Finding Shakespeare in the Palace of Westminster
Have you ever noticed Shakespeare’s influence on the Houses of Parliament?
In 1623, William Shakespeare’s First Folio was published. This brought together most of Shakespeare’s plays in print for the first time. As plays were not typically published at the time, the First Folio shows how important and revered Shakespeare’s plays were.
The playwright’s work has long supplied vocabulary for political and public life. His words appeared in periodicals, he supplied language for protest, and choice references still serve as satirical shorthand. Shakespeare’s stage productions also had an impact on the Palace’s architects, designers, and artists.
From the stage-like qualities of monumental wall paintings to cutting satires, in this online exhibition we’ll share where you can find Shakespeare’s influence in the Houses of Parliament today.
Use the buttons below to slide through the artworks and discover more about Shakespearean influences in the Palace of Westminster.
Shakespeare in the Palace
Queen Elizabeth Commissions Raleigh to Sail for America 1584, Mural by Alfred Kingsley Lawrence, WOA 2597
Augustus Pugin (1812-1852), who was responsible for the interior design of the Palace, was greatly influenced by Shakespearean stage design. He began his career creating sets for the London theatres in Covent Garden in the 1820s and 1830s. In 1831, he designed a set for a production of ‘Henry VIII’ which recreated the architecture of Westminster.
This particular wallpaper design, which is part of the Architectural Fabric Collection, bears striking similarity to set designs of the period. In addition, the symbol of the fleur-de-lis, which has been a popular symbol in heraldry for centuries, was a common feature in Shakespeare’s plays, featuring in ‘Henry V’, ‘Henry VI’ and ‘The Winter’s Tale’.
Pugin’s wallpapers are found throughout the Palace of Westminster.
Heraldic wallpaper, design by Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, AFC 005232
The Fine Arts Commission was responsible for the artistic decoration of the new Palace of Westminster. It was appointed in 1841 and led by Prince Albert.
British painters were invited to submit artworks known as ‘cartoons’ to a competition. Cartoons are preparatory works produced before a final artwork is commissioned and made.
Westminster Hall hosted a display of competition entries in 1843. Many artists reached for Shakespearean subject matter as inspiration. Over 11% of the first competition depicted the playwright’s scenes or subjects. Several went on to be commissioned for the Palace, in both direct and subtle ways.
The artwork shown here is a part of a cartoon by artist Richard Redgrave (1804-1888), inspired by Shakespeare’s Henry IV.
Prince Henry Acknowledging the Authority of Judge Gascoigne, fragment of cartoon, Richard Redgrave, Drawing, about 1854, WOA 3346c
This fresco in the House of Lords chamber, by artist Charles West Cope (1811-1890), draws on the arrest of Prince Hal recounted in ‘Henry IV’. While the scene might seem like a rather niche moment of constitutional history, it is of structural importance to Shakespeare’s ‘2 Henry IV’, a play concerned with parliamentary process.
The Lord Chief Justice, Judge Gascoigne, concludes the drama by restating the relationship between the monarch and parliament. He therefore offers a fitting subject for the House of Lords, where this painting represents the virtue of Justice.
Victorian art often drew heavily on Shakespeare, as illustrations of his work helped galvanise the genre of British history painting.
Prince Henry Acknowledging the Authority of Judge Gascoigne, Charles West Cope, Fresco painting, 1849, WOA 2966
After the commissions for the Lord’s Chamber, the Fine Arts Commission turned their attention to the Upper Waiting Hall, often known as Poet’s Hall.
Each wall painting in the hall is inspired by British poetry or literature.
John Rogers Herbert painted ‘King Lear Disinheriting Cordelia’. Taken from the opening of ‘King Lear’, the scene warns of a nation divided, but gestures outside London to regions across Britain and the Empire.
King Lear Disinheriting Cordelia, John Rogers Herbert, Fresco Painting, 1850, WOA 2884
More broadly across the Palace, Shakespearean references have been used to project ideals about nationhood. The paintings in St Stephen’s Hall, completed in 1927, are a series titled the ‘Building of Britain’.
Alfred Kingsley Lawrence’s (1893-1975) ‘Queen Elizabeth Commissions Raleigh to Sail for America, 1584’ drew on the painter’s passion for Shakespearean stage acting. The painting and its preparatory sketch make visual allusion to dramatic postures and stage blocking.
Study for Queen Elizabeth, Alfred Kingsley Lawrence, Drawing, 1927, WOA 2770
Shakespeare has also long been used to explore whom ‘the nation’ represents. In 1825, Ira Aldrige became the first black man to play Othello, and his likeness as a famous actor is captured in several of the period’s portraits.
Charles West Cope produced his vision of the third scene of ‘Othello’ in 1868, which depicts Othello in the foreground and in shadow. He is telling his story, and of his love for Desdemona, to her father the Duke of Venice.
The Life’s Story Othello Act I Scene III, Charles West Cope, Oil Painting, 1868, WOA 5396
Shakespeare’s literary ‘greatness’ grew in the 19th century. His works became popular among working-class Chartist and suffrage movements. The Chartist newspaper, ‘The Northern Star’, made many Shakespearean allusions or quotations.
Numerous Chartists, including Henry Vincent, were involved in the printing industry, which made Shakespeare more available to a growing readership.
Henry Vincent, Chartist Agitator , by an unknown artist, Monochrome mezzotint, unknown date, WOA 1753
At the same time, 19th century illustrations aligned Shakespeare with not only British history but the British landscape itself. Publishers like John Boydell produced lavish views of the locations in his works, aligning Shakespeare with the fabric of the nation.
Here, we get a glimpse of Chertsey Bridge, where Henry VI is brought for burial at the start of ‘Richard III’: ‘Come, now towards Chertsey with your holy load / Taken from Paul’s to be interred there’ (1.2.27-8).
View of Chertsey Bridge from Woodburn Farm, Joseph Farington (artist), Joseph Constantine Stadler (engraver), John Boydell (publisher) , Coloured aquatint, 1795, WOA 5252
Shakespearean references have long provided a vocabulary for commentary on public and political life. The Parliamentary Art Collection holds many examples of prints and drawings that demonstrate how satirists and caricaturists appropriated Shakespeare’s well-known characters, scenes and plays to comment on key events of the day, with both the monarchy and the government as regular targets.
The failed marriage of George IV was a particularly common topic for satirists. In this example, we see Queen Caroline taking on the role of Shakespeare’s Queen Katherine in ‘King Henry VIII’ pleading for pity now that ‘she is a stranger in a foreign kingdom’.
King Henry VIII. Act II, Scene IV, the divorce of Queen Caroline, by an unknown artist, J.L. Marks (publisher), Coloured line engraving, about 1820, WOA 5183