'Painting of a Sorrow': Visual Culture and the Performance of Stasis in David Garrick's Hamlet

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This article spotlights the acclaimed Shakespearean actor David Garrick's notorious habit of striking dramatic "attitudes" or sustained poses on stage. While some critics derided them as unnatural caesuras in Shakespeare's verse, these moments of silent stasis generated thunderous applause from audiences as well as numerous tributes from artists, who found these frozen moments an ideal subject for their brush. This essay reads Garrick's fondness for tableaux-vivants as a response to the explosion of visual culture in eighteenth-century England. Garrick developed this style at a time when Shakespearean-themed paintings came into vogue and prints of actors, including Garrick himself, had become popular collectibles. The article then explores the surprising parallels between Garrick's acting and Japanese Kabuki, in which performers also adopt dramatic postures (mie) at moments of tension or revelation. Visual artists in Japan, like their English counterparts, sought to capture these extravagant attitudes, and woodblock prints of actors (known as yakusha-e) were extremely popular. Insofar as these frozen moments and prints externalize the actor's or character's psyche as spectacle, images of Garrick's Hamlet clash with the notion of an interior realm beyond representation-a within that passeth show. Ironically, however, the performance of stasis in Garrick's Hamlet and the ubiquity of prints may have underwritten nineteenth-century theories of the Prince's "paralysis" and Romantic conceptions of subjectivity in which the inside overwhelms or arrests the outside.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3-31
Number of pages29
JournalShakespeare Bulletin
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2007


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