Frighted with False Fire

The Play Scene in 'Hamlet' (Daniel Maclise, 1806-1870)

The Play Scene in ‘Hamlet’ (Daniel Maclise, 1806-1870)

The above oil on canvas was painted by Daniel Maclise, a painter from Ireland, in 1842. Maclise’s work was often focused on literary and historical figures and scenes, and The Playscene in Hamlet (depicted above) is one his many paintings. The original is housed at the Tate Gallery (size: 60 x 108 inches).

Like the name suggests, The Play-scene in Hamlet depicts, well, the play-scene in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where Hamlet and Horatio observe King Claudius’s reaction to the Murder of Gonzago. 

HAMLET: He poisons him i' the garden for's estate. His name's Gonzago: the story is extant, and writ in choice Italian: you shall see anon how the murderer gets the love of Gonzago's wife. 
OPHELIA: The king rises. 
HAMLET: What, frighted with false fire! 
QUEEN GERTRUDE: How fares my lord? 
LORD POLONIUS: Give o'er the play.
KING CLAUDIUS: Give me some light: away! Away!

In the painting, Hamlet is lying on the ground (in a creepy way, with an even creepier look on his face) as he stares intently at King Claudius, as if to look into his very soul. Claudius can no longer look at the play, as it reminds him of his guilt and his murder of his own brother, and a look of guilt and perhaps even remorse crosses his face. Queen Gertrude, who does not know of the murder yet, watches the play (with a relatively neutral look on her face), while Ophelia stares sadly (sympathetically?) at Hamlet and Horatio (at least, I think the one standing behind Ophelia is Horatio?) focuses on the King’s reaction to the play. Everyone else (Polonious, the lords and ladies) are watching the Murder of Gonzago, which is at the center of this piece.

The play itself is ominous, with the the lamp in front casting eerie shadows across the actors. That scene is particularly noteworthy: the murderer (in the play) turns his back to the audience to hide his identity, but the light (the truth) shines on him and reveals his clear features through the shadows on the wall. It’s a clear reminder to Claudius that his actions cannot forever be hidden, that soon, all will know of the atrocious act he committed. Yet, the play certainly isn’t the focus of this scene; rather, we are supposed to look at the facial expressions and details in the specific moment that Maclise captures with his painting. From the looks on each of the important characters’ faces, we see their deepest feelings and secrets; we see into their minds. Just as notable are the  tapestries of Cain and Abel on the walls that allude to the circumstances of King Hamlet’s death. Maclise’s work beautifully commands the emotions across the characters’ faces and their actions, while the intricate details add depth to our understanding of both the painting and of the original work itself.


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