Open Book Publishers logo Open Access logo
  • button
  • button
  • button
GO TO...
book cover


25. Premonitions: Shakespeare to James

Sergio Perosa

© 2019 Sergio Perosa, CC BY 4.0

As I was preparing to write this essay, a line of Shakespeare, right at the beginning of Macbeth, kept ringing in my mind:

All. Fair is foul and foul is fair. (I, i, 10)

In his sonnets, poems, and plays, Shakespeare works almost obsessively on the tension, interplay, and sometimes interpenetration of darkness and light(ing), as two almost interchangeable poles of a semantic and existential system, a dichotomy that verges on unity. (Two scenes down, Macbeth himself: ‘So foul and fair a day I have not seen’, I, iii, 38).

In her impassioned reverie (‘Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds…’), when Juliet exhorts night and darkness to bring Romeo to her for very practical business between newlyweds, she is given a stupendous image (please note the details and the wording):

Jul. Lovers can see to do their amorous rites

By their own beauties.(III, ii, 9–10)

While making love, presumably naked, lovers enjoy the sight of each other thanks to the beauty they emanate; they defy night and darkness by the light that irradiates from their bodies.

This is what would later be claimed of artworks: they emanate and irradiate their own light; they are themselves a source of light in darkness — this phosphorescence is the added charm of aesthetic beauty. Metaphorically, as Shakespeare (or his collaborator), puts it in Pericles:

like a glow-worm in the night,

The which hath fire in darkness, none in light. (II, iii, 44–45)

At Burlington House, for instance, Henry James would hint at the opportunity ‘for the fog-smitten wanderer to pass out of the January darkness of Piccadilly into the radiant presence of Titian and Rubens’.1 Paintings give light to rooms.

I’ll briefly consider these poetic assumptions, and reversals, because, as so often in plays by Shakespeare, who was a master of contradictions and oxymora, everything turns to its opposite (as claimed in Romeo and Juliet, IV, v, 84–90: ‘All things that we ordained festival / Turn from their office to black funeral; /… / And things change them to the contrary’). For Lucrece, in the poem written at around the same time as Romeo and Juliet, ‘light and lust are deadly enemies’ (The Rape of Lucrece, l. 674). Elsewhere, equally relentlessly and obsessively, the beauteous act of love that Juliet envisions illuminated by the lovers’ bodies, is perceived and presented as the deed (Lucrece; Pericles, Prince of Tyre) or the act of darkness (King Lear; Macbeth; even Antony and Cleopatra, that sumptuous paean to tainted, mature love) — a dreadful, mischievous, despicable, and degrading act. One can also think of Sonnet 129, ‘The expense of spirit in a waste of shames / is lust in action’.

This dialectic between fair and foul, light and dark, is persistent: it keeps one imprisoned in fetters, either way. Soon after, Milton would speak of ‘No light, but darkness visible’ (Paradise Lost I, 62–63): another perfect oxymoron that might be fancifully applied to artworks.

Neither Milton, nor Shakespeare, nor their contemporaries, of course, had museums to visit; the closest Shakespeare comes to such an idea is in the two-hundred-line-long description of the Shield of Achilles in Lucrece (ll. 1366–1562) — one of the best examples of modern (invented) ekphrasis and perhaps the first instance of a young woman confronting or measuring her destiny against or in connection with an artwork, as will be so frequently the case in nineteenth-century fiction.


Shakespeare’s tension-ridden perception of the import of light and darkness in the drama of life was inherited and reflected across the centuries by novelists who strongly felt his influence, who visited the newly-founded museums with mixed feelings, and who had their characters enact there crucial confrontations with matters of love and death, light and darkness. The similarities are enticing: a dialectic of darkness and light(ing), similar to that envisioned by Shakespeare, is created by these novelists in museum spaces for the purposes of definition and discovery, and this is achieved in clearly Shakespearean terms. I shall briefly touch on examples by Hawthorne and James, by way of Melville and George Eliot.

In their time, a strong conception of the sacredness, sanctity (sacralità, in Italian, would be an even better word) of art arose and prevailed, brought in precisely by the establishment of museums as shrines, temples for spiritual contemplation and enhancement, where feelings of silence and awe were induced, even required, by a kind of semi-darkness or half-light. A crepuscular atmosphere would be predominant and propitious, and had to be maintained as such, allowing for no distraction — including that of too much light. Semi-darkness would be no obstacle, and might indeed be favourable to the appreciation of art works in museums.2

In his statements and stories, Hawthorne declared his predilection for twilight, and he was more interested in sculpture than in pictures (particularly the Venus di [sic] Medici, which he visited frequently at the Uffizi). He noted that the pictures in the Florentine gallery, ‘being opposite to the light, are not seen to the best advantage’.3 In his significant novel The Marble Faun (1860), the use of cleaning and restoration to bring light to darkness is explored in peculiar ways. Statues present no problems: in the Capitol Hall of Sculptures they shine in the glimmer of giallo antico (chs. 1 and 31), while copies of paintings by Old Masters, such as those made by Hilda, may be better than the originals precisely because they bring to light what was previously dark: ‘From the dark, chill corner of a gallery […] she [Hilda] brought the picture into daylight, and gave all its magic splendour for the enjoyment of the world’ (ch. 6).

