Portraying Shakespeare - Tennyson and Julia Margaret Cameron

Julia Margaret Cameron was famous for her misty photographs of the literati of Victorian England

Tennyson’s neighbour, Julia Margaret Cameron, living down the road from Farringford at Freshwater’s Dimbola Lodge was famous for her misty photographs of the literati of Victorian England. Photography was an artistic practice that Julia Margaret Cameron came to later in her life, only after she had moved from Calcutta to the Isle of Wight in her forties. Portraits were not her only subject, she frequently also took passed photographs that drew on other artists, the bible, the classics, and also Tennyson’s poetry as their sources.

Love of Shakespeare

Like Tennyson, Julia Margaret Cameron had an unquenchable love of Shakespeare, whose characters re-appear frequently throughout her photographs. Both her own and Tennyson’s allusions to Shakespeare speak volumes, not only about their own relationships with these father texts, but also about Victorian responses to Shakespeare and his characters. Cameron in her time photographed May Prinsep posing as Beatrice from ‘Much Ado About Nothing’, the Liddell sisters (with Alice Liddell of ‘Alice in Wonderland’ fame) posing as King Lear’s daughters, Goneril, Regan and Cordelia, and a multitude of characters from ‘Romeo and Juliet’, from Friar Lawrence, to Juliet to Romeo.


Most arresting of all Julia Margaret Cameron’s portraits, was, perhaps, her modern depiction of Iago, the slippery villain of Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’. We don’t know who the sitter was for this portrait, but its front on angle, and his glance away from the camera, are noticeably modern.

Iago, is the Italian equivalent of the name ‘Jack’, a name whose heritage indicates trickery, games and deceit – think of the term ‘Jack O’Lantern’ for a carved pumpkin, or the toy ‘Jack in the Box’. One cannot help but feel that despite the downwards gaze, Iago is aware of the gaze of the camera/audience, dodging our eyes, looking meekly down, he avoids a direct conflict of sight, just as the character Iago avoids direct conflict of both look and voice throughout Othello. The portrait pretends to innocence, like the character. Tennyson himself says of Iago:

‘Actors do not comprehend that Shakespeare's villains, Iago among them.. have always a touch of conscience. You see the conscience working, therein lies one of Shakespeare’s pre- eminences. lago ought to be acted as the "honest Iago’, not the stage villain.’

The slipperiness of Iago’s gaze is as slippery as his language in the play, with its hints of self-deprecation, of a downwards glance, designed to put the listener at ease whilst simultaneously catching them in a logic trap.

‘Were I the Moor, I would not be Iago:
In following him, I follow but myself;’

The Tempest

The play that Julia Margaret Cameron depicted most often was Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’, creating portraits of many of its characters. The most famous of these portraits was her portrait of Sir Henry Taylor and Mary Ryan posing as ‘Prospero and Miranda’ supposedly responsible for igniting the love affair between Sir Henry Cotton and Mary Ryan. (see Guardian article on Juliet Margaret Cameron)

Like Cameron, Tennyson too had a preoccupation with ‘The Tempest’ (The Romances particularly captured his imagination), and it re-echoes throughout his work. Tennyson’s poem that most clearly alludes to ‘The Tempest’ is his ‘Ulysses’, whose aged Mariner irrepressibly hints of Prospero, and whose lines find inevitable parings in the play.

‘There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail:
There gloom the dark, broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toil'd, and wrought, and thought with me—
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads—you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
[…] my friends,
Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.’ – ‘Ulysses’

Tennyson’s ‘newer world’ brings to mind Miranda’s ‘Brave new world’, but with a shadow of sadness, the world is ‘newer’ not ‘new’, and not to be rediscovered. This is a sadness re-echoed back by Prospero’s final speech in the play, a speech about a final sailing, and an origin speech for Tennyson’s poem.

‘Now my charms are all o'erthrown,
And what strength I have's mine own,
Which is most faint: now, 'tis true,
I must be here confined by you,
Or sent to Naples. Let me not,
Since I have my dukedom got
And pardon'd the deceiver, dwell
In this bare island by your spell;
But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands:
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please. Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon'd be,
Let your indulgence set me free.’ – ‘The Tempest’

Julia Margaret Cameron’s Shakespearean Portraits can be found through these links:

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