Robinson and Shakespeare: dark humours

Back in February, in the post on Edmund Dulac’s illustrations for The Tempest, I promised a series of posts based on individual volumes in the Hodder and Stoughton series of special editions of Shakespeare plays from the first decade of the 20th century. It’s 400 years since Shakespeare’s birth, which is a round number but not especially significant. Except of course none of us are going to be around for the 500th anniversary, so we might as well make the most of the 400th. A few technical issues have interrupted my plans. However, I have now had a look at some more of the books and we can resume with a look at William Heath Robinson’s illustrations to Hodder’s 1908 edition of Twelfth Night.

Robinson is best known for his humorous pictures, children’s books, cartoons and of course the famous complicated contraptions for achieving commonplace purposes. (His name has become an adjective to describe cobbled together gadgets for all kinds of uses from the banal to the serious). Images like this:


But there was a serious and darker side to his work.


Robinson has a distinctly gloomy view of Twelfth Night, or what you will (first performed in 1602) as in this view of Duke Orsino alone with his thoughts in a deserted courtyard. “So full of shapes is fancy…”

This view of the lovely Olivia, his intended, being serenaded in song is also quite dark. Olivia’s beauty is glimpsed from a distance. “O when mine eyes did see Olivia first..”


“If music be the food of love, play on..” The first line of the play

Robinson’s biographer, James Hamilton says “The palette Will has used…is heavily restricted. Deep blues, greens and greys predominate in the moody night scenes, except when relieved by the reds and oranges of sunset. Will’s reading of the play is overcast, and even the relatively few day scenes are in a heavily dappled or otherwise subdued light….”


Over the page from the Duke’ first speech he is informed by Valentine that “The element itself, till seven years’ heat, shall not behold her face at ample view: but like a cloistress she will veiled walk”. Robinson depicts that line, showing Olivia as a Gothic heroine gliding over another checkerboard floor.  The pillars are highly decorated but the colours are sombre.

Nature is equally bleak. On the shore the  shipwrecked Viola utters the famous words: “What country, friends, is this?” before she decides to disguise herself as a boy.


Hamilton looks at a contemporary review in the TLS and describes Robinson illustrating “a stage production… rather than the action”, as below when the servant Maria introduces herself.


But at the same time there is a fantastic element in Robinson’s pictures which take the setting right away from the stage like the one below with its soaring trees and clouds, and brighter colours. (Although you could also see the frames in front of painted scenery.)


Robinson used an architectural frame several times in this set of pictures. Below, Feste the clown/jester, clearly Robinson’s favourite character, sits on a table amongst the glasses and jugs while one of the other cast members rests his head.


Framed again, he sets to work entertaining a subdued group of guests with a song. “Come away, come away, Death.” An indistinct fountain is in the background.


I, as you know, am just here for the pictures. Here is another brooding landscape. “I am slain by a fair and cruel maid.” (the same song)


The story of Twelfth Night is another of those comedies of confusion.Viola is shipwrecked, loses track of her brother, disguises herself as a boy, takes service with the Duke who is supposed to marry the lovely Olivia. Viola falls for the Duke, Olivia falls for Viola as a boy. This must have been endlessly entertaining for the original audience in the days when the female parts were played by men. A man acting as a woman who is pretending to be a man. So, plenty of gender tomfoolery and a love triangle. And of course the steward Malvolio gets tricked into wearing yellow cross garters to impress Olivia and making a fool of himself. Ha ha.

Here is Olivia, temporarily unveiled:


“But we will draw the curtain and show you the picture”

And the disguised Viola looking uncertain what to do next.


 “O time though must untangle this not I.”

Robinson seem to have seen the play as a dark sort of comedy. Below, Feste and Viola engage in banter by the side of a fountain.


For me. Robinson is something of a cinematographer in the way he sets up “shots”. Look at this one as an example of the way he worked with light and shade and the placement of characters. Not to mention a quality of picturesque decay. (the picture above, of Viola is another example.)


Generally speaking he avoids the big moments in the drama. But here is Malvolio in those those famous cross garters. Is Maria containing her mirth?


And here is a lovely aerial shot as though Robinson’s camera was sneaking up on the two characters.


For Malvolio it all ends badly of course, even bleakly. “They here propertied me; keep me in darkness.”


Robinson does give us another colourful picture where again the figures are secondary to the giant urns. Olivia and Sebastian (Viola’s brother – sorry for not mentioning him so far) have married, or are about to marry. (Viola and Sebastian look quite alike it seems, causing yet more confusion.). There is a happy ending in which both couples are together and they even remember to let Malvolio out of the dark room. (Although he isn’t very grateful).


After which in the last section of the book Robinson devotes all the illustrations to Feste and it’s pretty much gloom till the end. Robinson was a great lover of music and performing so it’s not surprising that he should choose to illustrate a line from one of the famous songs in the play- “the rain it raineth every day”


Although Feste is laughing it looks more like a manic laugh than one of unrestrained merriment. But that looks positively happy compared to this picture.


” Gainst knaves and thieves men shut their gates”. It looks like we’ve wandered into King Lear.

So, although Robinson was one of the great book illustrators of his day it seems that his talents weren’t quite right for Shakespearian comedy. There are some striking images in the book, including several I haven’t space to show and I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in Robinson. He later did some magnificent pictures for A Midsummer Night’s Dream which better suited his sense of the fantastic. We may come to them sometime in the future. But in truth, this post has been for me a curtain raiser for some illustrations to that other cross dressing comedy, As You Like It, by this blog’s favourite illustrator Hugh Thomson. We’ll see those soon.


This is also a chance for me to remind you about the 2016 London History Festival. Along with the 6 main events between the 14th and the 24th November we have a Shakespearian prologue on November 10th in which Benet Brandreth talks about his novel The Spy of Venice.

Our final event on November 28th is a timely talk by historian Philip Mansel on the history of Aleppo. Details at:


I quoted from the excellent William Heath Robinson by James Hamilton (Pavilion Books 1995)


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