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William Hogarth: Mr Garrick in the Character of Richard III

Discover how artist William Hogarth used imagery in his portrait of actor David Garrick as Richard III to foreshadow what was to unfold in Shakespeare's play of the ruthless king.

Gemma Sykes

We're big David Garrick fans at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, and lots has been written in our Shakespedia pages on various aspects of his career. Garrick was a major Shakespearian actor of the eighteenth century and the organiser of the first Shakespeare jubilee festival in 1769. But perhaps people are most familiar with Garrick from the iconic portrait he sat for in the mid 1740s, in the character of Richard III. Type 'David Garrick' into Google, and this portrait, or some variant upon it, will undoubtedly show up multiple times. So popular was this painting that it was reproduced in many different forms, from engravings to porcelain figures.

David Garrick as Richard III
William Hogarth’s depiction of his close friend Richard Garrick in the character of Richard III is absolutely full of subtle clues and imagery to help create an atmosphere. This engraving is based on Hogarth’s original painting.

The image shows Hogarth's depiction of Garrick as Richard III, awakening from his horrifying dream in Act 5 Scene 3, in which he sees a parade of the ghosts of his murder victims. Garrick's Richard III is undoubtedly the centre of this image; his wild staring eyes and deep set frown convey an expression of utter terror, his legs angled as if prepared to flee from the demons that haunt him and his outstretched hand, fingers splayed wide, as if he can fend off the characters from his nightmare, all draw your eye. Garrick is the centre pin to the entire picture, his posture depicting the action and movement of the scene, creating suspense from the promise of what will happen next and suggesting the drama of what has happened up until this point. It is as if we have simply pressed 'pause' and gone to make ourselves a cup of tea; the story is ready to restart as soon as we return with a hot drink and some biscuits. But William Hogarth, master painter of his day, is not willing to let his subject take all of the credit. Take Garrick's impressive characterisation out of the picture and Hogarth still makes a valiant effort to convey his ideas.

It is tough to decide whether the costuming was Garrick or Hogarth's influence, but the garter on Richard's left leg has been specifically modified by Hogarth. The garter in reality would have displayed the motto of the Order of the Garter: 'Honi soit qui mal y pense'. For those of us not fluent in Latin, this translates to 'May he be shamed who thinks badly of it'. However the positioning of the garter in the portrait shows only the word 'mal' (meaning bad). Hogarth has literally labelled his subject, he may as well have drawn an arrow pointing to him saying 'this is the villain'. The contrast between the 'bad' king and the gallant chivalry of the Order of the Garter is clear. It's almost as if Hogarth is mocking the king, showing how hypocritical and unfit for the role he is.

Garrick Richard III garter
Hogarth includes detailed lettering along the garter to draw attention to Richard’s unsavoury character.

The mockery of Richard's inadequacy as king recurs throughout the painting. In the top right, there is a framed painting of the crucifixion underneath which sits a crown and a sword, which Garrick is grasping.

Garrick Richard III top right
The crucifixion painting, crown and sword from the top right of the portrait.

This creates another contrast designed to highlight Richard's lack of goodness. He is 'determined to prove a villain', Richard III, Act 1, Scene 1, and his actions are immoral and brutal - not at all becoming of a divine king. The image of Christ symbolises the idea of the divine right of kings to rule. Tudors believed that kings were given their power to rule by God himself; Richard III chooses to turn his back on God, seizing the crown using violence. The sword gives him the power to rule, not divine right. By becoming king, Richard is able to hide behind a false image of righteousness and suggest that his actions are justified by his divinity, when in actual fact this could not be further from the truth.

But then I sigh; and, with a piece of scripture,
Tell them that God bids us do good for evil:
And thus I clothe my naked villany
With old odd ends stolen out of holy writ;
And seem a saint, when most I play the devil.
Richard III
, Act 1 Scene 3

In the bottom left of the painting, Hogarth provides a nice bit of foreshadowing. The empty armour casing is symbolic of Richard III's death in battle. Cast aside and forgotten, it serves as a reminder that eventually even the most powerful men must fall. It lies empty and awkward, a chilling and uncomfortable sight that makes us painfully aware of the inevitable death and decay that awaits us all.

Garrick Richard III bottom left
This will be all that remains of Richard by the end of the next scene. It's a cruel and abrupt vision of the future.