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Shakespeare’s Lovers in the Museum Collection

Shakespeare described many sets of lovers. Here we explore their appearances in the museum collection.

Jessie Petheram

Shakespeare’s plays abound with lovers, some happy and fortunate, some considerably less so. Our museum collection has various objects with love scenes from the plays.

Best represented, it will be no surprise to hear, are those star cross’d lovers Romeo and Juliet. Almost always shown together and most regularly (of course) in the balcony scene, their image appears in sketches, on ceramics, glassware and souvenirs. 

Romeo and Juliet, Act 2, Scene 2 (SBT 2015-10/2 )
Romeo and Juliet, Act 2, Scene 2 (SBT 2015-10/2 )

There is a pleasing pen and wash sketch from the early 19th century by John Masey Wright (SBT 2015-10/2) in which a fairly gigantic Romeo woos an expressionless Juliet. Jesting aside, the figures’ body language and hand gestures are expressive and lively, a sensation encouraged by the light touch of the pen and ink. Compared to oil or sculpture or even a more complete watercolour, this medium allows the artist to work at speed. Perhaps in this swiftness we can find an echo of the hurried, desperate events of the play.

There are a few individual portraits of Romeo and Juliet. Vladimir Pechar’s woodcuts present various characters from Shakespeare’s plays. In one of his portraits (SBT 2015-9/17), Romeo appears lost in thought, half hidden behind his unkempt hair, the heavy pen-work intensifying the sensation of introspection. Its partner portrait of Juliet (SBT 2015-9/18) is equally moody. Are the dark shadows gathering behind them a symbol of their encroaching death?

SBT 2015-9/18
SBT 2015-9/18 Romeo, Vladimir Pechar, 1991
SBT 2015-9/19
SBT 2015-9/19 Juliet, Vladimir Pechar, 1991

A return to a lighter touch can be found in a plate (SBT 1976-11), once again depicting the balcony scene, although flipping the perspective so that we are standing, rarely, in Juliet’s room, as Romeo embraces her through the window frame. It’s also not entirely clear whether Juliet is fully clothed and Romeo looks considerably older than is implied by the play, but what this plate really shows us is the commercial appeal of such images and of Shakespeare’s legacy. You only have to walk down Henley Street here in Stratford to understand that such a force is still at work to this day. It’s the idea that people can keep a piece of Shakespeare in their home, make him a part of domestic life, even, in this case, eat off his legacy. 

SBT 1976-11
SBT 1976-11 Ceramic plate, 1896-1930
SBT 2014-11
SBT 2014-11 In the Forest of Arden, Thomas Stothard, c. 1825

Of course, it’s not just about Romeo and Juliet, although they seem to get most of the attention. A word on other representations of lovers in the museum collection –this time an oil painting by Thomas Stothard (a contemporary of Wright’s and similarly well versed in Shakespearean illustration), shows a scene from As You Like It (SBT 2014-11). It is not altogether clear which scene this depicts, or whether Stothard painted a flight of his imagination – it shows a man and woman embracing and the sense of movement between these two figures once again comes across, especially in the flowing gown of the woman and the way the man turns towards her. I like to think this is the final scene, Rosalind and Orlando united, welcomed by Duke Senior, celebrating in the beautiful woodland clearing. Of course, it’s open for interpretation, but surely that is one of its further joys.

A final example is a more unusual one, from a play that might not immediately spring to mind when we think of lovers. It is a medal, designed by Paul Vincze, showing the wooing of Katherine from Henry V (SBT 2014-23/1) and marks a moment of unity and peace in a play about war. Visitors to the centre can see larger versions of this and other plaques designed by Vincze for almost all of the plays on display in our exhibition space.

SBT 2014-23/1
SBT 2014-23/1 Henry V, medal by Paul Vincze, c.1964

Our museum collection is wonderfully varied and this is just a small sample of what is has to offer. You can explore the collection even more at collections.shakespeare.org.uk

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