Shakespeare in Pictures: Telling a Story

Dr Michael John Goodman is the Welsh creator of a brand new database: the Victorian Illustrated Shakespeare Archive, or VISA. It’s an online resource collecting thousands of Shakespeare images from the Victorian period. You can see the first part of our interview with him here.

Dr Goodman is clearly very proud of the website he’s created. But outside of the digital skills you need to put together a project like this, what’s been the main thing he’s learned?

“Firstly, on a broad level, I’ve discovered this sense of… ‘what are we missing with Shakespeare?'”

“People always say with Shakespeare ‘it’s all been done before’ – but considering the importance, the significance, the centrality and the amount of illustration in the Victorian period, there’s hardly any work on it at all!”

“What else is there that we can’t quite see yet?”

A headpiece for 'The Merchant of Venice', illustrated by H. C. Selous.
A headpiece for ‘The Merchant of Venice’, illustrated by H. C. Selous.

During the process of building the website, Goodman studied, scanned, treated and tagged each of the more than 3000 illustrations individually.

Yet he’s surprisingly certain about his favourite images from the archive.

“The two I always go back to are these illustrations of Ford and Falstaff in ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’. They’re very strong images and they’ve come to symbolise my work.”

“They’re compelling – on the page they’re facing each other, so you’ve got this cool artistic dialogue going on.”

Ford and Falstaff facing each other in 'The Merry Wives of Windsor'.
Ford and Falstaff facing each other, as imagined by Kenny Meadows in the 1846 edition of the Collected Works.

Particularly interesting in this illustration is Sir John Falstaff – scowling, gruff and hunched low in his chair, this is an entirely different presentation of Shakespeare’s great comic figure than the one we’re accustomed to today.

“What it shows us is that this idea that Shakespeare’s characters and plays are set in stone and always presented in a particular way – that’s not true. The plays demand interpretation.”

Dr Goodman, who has a background in film and drama, says the archive shows the similarities between the 19th and 20th century’s unique methods of storytelling: illustration and film-making.

“It’s no coincidence that the illustrated Shakespeare edition falls out of favour at exactly the time that cinema began to come in. There’s always this desire to experience Shakespeare visually.”

“I think it allows us to see things we can’t otherwise see. Take the shipwreck in ‘The Tempest’, for example, which you can’t get on the stage. It’s a springboard for our imagination.”

A full page illustration of 'The Tempest', featuring the shipwreck.
A full page interpretation of ‘The Tempest’, featuring the shipwreck. Illustrated by William Harvey for Charles Knight’s ‘Pictorial Edition of the Works of Shakspere’.

Dr Goodman believes his site makes it easier to see these illustrations in their full historical context, and to better appreciate them as a result.

“These illustrators weren’t just working in their own little bubble, in isolation. Like every artist they’re influenced by other areas, other illustrators and visual culture generally.”

“These images speak to each other, I think. I really like that.”

The reaction to the project’s shown that there’s clearly a demand for databases like VISA.

Since it went live, the site’s been added to digital resource lists by prestigious institutions such as Cambridge University and the Folger Shakespeare Library. Articles about the archive, like this one from Open Culture, have been shared tens of thousands of times.

The site’s creator says he wasn’t expecting such an enthusiastic response.

“People are always interested in Shakespeare, so I thought it would get some positive feedback. But I have been a bit overwhelmed by the scale!”

Othello and Iago, illustrated by John Gilbert.
Othello and Iago, illustrated by John Gilbert in an 1867 edition of the Complete Works.

When asked whether he’d consider doing a project like this one again, Goodman laughs.

“That’s such a good question… I would never say never again.”

“I argue in my thesis that Shakespeare’s first folio is the ‘new media’ of the Jacobean era, just as these illustrated editions are the new media of their time. We’re using the digital here, which is the new media of our time, to bring this kind of work to a new audience.”

“That’s exactly the way I came at it and I think that’s why it’s had such a reaction. This has been a form of self-expression, a creative process. It’s like a theatre play – this is my own production of Victorian illustrated Shakespeare.”

“It’s been a long old trip, but it’s been so rewarding.”


You can follow Dr Goodman on Twitter @mikeygoodman1 – and we’re there too @ShakesCymru.

You can also like us on Facebook.


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