"A scribbled form drawn with a pen upon a parchment": Shakespearean cartoons and caricatures

"A scribbled form drawn with a pen upon a parchment": Shakespearean cartoons and caricatures, a pop-up exhibition at the Folger, took place on March 18, 2019, from 1-4 pm. It was curated by Folger cataloger Sarah Hovde.

Printed visual satire (using humorous images to comment on events and people, such as political cartoons, caricatures, etc.) began to bloom in during the reign of Charles I in England. At that time, it bore only a passing resemblance to the political cartoons and caricatures of our own era: instead, the objects of satire were drawn and represented accurately, but were placed into unlikely situations, or paired with humorous text. By the eighteenth century, visual satires resembled caricatures much more closely. Artists exaggerated their subjects' features to comical, sometimes almost grotesque extents. Speech bubbles would sometimes be used to give viewers a sense of conversation or action. Artists such as James Gillray and Thomas Rowlandson helped popularize satire in this era. Throughout the Victorian period (beginning in the mid-nineteenth century), visual satire had morphed once again. Many prints were less elaborate and cluttered than those produced in the previous century, using more whitespace to really emphasize the subject of their mockery. The looser, casual line drawing styles that became prevalent in this era gave rise to the political cartoons of the 20th century (and the present day).

The prints featured in this exhibition all use depictions of Shakespeare's plays and characters to comment on political and theatrical trends in Great Britain, the United States, and France. Prints have been arranged into pairs (and in one instance, a trio) to demonstrate the flexibility of both political cartoons and Shakespearean allusions. In some, the same Shakespeare play is used to mock different people or situations; in others, different Shakespeare plays are used to poke fun at the same person.

The exhibition catalog and flyer are available for download as PDFs.

Items included


[Caricatures of Henry Irving and Edwin Booth, inscription reads] Box (An English Hamlet)-Who are You? Cox (An American Hamlet)-If it comes to that, Who are You? (artist unidentified, circa 1881-1906?). Folger ART Vol. a8 no.47. [This item has not been digitized by the Folger, but can be seen in HathiTrust's digitized copy of Sir Henry Irving: a biography.]

Box and Cox was a popular one-act farce written by John Maddison Morton and first produced in 1847. In it, a landlady rents an apartment to one lodger (Cox) by day and another lodger (Box) by night, with both tenants continually confused by changes in "their" apartment, but unaware that they are sharing space. After many mix-ups, they discover the double tenancy, and ultimately decide that the arrangement works for them.

In this caricature, an unidentified artist portrays Henry Irving and Edwin Booth, both popular actors known for their performances as Hamlet, as a Shakespearean Cox and Box. When the American Booth visited England during a theatrical tour in 1881 and announced that he would perform Hamlet, many theatergoers anticipated a rivalry with English actor Irving. However, Irving made Booth welcome, and the two actors even performed the title role in Irving's production of Othello on alternating nights.

The rival Richards !!! (F. Str., 1817). Folger ART File K24.4 no.90 copy 2 (size M). Available in Folger Digital Image Collection.

The artist, identified only as "F.Str.", shows the whim of British theater audiences, personified as Folly, a three-faced jester, preferring rival actors Junius Brutus Booth and Edmund Kean in their performances as Richard III. Other actors who had portrayed the same role are seen fleeing or fainting around the jester: the cluster of actors on the right includes Charles Mayne Young and John Philip Kemble.

  • Note: this caption text originally misidentified Edmund Kean as his son Charles, despite the temporal improbability this implies.

The rival Richards or Sheakspear [sic] in danger (William Heath, 1814). Folger ART File K24.4 no.89 (size M). Available in Folger Digital Image Collection.

William Heath depicts noted actors Edmund Kean and Charles Mayne Young, both dressed in for the title role in Richard III, locked in a literal battle over Shakespeare. (The two titles listed on the theater marquee on the right are both real works: "The best booth at the fair" was a painting by Richard Barrett Davis, while "What's a stage without horses?" was a play by Thomas Dibdin.)

