Quivering wreck: Max Beerbohm’s Shakespeare

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Two of my favourite items among the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s many treasures are drawings by ‘the incomparable Max’, as Bernard Shaw called Max Beerbohm (1872-1976). Half-brother of the great actor manager Herbert Beerbohm Tree, Max was equally talented as a writer and as a visual artist. Although he wrote a brilliant novel, Zuleika Dobson, he was essentially a miniaturist. His writings include essays, short stories, and a brilliant corpus of theatre criticism written week by week for the Saturday Review from 1898 to 1910, later reprinted in three volumes. He demonstrated his supreme qualities as a parodist in A Christmas Garland (1912), a collection of send-ups of the prose style of many of the most famous authors of his time, including Henry James, Bernard Shaw, Joseph Conrad, Marie Corelli, Rudyard Kipling and others, all woven together by the theme of Christmas. And the visual parallel to his verbal parodies is the great body of his caricatures of literary and other figures, mostly contemporary, but also including worthies of the past.

As a caricaturist Beerbohm ranks with the greatest masters of the art, such as George Cruickshank, Thomas Rowlandson, James Gillray, and William Hogarth. Just as in his verbal parodies he was able to distil the essence of his victims’ prose style while also delicately satirising their mannerisms, so in his drawings he could encapsulate the personality of his subjects while suggesting a critical attitude towards them. His drawings of his contemporaries form a wonderfully perceptive, often satirical commentary on the times. Some, such as those of Thomas Hardy (looking like a great owl), Henry Irving, Oscar Wilde, and G. K. Chesterton, are only gently, even affectionately satirical. Others, especially those of members of the Royal Family, above all King Edward VII, are bitingly indicative of a sharply critical viewpoint. Many of them are accompanied by captions that add piquancy to the visual commentary.

Shakespeare figures in four of Beerbohm’s drawings. Two relate to the loud-mouthed womanizer, newspaper editor and miscellaneous writer Frank Harris (1856-1931), who developed an unhealthy obsession with Shakespeare early in life. ‘Frank Harris is upstairs’, wrote Oscar Wilde in a letter of 1899, ‘thinking about Shakespeare at the top of his voice.’ Harris claimed that he would have done anything to please Shakespeare. ‘Homosexuality!’ he declared during a lunch at the fashionable Café Royal, ‘No, I know nothing of the joys of homosexuality. My friend Oscar can no doubt tell you all about that. But I must say that if Shakespeare asked me, I would have to submit.’ This incident provoked one of Beerbohm’s racier cartoons, a drawing of the rear view of a naked and fleshy Harris, twirling his abundant mustachios while offering himself to Shakespeare, who stands behind him quivering at the thought. Another drawing, ‘Mr Frank Harris Presents’, is a mock frontispiece for a book by Harris which the caption describes as ‘that work of brilliant and profound criticism The Man Shakespeare.’ In this drawing too Shakespeare quivers, no doubt in apprehension about what Harris was to say about him.

The Trust’s Shakespeare drawings relate more closely to Shakespeare’s writings while still having contemporary relevance. ‘William Shakespeare writing a Sonnet’, executed in pen, black ink and watercolour, dates from 1907. In the foreground, a dashing young man – presumably representing the alleged ‘rival poet’ – with sword and ruff, his cloak winging away from his shoulders, ardently woos a ‘dark lady.’ At a discreet distance a timid-looking, knock-kneed Shakespeare puts pencil to paper as he writes. The perennial interest in identifying real life people behind the sonnets was a particularly hot topic at this time.

The Trust’s other Beerbohm drawing, ‘William Shakespeare, his method of work’, also reflects contemporary concerns. Published in Beerbohm’s characteristically slim and elegant volume The Poet’s Corner, of 1904 (later attractively reprinted as a King Penguin), it portrays Francis Bacon furtively slipping a manuscript scroll of Hamlet to Shakespeare, who accepts it with a conspiratorial gesture. A number of books and articles concerning the Baconian cause had recently appeared, and Beerbohm himself had referred to it in an essay ‘On Shakespeare’s Birthday’ published in the Saturday Review on 26 April 1902. There he wrote that the Baconians had ‘made themselves very ridiculous.’ His drawing provides a visual parallel to his words.

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Author:Stanley Wells

Stanley Wells is Honorary President and a Life Trustee of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Emeritus Professor of Shakespeare Studies of the University of Birmingham, Honorary Emeritus Governor of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Follow Stanley on twitter @stanley_wells or visit his website
  • Tessa Murdoch

    I am looking for a cartoon by Max of Shakespeare with my great-grandfather Sir Carl Meyer. Both are looking impatient because the plan to build the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre which was sponsored by Meyer, is taking so long to come to fruition (it eventually became the National Theatre). The cartoon must date from after 1909. It is referred to in my great-grandmother’s will of 1930. I would be very grateful for any suggestions as to where the original might be – if indeed it survives. Might this have been published in the Saturday Review or elsewhere. Tessa Murdoch t.murdoch@vam.ac.uk

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