Shakespeare and Millais

For the past ten weeks I have been doing a free online course (a MOOC, which I had to look up to find out what it stands for: ‘A massive open online course (MOOC /muːk/) is an online course aimed at unlimited participation and open access via the web.)’ It is called ‘Shakespeare and his World’, taught by the University of Warwick and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

I recommend it for anyone with an interest in Shakespeare’s plays and his times – it will be offered again next year, no doubt. I may even do it again. Every week ended with a multiple choice test, but the final week gave the option of completing a short (300 to 500 word) assignment, which would be peer-reviewed by another learner (we are all ‘learners’ not ‘students’).

I wrote an assignment, however I exceeded the word length so I decided not to submit it, but to put it on my website. The topic is: “Choose a creative work which was inspired by one of Shakespeare’s plays or poems (not necessarily one of the plays covered within the course). Write an account of the ways in which it brings to life an aspect of Shakespeare’s world that we have explored during this course”.

Image credits: J E Millais, ‘Ferdinand Lured by Ariel’, from Wikipedia entry; and ‘Tracing of a man in medieval Italian military dress from Camille Bonnard’s Costume Historique, pre-1849′ attributed to J E Millais, from Royal Academy of Arts.

John Everett Millais (1829 –1896[1]) painted a few paintings based on characters in William Shakespeare’s plays. Millais was a founder member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, formed in his parents’ house in 1848.[2] They were a group of artists who looked back to painting of the Italian quattrocento (15th century), in particular to its bright clear colours, linear style and detailed depictions.

In his ‘Ferdinand lured by Ariel’[3] of 1850 (private collection), Millais takes two characters from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, his last solo-authored play (c. 1611). Ariel, who is a spirit invisible to Ferdinand – the King of Naples’ son who has been shipwrecked (by Prospero’s magic) on a ‘deserted’ island – sings a song. Ferdinand can’t tell where this song comes from [‘Where should this music be? i’ the air or the earth? … This music crept by me upon the waters, / Allaying both their fury and my passion /With its sweet air: thence I have follow’d it, / Or it hath drawn me rather. But ’tis gone. / No, it begins again. [ARIEL sings] Full fathom five thy father lies; / Of his bones are coral made; / Those are pearls that were his eyes’. (1. 2 550-561)]

The artists of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood were concerned with historical accuracy and Millais based the costume of his Ferdinand on a costume of an Italian man of the fifteenth century as represented in Camille Bonnard’s Costume Historique, published in 1829-30[4], but not necessarily the one I have included above. A number of museum collections have drawings or tracings of costumes from this book made by Millais (or by his father for Millais) – see above, and by Ford Madox Brown.[5]

Costumes in Shakespeare’s plays in his own time “reflected their character’s social status. Costumes were mainly the modern dress of the time. So for less important roles, actors might wear their own clothes”.[6] They would reuse costumes as often as possible, actors left them to others in their wills, sometimes they were second-hand clothes once owned by real-life nobles, but sometimes new costumes had to be made. This suggests that in Shakespeare’s time the company probably wouldn’t have made a particular effort to find something that an Italian nobleman would have worn, so long as the clothing indicated the right status. Nevertheless costume books were available had the acting companies wanted to use them to see what foreigners wore.

Costume books first appeared in the sixteenth century, with more than 200 being produced in Europe between 1520 and 1610.[7] In 1562, a French one included costumes (‘habits’) from Europe, Asia and Africa in 121 small woodcuts.[8] A more famous one by Cesare Vecellio, Venice 1598 (2nd ed.), added America to the other three continents. Like most of his predecessors, Vecellio emphasised the costumes of his own region (Venice) and arranged his book in a geographical sequence radiating out from Italy[9] (85% of his woodcut illustrations were of European costumes).

Despite Shakespeare’s The Tempest being set on a deserted island located ambiguously in the Mediterranean or around Bermuda (both are referred to) and therefore an ‘exotic’ setting could have been appropriate, Millais’ painting seems to evoke a rural England. He painted it near Oxford and it was his first ‘en plein air’ (outdoor) painting.[10] He wrote to a friend that he had painted a ‘ridiculously elaborate’ landscape – ‘very minute, yet not near enough for nature. To paint it as it ought to be would take me a month a weed — as it is, I have done every blade of grass and leaf distinct’.[11] Some more recent works based on The Tempest emphasise its ‘Brave New World’[12] aspects, in particular the character of Caliban and his servant/slave relationship with Prospero has come in for much analysis or reworking (for example, a novel by Marina Warner, Indigo or Mapping the Waters, Vintage, 1992 “traces the scars of colonialism across continents, family blood-lines and three centuries”, including the “imaginary Caribbean island where Ariel, Caliban, and his mother… once lived” – back cover blurb). But this is a post-colonial interpretation and not an aspect that interested Millais. His painting gave him a chance to emphasise the PRB’s attention to the past, to detail, historical accuracy, colour and line.

I was surprised to find that Bermuda is in fact a long way from the Caribbean.

Bermuda map

I haven’t yet commented on Millais’ depiction of Ariel or the bat-like spirits that surround Ariel, which according to the Wikipedia entry (citing Tate Gallery): “Their grotesque poses put off the patron who had originally undertaken to buy it, since they were a radical departure from the standard sylph-like fairy figures of the day”.  His Ariel is a naked green-tinged youth (gender indeterminate, as seen from the back) with translucent green wings. Arthur Rackham’s later illustration of Ariel for Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare depicts a more typical ‘fairy’ – a slim naked golden-haired child (again, gender unknown) with colourful wings. Millais made a study for his painting that depicts a more typical Victorian pale-skinned golden-haired fairy, in which “Ariel holds a seashell and is carried through the air by weird spirits playing music.” [13] Whatever his reason for changing Ariel and the spirits into green beings in the finished version seems to me to make them more a part of the earth than of the air.

Some obvious differences between the painting and how the scene would have been played in the theatre of Shakespeare’s day occur because Millais depicts it as if it was a real encounter in the countryside. The theatre would not have had all that lush greenery and Ariel would have been played by a real boy wearing wings. In Act 3, Scene 3, he claps his wings over the banquet table making the food disappear – however this was managed (and the Wikipedia entry on Ariel gives some suggestions) it is unlikely his wings would have been translucent. The stages of Shakespeare’s time had little scenery except for props required for the plot – the costumes provided most of the spectacle and were the indicators of status and identity.[14]




[3] See:

[4] Tate Gallery, The Pre-Raphaelites, London, 1984, p.74, cited in Wikipedia article.

[5] See for example: and

[6] Globe Theatre Education material:

[7] Cited by Daniel Roche, 1989, The culture of clothing: Dress and fashion in the Ancien Regime, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Translated by Jean Birrell, English translation 1994, p. 11

[8] A Hyatt Mayor, ‘Renaissance costume books’, Bulletin of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 37(6), June 1942, pp. 158–159.

[9] Cesare Vecellio, Vecellio’s Renaissance costume book [1598, 2nd ed.] Reprinted by Dover Publications (NY), 1977. (Publisher’s Note, unpaginated). Vecellio was a cousin of the painter Titian, who the illustrations were sometimes later attributed to.

[10] Tate Gallery, 2013:

[11] Wikipedia entry, sourced from Tate Gallery.

[12] A quote from The Tempest, V, 1, 2233 in the Open Source Shakespeare version online.

[13] National Museums of Liverpool, Sudley House Collection:

[14] Folger Shakespeare Library website:


2 thoughts on “Shakespeare and Millais

  1. Great post, Vivienne, thank you. I particularly like how you show Millais’s re-envisaging of Shakespeare from the stage to a fantasy version of England.


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