But in chapter 37 (‘The Emptiness of Picture Galleries’), after her vicarious experience of crime and guilt, Hilda, the shy copyist, the ‘handmaid of old magicians’, has lost her feeling for the Old Masters, and she sees only gloom in them: even then, ‘the icy daemon of weariness, who haunts great picture galleries had set in’. In the following chapters (chs. 38–40), this gloom is dissipated by her experience in St. Peter’s — which combines the features of a place of worship and those of a museum — where ‘light showered beneath the Dome’, ‘beams of radiance’ and ‘long shafts of light’ came through, and the place seems imbued with sunshine. But she looks rather for the darkness of a confessional, where this daughter of Protestant New England kneels to sob a prayer and confess to a Catholic priest.

Finally, the question of darkness and light is openly faced in the last chapter (50), in the Pantheon — where the ‘peculiarity of its effect’ is due to ‘the aperture in the dome — that great Eye, facing downward’, which will also allow rain to pour in, and where Kenyon, the sculptor, now reconciled with Hilda, asks the question that interests us: ‘There is a dusky picture over that altar […] let’s go and see if this strong illumination brings out any merit in it.’ The answer is devastating: the picture is little worth looking at, and a tabby-cat is sitting on the altar.


First deviation: in his impassioned review, ‘Hawthorne and his Mosses’ (1850), Melville considered Hawthorne an American Shakespeare on the Hudson, walking down Broadway, fascinated by blackness like Melville himself. Melville had little relish for museums, which he considered akin to morgues; he was rather cold about paintings and statues, and his lecture ‘Statues in Rome’ (delivered in 1857–58, and reconstructed from newspaper reports), is perfunctory and even embarrassing in its opacity.4 There are no museums in his fiction, but in his only novel set on land, Pierre, or the Ambiguities (1852), which is heavily influenced by Shakespeare (Hamlet and other plays), the protagonist shows a preference for dark, rather than bright, tell-tale pictures: in Bk. IV, 3–4, he cherishes the secret portrait drawn of (supposedly) his father, rather than the official, pompous, and highly visible portrait of him cherished by his mother.

Second deviation: in chapter 19 of Middlemarch (1872), in the Hall of Statues in the Vatican Museum a young woman — a breathing, blooming girl, clad in Quakerish gray drapery — seems not to react to, or indeed to see, a reclining statue of Ariadne-Cleopatra. Dorothea Brooke ‘was not looking at the sculpture, probably not thinking at all: her large eyes were fixed dreamily on a streak of sunlight which fell across the floor’. Back in the Museum at the end of the chapter — after a ‘meditative struggle’ (as it will be called later) in her Via Sistina apartment, one that prefigures Isabel Archer’s ‘meditative vigil’ in James’s The Portrait of a Lady (1881, ch. 42) — Dorothea is seen ‘in that brooding abstraction which made her pose remarkable. She did not really see the streak of sunlight on the floor more than she saw the statues; she was inwardly seeing the light of years to come in her own home and over the English fields.’ This is the inward ray of perception of which James also wrote in ‘The Art of Fiction’, which takes precedence over the outward, and is often favoured by the confrontation with works of art.5


Henry James reviewed Eliot’s novel with interest, although he had reservations about her lack of aesthetic concern and the form of the work; but he seems to have remembered it well when writing of Isabel. Books of unequal merit have been written on James’s innumerable personal and fictional visits to museums. I’ll restrict myself to one crucial example, though a few preliminary points are in order.

Lewis Mumford maintained as early as 1926 that James treated Europe as a museum. The best example is in The Wings of the Dove (1902), where we have a crucial scene in the National Gallery, and a Shakespearean dark-light confrontation is enacted in Bk. IX, 2–4 — the sequence of a three-day change of weather: foul wind, coldness and livid air suddenly settling on the city during Milly Theale’s crisis after a day of sunlight, and then the restoration of a deceptively fair, splendid weather.6 ‘Fair is foul, and foul is fair’. As for museums, properly speaking, James lived in a sort of museum all his life (as many have noted, Europe, British Society, and literary milieus became ‘museum worlds’ for him),7 and was in and out of them as a matter of course day in and day out. But he went through at least four distinct and contradictory phases of appreciation.

