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Shakespeare & Beyond

Drawing Shakespeare: Hamlet

drawing of Hamlet bas relief on Folger Shakespeare Library building exterior
drawing of Hamlet bas relief on Folger Shakespeare Library building exterior
Drawing of Hamlet bas relief on Folger Shakespeare Library building exterior

Drawing by Paul Glenshaw

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.

Enter Ghost

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.”


Thank you, Paul. This has been an excellent series!

Peter J Weimann — April 23, 2019