William Gladstone

William Gladstone was a longtime British politician, whose career included four terms as the Chancellor of the Exchequer and four terms as Prime Minister. He was popular with much of Britain's working class, but often in conflict with his fellow government officials, and his foreign policy maneuvers as Prime Minister were often controversial.

The doom of Macbeth, (Grand Old) Macbeth... Lay on Macduff, And damed be he who first cries, Hold, enough (Tom Merry, 1886). Folger ART File S528m1 no.84 (size L). [This item has not been digitized by the Folger, but another copy is available via Google Books.]

This cartoon by Tom Merry pits Gladstone (as Macbeth, on the right) against Randolph Churchill (as Macduff, on the left). Gladstone and Churchill frequently clashed. Churchill opposed Gladstone's attempts to introduce home rule in Ireland, and criticized the bloodshed caused by this military actions in Africa. This image was originally published in St. Stephen's Review, a satirical magazine with a notably Conservative bent; Gladstone, as a Liberal politician, was a favorite target of Merry and the magazine.

New gleanings from Gladstone (George R. Halkett, 1879 or 1880). Folger Sh.Misc. 1331 (page 13). [This item has not been digitized by the Folger, but another copy is available via HathiTrust.]

Gladstone was also a repeat target of author George Stronach and artist George R. Halkett, who collaborated on several volumes mocking him. In New gleanings from Gladstone, the they pair satirical poems with quotations from Shakespeare and drawings of Gladstone as various Shakespearean characters. This illustration portrays Gladstone as a peacemaker, "famed for mildness, peace, and prayer," but contrasts this image with a list of expenditures on military operations supported by Gladstone.

Napoleon III

Charles-Louis Napoleon Bonaparte was the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte. Following in his uncle's footsteps, he sought power from a young age. After several failed coup attempts in the 1840s, he was finally elected President of France in 1848 at the age of 40. Three years later, frustrated that he could only serve a single term as president, Bonaparte staged another coup, this one a success. In 1852, he was crowned Napoleon III, Emperor of France.

Ma Bete...tu seras Roi! (Shakespeare, Macbeth) (François le Villain, circa 1840s?). Folger ART File S528m1 no.85 (size S). Available in Folger Digital Image Collection.

The caption of this cartoon means "My beast... you will be king!" It puns on the similar sounds of the name "Macbeth" and the French words "ma bête," or "my beast," referencing the three witches' prediction to Macbeth that he would be king. It is likely a commentary on Louis Napoleon Bonaparte's rise to power in France in the 1840s. Bonaparte is shown a donkey in a tricorne hat and Legion of Honor medal, two distinctive French symbols. The short man shown behind the donkey is politician Adolphe Thiers, one of Bonaparte's supporters (though he would later turn against him).

Miranda and Prospero (John Tenniel, 1864). Folger Sh.Misc. 2302, page 25. [This item has not been digitized by the Folger, but another copy is available via HathiTrust.]

As Emperor Napoleon III, Louis Bonaparte pursued a policy of expansion to further build out his empire, threatening the balance of power in Europe and elsewhere. Here, artist John Tenniel portrays Napoleon III as the magician Prospero, stirring up a tempest, while Europe, as Miranda, beseeches him to stop. (Tenniel was a regular contributor to Punch magazine, and is also well-known for his illustrations of Lewis Carroll's works Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass.)

The Weird Sisters

In the opening act of Macbeth, the title character and his companion Banquo encounter three witches on the Scottish heath. These witches, often referred to collectively as the Weird Sisters, predict that Macbeth will become king, and Banquo's descendants will later reign. Later, Macbeth seeks out the Weird Sisters again to gain clarification about his actions. Busily stirring their cauldron, the witches recite some of Macbeth's most famous lines: "Double, double toil and trouble; / Fire burn, and cauldron bubble" (Macbeth, act 4, scene 1).

