Skip to main content
Shakespeare & Beyond

Portraits in Hamlet: ‘Look here upon this picture, and on this’

Folger Theatre's 2010 Hamlet
Folger Theatre's 2010 Hamlet

One of the oldest theatrical legends about Shakespeare is that he played the ghost in Hamlet. We know that Shakespeare was both an actor and a playwright, but we have no idea whether he acted this small, but memorable role. Yet if he did, he certainly would have enjoyed the “closet scene” between Hamlet and Gertrude (Act 3, Scene 4) in which the ghost appears for the third and final time. What Shakespeare might have most enjoyed was writing a scene that included a portrait of himself.

When Hamlet demands that his mother “Look here upon this picture, and on this, / The counterfeit presentment of two brothers”, he is showing her images of the murdered King Hamlet and the murderous King Claudius. In so doing, Hamlet draws a stark contrast between his virtuous, god-like dead father (“See what a grace was seated on this brow”) and the guilty brother who killed him and then married his widow.

Was there an actual portrait of William Shakespeare on the stage of the Globe Theatre when the King’s Men performed Hamlet? Probably not, given what we know about the absence of moveable scenery in public playhouses at the time. Still, it’s tempting to imagine Shakespeare not just writing a part for himself, but writing his own physical likeness into the world of the play, and a flattering likeness at that.

For posterity, however, this scene presents a problem: Shakespeare tells us that there are two images—one of old Hamlet, one of Claudius—but he tells us nothing about their shape or size. They could be full-length portraits, busts, medallions, or even coins. They might be imaginary. Shakespeare doesn’t provide any answers.


Have you seen this: Clary, Frank Nicholas. “Pictures in the Closet: Properties and Staging in Hamlet 3.4,” Stage Directions in Hamlet: New Essays and New Directions. Ed. Hardin L. Aasand (Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2003): 170-188.

Frank Nicholas Clary — December 14, 2016

[…] Dean’s new film, His Picture in Little, takes its title from Shakespeare’s tragedy. It twinkles in the gloom between two cases of Elizabethan miniatures and opposite the Chandos […]

Garland: Dean and Viola by Comparison – Samantha Horn — August 29, 2019