Rackham and Shakespeare: mortal fools, offending shadows

I know it was Shakespeare’s year last year (400 years – I suppose waiting for 500 might be asking too much) so I’m a little late celebrating by continuing this series of posts featuring illustrations to Shakespeare plays by some of the great artists of the pre-WW1 golden age of book illustration. But let’s not stand on ceremony.

The last pair of posts featured the Hugh Thomson As you like it and the Heath Robinson Twelfth Night. (I started much earlier in the year with Edmund Dulac’s the Tempest.) I couldn’t leave this subject without devoting a post to Arthur Rackham’s illustrated version of A midsummer night’s dream, Shakespeare’s other “magical” play.

This was another in a series of illustrated Shakespeare texts mostly published by Hodder and Stoughton and like Thomson’s Merry Wives of Windsor it was published by Heinemann in  a similar format with 40 colour plates and many other monochrome illustrations and decorations. Rackham agreed to do the pictures in 1906 when he was also working on a set of illustrations for J M Barrie’s Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, another work which features Rackham’s unique perspective on fairies.

Rackham’s conception of fairies seems initially to be that they are inhabitants of the natural world at the same level as insects.

He sees them competing with small animals, like creatures which crawl through the undergrowth, infesting the trees like a fungus or a parasite. (You can see some  more of his fairy-insect action here)

As always with Rackham the trees are a presence in themselves, often grotesque and threatening.

In this image you see spiders, caterpillars, an anthropomorphic beetle, worms, something which looks like a scorpion, along with a surprised hedgehog, a snake and a crow (or is that a rook?) above an ethereal crowd of fairies.

But at the same time the fay take other forms, larger and more like humans.

Titania and Oberon,ill met by moonlight.  Rackham noted that Shakespeare’s fantasy was “full of the wildest anachronisms…Titania seems to have been entirely (his) own creation, but Oberon is doubtless drawn from the German Erl King, whilst Puck was never know in classical times”

One of the best ideas (I nearly wrote explanations but then realised that might not be the right word) of the nature of fairies and the worlds they live in comes from John Crowley’s 1981 fantasy novel “Little, Big”. One of the characters says this:

Paracelsus is of the opinion that the universe is crowded with powers, spirits, who are not quite immaterial – whatever that means or meant, perhaps made of some finer. less tangible stuff than the ordinary world. They fill up the air and the water and so on; they surround us on every side, so that at our every movement we displace thousands…..

……The difference observed in size is another matter. What are the differences? In their sylphlike or pixie manifestation they appear no bigger than a large insect or a hummingbird; they are said to inhabit the woods, they are associated with flowers. Droll tales are spun of their spears of locust-thorns and their chariots of nut-shells drawn by dragonflies, and so on. In other instances, they can appear to be a foot to three feet in height, wingless, fully-formed little men and women of more human habits. And there are fairy maidens and warriors on great steeds, banshees and pookahs and ogres who are huge, larger by far than men.

The explanation is that the world inhabited by these beings is not the world we inhabit. It is another world entirely, and it is enclosed within this one; it is in a sense a universal retreating mirror image of this one……I mean by this that the other world is composed of a series of concentric rings, which as one penetrates deeper into the other world, grow larger. The further in you go the bigger it gets. Each perimeter of this series of concentricities encloses a larger world within, until at the centre point, it is infinite

Hence the title, Little,Big. I had to  edit  that  passage down a bit. But I think it provides a rationale for the fairies of folklore and fiction. Here they are again, flowing like water through the trees with faces.

Fairies are fond of tricks of course and the trick played on Titania by Oberon is one of the most celebrated in literature.The transformation of Botttom into a creature with an ass’s head looks to modern eyes like an instance of body horror reminiscent perhaps (if you’ve got a mind like mine) to Jeff Goldblum’s metamorphosis in Cronenberg’s The Fly. (Another insect connection.)

Titania’s acceptance of the new flesh is also reminiscent of Cronenburg.

Let’s stay with the human characters for now. Here is Helena:

 

She’s dressed for classical Greece but Rackham also reminds us of the play’s setting in Shakespeare’s own times.

Hermia looks all set for another woodland drama.

 

Like some of Thomson’s Shakespearean characters she could get away with that outfit in a modern high street.

Also like Thomson, Rackham shows us some sleeping al fresco.

Ministering to the sleepers we mustn’t forget Rackham’s slightly androgynous Puck.

“What fools these mortals be..”

In the end, with Titania and Oberon reconciled, the two pairs of human lovers are prepared to wake up and forget the world of dreams.

As far as they can.

Rackham’s biographer Derek Hudson says “Rackham cast his spell over the play: his drawings superseded the work of all his predecessors…..his gnarled trees and droves of fairies have represented the visual reality of the play for thousands of readers.” He quotes William de Morgan who described MND as “the most splendid illustrated work of the century so far.” (although it was only 1908).

 

Postscript

We haven’t finished with Shakespeare’s fairies yet, because at the same time as borrowing the Rackham book from our good friends at Westminster Central Reference Library (Thanks again to Peter Collins) I also took the opportunity to look at another illustrated version of MND, by William Heath Robinson created for Constable in 1914. I know some people who read the Twelfth Night post were pleasantly surprised by Robinson’s dark view of the play. He has his own take on MND too, which we’ll come to in the next week or so.

If you’ve never read John Crowley’s Little, big (1981), don’t hang about, read it. Anyone who liked Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell should love it.

I found the quote from Rackham in James Hamilton’s excellent book Arthur Rackham: a life with illustration (1990). Derek Hudson’s Arthur Rackham : his life and work (Heinemann 1960) is also excellent.

For another fairy narrative look here.

 

 

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