A phantasmagoria : scene, conjuring-up an armed skeleton (James Gillray, 1813). Folger [ART File A516.5 no.1 ART File A516.5 no.1 (size M)]. Available in Folger Digital Image Collection.

James Gillray's depiction of Prime Minister Henry Addington, Foreign Secretary Lord Hawkesbury, and longtime politician Charles James Fox dressed as the three witches from Macbeth offers a dubious commentary on the Treaty of Amiens. The treaty temporarily ended hostilities between England and France, but critics worried that it brought peace only by sacrificing English colonial and naval superiority. Britannia, the personification of England, is usually shown as a stately woman, but here is a skeleton, recognizable only by her distinctive trident and shield.

Double, double, toil and trouble (Clifford Kennedy Berryman, circa 1932). Folger ART Box B534 no.17 (size L).

This political cartoon by Clifford Kennedy Berryman portrays three members of the U.S. House of Representatives as the three witches, stirring up a balanced budget. Representatives John Nance Garner of Texas, Henry Rainey of Illinois, and John Collier of Mississippi are seen throwing "ingredients" such as the first federal gasoline tax (introduced as part of the Revenue Act of 1932) into their budget cauldron. The "repeal" seen in Garner's hand may refer to the proposed repeal of Prohibition, enacted in 1933.

American slavery

A pro slavery incantation scene. Or Shakspeare improved See Macbeth (David Claypoole Johnston, not before 1856). Folger ART File S528m1 no.86 (size L). Available in Folger Digital Image Collection.

Artist David Claypoole Johnston adapts the imagery of Macbeth's three witches, stirring up trouble in their cauldron, to the turbulent years leading up to the American Civil War. A group of men add fuel to the fire in the form of incidents such as Preston Brooks's attack on fellow senator Charles Sumner (the cane with which he beat Sumner is likely one of the canes depicted) and the outbreaks of violence against anti-slavery settlers in Kansas. Among the men is president James Buchanan, who was seen as sympathetic to Southern slave states, and who is often blamed for letting tensions build up to the breaking point in the years immediately preceding the Civil War.

Yet here's a spot--out, damned spot, out, I say! (unidentified artist, 19th century?) Folger ART Box S528m1 no.2 (size S). Available in Folger Digital Image Collection.

In the fifth and final act of Macbeth, Lady Macbeth's guilt over having conspired to murder King Duncan manifests itself as a bloody stain on her hand that she cannot wash out. This small sketch by an unidentified artist evokes this scene to describe American slavery as a stain on the nation. In it Columbia, the personification of the United States, is portrayed as Lady Macbeth, while a figure labelled as "Lincoln" looks on in the background.

Richard III

Shakespeare's Richard III tells the story of the titular Richard III, who claims the throne of England in the 15th century through a combination of double-dealing, advantageous marriages, and murder. He does not sit on the throne for long before an army is raised against him. He is killed in a climactic battle, and Henry, Lord Richmond takes the throne as King Henry VII.

Richard the Third as performed at Washington with the most brilliant success by a company of amateurs. Folger ART 265- 959 (size M). Available in Folger Digital Image Collection.

This cartoon features President Andrew Jackson, dressed as King Richard III, in a confrontation with the personifications of Liberty and Justice. Behind Jackson, his supporters cheer on his efforts to reform or shut down the National Bank.

King Richard III, satire showing Richard looking at the ghosts, who wear the names free trade, disestablishment, socialism, down with the lords, old age pensions (Edward Tennyson Reed, early 20th century?) Folger ART Box R323 no.1.

