Shakespeare and Rockwell Kent

This winter seems to be turning into a rather difficult time so someone gave me a gift of The Great Courses again, with this one being a special set of two courses that was on sale. I am getting (1) Shakespeare: Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies, plus (2) How to Read and Understand Shakespeare, in the format of audio CDs because I prefer to listen to literature lectures.

I noticed in one of the reviews that someone mentions getting an overview of each play with Isaac Asimov’s wonderful book Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare: A Guide to Understanding and Enjoying the Works of Shakespeare, which I bought several years ago. Dear old Isaac guided me through Much Ado About Nothing, which gave me insight that I am not keen on Mr. Shakey’s comedies, I prefer his historical plays. I am not a jokey type of person.


I studied Hamlet, Julius Caesar, and Macbeth in school but didn’t appreciate that until years later. I have a tarot deck of Shakespeare, with some great illustrations, and a deck of playing cards with William Blake paintings related to Shakespeare on the court cards. I also bought a used copy of The Shakespeare Story Book by Mary Macleod a decade ago, which is an adaptation of Charles and Mary Lamb’s famous book of Shakespeare tales for children first published in 1807. When in doubt, read the synopses written for children to give you familiarity with the plays!

Thirty years ago or more I remember reading David Niven’s autobiography where he talked about Vivien Leigh and referred to a snippet of Shakespeare; the “gild the lily” speech. I carried those lines written out in my wallet for years, and thought they were from a sonnet, so I bought a nice edition of the sonnets, but it wasn’t until the Internet that I discovered where the passage was really from.

To gild refined gold, to paint the lily,
To throw a perfume on the violet,
To smooth the ice, or add another hue
Unto the rainbow, or with taper light
To seek the beauteous eye of heaven to garnish,
Is wasteful and ridiculous excess. (King John 4.2.7)

Apart from that I bought a bargain edition of the complete works in 1983 when I was in the U.K. for a holiday. It is an illustrated edition by Chancellor Press and very handsome. (Click to enlarge)




I learned that my favourite illustrator, Rockwell Kent, had done an edition of the complete works, so I hunted up a used edition of that on ABE and it is a wonderful, large book with Kent’s exquisite illustrations. The dust jacket is disintegrating, but it’s in great condition otherwise.


I discovered Rockwell Kent when reading a biography of the famous American illustrator Norman Rockwell in 1999. Because of the similarity in their names, people often mixed them up and the two artists used to laugh about it although it did cause them problems when people would commission work with the wrong artist. Intrigued, I went on to research Kent and then bought two books about him. Once I saw his work that was IT for me, he became my favourite illustrator.


He was such a versatile human, and built his own house, did architectural studies, travelled (some call him an “adventurer”), painted in oils and watercolour, drew and did commercial illustrations and bookplates, engravings and and woodcuts. He even created a logo for Random House in 1926. He loved nature too and went to the Arctic many times.


I don’t think he is well known, probably because of his socialist leanings which were unpopular after World War II, and caused him to be blacklisted during the dreadful McCarthy era. Also, in the fifties as interest in abstract art increased, his realism was out of style. He died in 1971, too late to see the resurgence of interest in early 20th century artists and illustrators. I have great respect for him, for his independence and drive to learn and see things.




He was influenced greatly by William Blake which is probably another reason I like him so much. I see this most in his human figures. Fortunately Blake’s influence led Kent to book illustration and I have been able to collect old editions of Moby Dick, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and Shakespeare that were illustrated by Rockwell Kent. I also have a free font with the dingbats from an edition of Candide he illustrated which you can see at the bottom of this image. (Click to enlarge)




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