrary motion. From the waist up, he leans back. But his foot is firmly planted as if he’s advancing. Only the uneven floor suggests the interior of the witches’ cave.

Drawing challenges

Drawing Macbeth was great fun and a great challenge. The witches’ faces reminded me of da Vinci caricatures with their broken noses, underbites and huge chins. They almost seem to disappear into the intricacy of their drapery, as opposed to Macbeth, whose form is defined by bold strokes.

The hardest part to draw was the smoke. Somehow Gregory and the Piccirilli bothers, who did the actual carving, turned stone into something both ephemeral and almost violent. As was common practice at the time, John Gregory did not carve the sculptures himself. He created the reliefs in plaster, which were duplicated in marble by the Piccirilli brothers., who were renowned carvers. The edges of the billowing forms have distinct shapes, but also melt into one another as they leap up from the cauldron. At the bottom, they seem to come forward toward the viewer, then seem to recede behind the characters. I realized as I drew it that the smoke was as much a character in this setting as the witches and Macbeth himself.

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Theodor Horydczak Collection, LC-H813-L04-031 (b&w film neg.).
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Theodor Horydczak Collection, LC-H813-L04-031 (b&w film neg.).

My practice this past summer was to arrive before the sun rose to draw in the cool, even morning light. One day, as I drew the witch rising out of the smoke, the sun peeked over the rooftops and trees and lit up the sculpture from the side. It was only then that I saw a diamond-shaped pattern of folds under her elbow. I discovered that when the wall is in shadow, you can stand inches away and it and many other such details are barely visible. They only appear when hit by a raking light. This photograph, probably from the 1930s, shows how sunlight and shadow vividly affect the appearance of the bas-reliefs.

Completing Macbeth brought me to the sculpture in the center of the wall, and one for which I needed no introduction—Julius Caesar. I could see daggers, a dead or dying Caesar, and a lot of togas. I looked at the maze of swooping stone drapery with premature confidence. I had no idea how hard drawing it would be.

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