This is the ninth 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 Hamlet.
Waiting for Hamlet
The first of the Gregory bas-reliefs I wanted to draw was Hamlet. It seemed the boldest of them all, the most challenging, the most exciting. And yet I decided to draw the sculptures one by one, in order from left to right. It took four months to get to Hamlet. Drawing has taught me many things, not the least of which is patience. Hamlet was worth the wait. By this point, I’d already drawn seven of the nine sculptures, and felt ready to take on Hamlet. To me it is the most richly layered of all the sculptures, a thrilling contrast of spectacle and nuance—and it’s kind of crazy.
Henry Folger chose the moment in Act 3, Sc. 4 when King Hamlet’s ghost enters Gertrude’s chambers to appear to his son. So much has already happened in the scene—young Hamlet confronts his mother about her marriage to his uncle so soon after his father’s death; then, upon hearing a noise, he stabs an eavesdropper hiding behind a curtain, only to realize that he’s killed the courtier Polonius, Ophelia’s father. Hamlet renews his unrelenting attack on his mother, and she crumbles under his withering accusations. And then the ghost appears. Gregory picks up his chisel here.
Once again, Gregory is able to convey the essence of the play in a single moment, showing Hamlet facing the sources of his torment: his father’s murder and his mother’s betrayal. The two Hamlets frame the scene, with their backs to the outer edges of the square. On the left, the helmeted ghost steps forward, in regal armor and emerging from an otherworldly atmosphere of stylized fire and smoke. On the right, young Hamlet, dressed in simple garments and clutching curtain drawstrings and a book, stares forward but steps back. (More on the book in a moment.) They look intently at each other—the ghost with head down, eyes up, determined; Hamlet with head up, eyes straight ahead, in awe. In between, Gertrude stares up at her son—she is oblivious to the ghost and draws a terrifying conclusion about the prince: “Alas, he’s mad.”
Hamlet was a joy to draw, but not at all easy. The push and pull between the characters is conveyed in a dizzying visual paradox. Their poses are frozen, but almost frantic lines of motion swirl in between, through, and around them. Gregory forced me to read the moment left to right, and then back again. Take a couple of visual paths as examples. The ghost looks down, and the curve of his helmet gets picked up by the hard-edged arabesques of the flame-like form coming from behind him. Still moving right, the flame gives way to smoke pierced with angled, straight-lined forms, all of it punctuated by Gertrude’s upturned face and her notched crown. We follow her gaze as the clouds disappear behind Hamlet’s face, and we follow his gaze back to the ghost.
Here’s another: The ghost’s cape and robes form tumbling s-curves. They get picked up by Gertrude’s arching cape, which shoots over her shoulder to the cords in Hamlet’s hand, then to his cape, over his shoulder and down his back. As with the other reliefs I’d drawn, the great challenge was to keep all the intricate puzzle pieces in proportion to themselves—to take the push and pull apart and put it back together again.
Much of the fun was drawing the little details that gave me insight into the characters. The ghost is doing his otherworldly battle, right down to his armor-clad foot. Gertrude has until this moment enjoyed the luxury of royalty, seen in the ornamentation of her crown and seat (I made sure I drew the exact number of tassels). And Hamlet is his deeply complex self. His top half leans forward, his bottom half steps back. And in his one hand are the curtain cords that refer to the demise of Polonius. But strangely in the other he has a book, not the rapier he thrust through the curtain.
Why the book? Hamlet famously reads a book in Act 2, Sc. 2, but not in this scene. There’s a clue in a letter in the Folger archives, written by Gregory in 1933 in response to a woman named Natalie White, who had complained about the book. “I am… rather disturbed by your very just criticism of the figure of Hamlet,” he writes. “In defense I can only plead ‘artistic license’ and carelessness… I can’t think of Hamlet as a slaughterer with a sword… and because I instinctively visualize him with a book.” But, he confesses, “I was unwise enough to suppose that nobody would bother.” (Ms. White annotated the letter to say he’d also sent her an autographed picture of the sculpture with a handwritten sonnet on back.)
After I finished the drawing, I looked right, and saw Falstaff with a pillow on his head. After the experience of wrestling with Hamlet, I was ready for something lighter. But I also faced The First Part of Henry IV with slight dread. It was the last sculpture in the line.
This 1899 drawing by J. E. Pawsey in the Folger collection is very similar in conception and staging to the Gregory sculpture, but in reverse, and with Hamlet’s sword. For me, the drawing seems more like the record of a stage performance than the expression of the scene itself. The compression of Gregory’s square format pushes the conflicted figures closer, which makes the scene much more uncomfortable, dramatic, and effective.