This image, a sketch by Edward Tennyson Reed, probably depicts British politician Joseph Chamberlain. He is shown dressed as King Richard III, adapting the scene wherein Richard is haunted by ghosts as he attempts to sleep in his tent the night before a battle. Unlike Richard III, however, Chamberlain's ghosts seem to be a mix of both trends that he supported (disestablishment of the Church of Ireland, the introduction of old age pensions) and trends that he resisted (socialism, the movement to abolish the House of Lords). This allows him to gaze upon the ghosts with a somewhat smug expression, rather than fright.


"What would you have, you curs, that like neither peace nor war?... Go get you home, you fragments."-Caius Martius Coriolanus, speaking to a crowd of Roman citizens (Coriolanus, act 1, scene 1)

Shakespeare's Coriolanus tells the story of a Roman general characterized by his disdain for Rome's plebeian class. Scenes of Coriolanus addressing large crowds were a popular choice for satirists to lampoon unpopular laws and the politicians who championed them.

Coriolanus: "What would you have, you curs; Go, get you home, you fragments!" (John Marks, 19th century?). Folger ART File S528c2 no.57 (size XS). Available in Folger Digital Image Collection.

This engraving by John Marks, a printer active in the early 19th century, is a little confusing. At least one scholar has speculated that it is a reference to the anti-Corn Law movements. The Corn Laws were a set of tariffs introduced in Great Britain between 1815 and 1846. They restricted imports of food and grains from outside Britain, hoping to boost domestic farmers, but also raised the prices of food and were consequently rather unpopular with the British public.

Coriolanus addressing the Plebeians (George Cruikshank, 1820). Folger ART File S528c2 no.56 (size XS). Available in Folger Digital Image Collection.

We can be slightly more confident about the identity of the politician depicted as Coriolanus in this print: it is King George IV of Britain as he addresses a crowd full of agitators. While several members of the crowd represent abstract concepts such as universal suffrage and freedom of the press, other members of the crowd are identifiable. For instance, the trio of men at the left of the crowd appear to be James Watson, Thomas Preston, and Arthur Thistlewood, all of whom had been involved with anti-government actions such as the Spa Fields riot and the Cato Street conspiracy.

"Alas, poor Yorick!"

"Let me see. Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio—a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy."-Hamlet (Hamlet, act 5, scene 1)

In the beginning of the fifth act of Shakespeare's Hamlet, Prince Hamlet visits a graveyard with his friend Horatio. There, the gravedigger shows him the skull of Yorick, the former court jester whom Hamlet had known. Holding Yorick's skull, Hamlet reflects on the transience of life.

Alas! Poor Yorick! (Clifford Kennedy Berryman, circa 1937?). Folger ART Box B534 no.2 (size L). Available in Folger Digital Image Collection.

This political cartoon shows William Borah as Hamlet, holding the skull of "Constitutional Democracy". Borah was a Republican senator from Idaho from 1907-1940. He disagreed with many aspects of President Roosevelt's New Deal, but reluctantly supported other parts. This illustration by Clifford Kennedy Berryman likely refers to Senator Borah's abrupt withdrawal of his criticism for FDR's "court-packing" plan. Upon Roosevelt's announcement of his Judicial Procedures Reform Bill of 1937, Borah and other Republicans unexpectedly offered little comment. (The bill was ultimately deemed unconstitutional.)

"Alas, poor Leslie!" (Ernest H. Shepard, 1940). Folger Sh.Misc. 2307, page 71.

This caricature shows British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain as Hamlet. It is a reference to Leslie Hore-Belisha, who resigned as Chamberlain's Secretary of War in January 1940. Hore-Belisha had served in that position since 1937, but faced opposition from the leadership of the British Army, as well as anti-Semitism from other political figures. Previously, Hore-Belisha had served as Secretary of Transport from 1934-1937, during which time "Belisha beacons," black-and-white striped poles with amber globe lamps atop, were installed at pedestrian intersections to improve visibility. The artist, Ernest H. Shepard, was a longtime contributor to Punch magazine, but is probably more famous today for illustrating the original Winnie-the-Pooh books and The Wind in the Willows.