In his early days, he was against the hoarding of artworks in museums or galleries, which, as he saw it, wrenched them from their natural cultural contexts; even a badly-lit home was preferable to a gallery: ‘the best fortune for good pictures is not to be crowded into public collections, — not even into the relative privacy of Salons Carrés and Tribunes, but to hang in largely spaced half-dozens in the walls of fine houses. Here the historical atmosphere, as one may call it, is almost a compensation for the often imperfect light.’8

When writing of museums for newspapers and travel books, in his essays for the Atlantic Monthly or his ‘Letters’ to The Tribune, he relished them as long as they were European museums — though often noting their dark and dim atmosphere (in the National Gallery itself, ‘the pictures appear to as great an advantage as the London daylight allows’).9 Then, in The American Scene (1904), we have his famous (or infamous, as I consider it) blast against the new Metropolitan when it was moved to upper Fifth Avenue from 14th Street, which he saw and presented as the result and the embodiment of greed and monetary power. When finally he ‘thematized’ the question in his last novel The Outcry (1911, derived from an earlier play), the solution was exactly the opposite of his early view: pictures and artworks were saved, as long as they were given to and stored in the (London) National Gallery.

James was against the glare of exhibitions (‘I like ambiguities and detest great glares’ he wrote in The Ambassadors), and all for the rays of heavenly light that shone inside, in the inner consciousness of the individual. Yet he also manoeuvred his characters endlessly in and out of museums for discovery purposes. The American (1877) opens in the Salon Carré, and both the protagonist and the copyist, Noémie, are gently satirized for their preference for replicas; the museum itself is slightly claustrophobic. Contrary to Dorothea Brooke, in The Portrait of a Lady Isabel finds that ‘The blinds were partly closed in the windows of the Capitol, a clear, warm shadow rested on the figures [the Greek statues], and made them more mildly human’; their beauty is reflected in the floor — and the scene is altogether a pacifying experience (ch. 28). The glare and pomp of St. Peter’s, where ‘she paid her silent tribute to visible grandeur’ (which was changed to ‘the seated sublime’ in the New York Edition), are set against, or mingle with, the darkness of her psychological insight.

In The Ambassadors, where a crucial scene is set in the Louvre, Strether ‘might have been a student under the charm of a museum’; in The Golden Bowl (1904), Adam Verver’s ‘museum of museums […] a receptacle of treasures sifted to positive sanctity’ looms menacingly in a terrifying and largely improbable American City of the West — it is certainly worse than the Met. (But, just as the Capitol Museum and St. Peter’s gave Isabel assurance in Rome, so in The Golden Bowl, in chapter thirty-three, the British Museum reassures Maggie about the worth of her husband the Prince: strange transnational quirks are at work here).

The most Shakespearean of James’s scenes of light and darkness is set in a museum, in chapter twenty-five of the first volume of his unfinished autobiography, A Small Boy and Others (1913). From the vantage point of 1910, when he is presumably writing, he recalls an in-between experience, a terrible dream-visitation or nightmare he had experienced some decades before. He comes to this well-known episode from ‘the rather bleak salles of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts’; now at the Louvre instead, he writes, ‘I felt myself most happily cross that bridge over to Style constituted by the wondrous Galérie d’Apollon, drawn out for me as a long but assured initiation […] a prodigious tube or tunnel through which I inhaled […] a general sense of glory […] not only beauty and art and supreme design, but history and fame and power’.

And he recalls how this ‘splendid scene of things’ had played ‘a precious part’ in his awakening from the ‘most admirable nightmare of my life […] the sudden pursuit, through an open door, along a huge high salon, of a just dimly-descried figure that retreated in terror before my rush and dash’.

After having been desperately frightened, he continues, ‘I, in my appalled state, was probably still more appalling than the awful agent, creature or presence, whatever he was […]. Routed, dismayed, the tables turned upon him by my so surpassing him for straight aggression and dire intention, my visitant was already but a diminished spot in the long perspective, the tremendous, glorious hall’ where he sped for his life, while a great storm of thunder and lightning played through the deep embrasures of high windows.10

Thus the scene of splendour and beauty the boy had so admired was to become ‘the scene of that immense hallucination’ — which transformed itself, however, into an experience of deliverance and affirmation, of life- and light-giving radiance. Darkness and fear are routed and dispersed in the wondrous Galérie d’Apollon, all light and glitter.

It seems to be the perfect reenactment of what the Master of Expression — as James called Shakespeare — had taught: the triumph of style and splendour over doom, and at the same time their coexistence, their verging on indissoluble correlation and unity. Glory is haunted by dark apparitions, it is reached through an experience of terror: ‘there was alarm in it somehow as well as bliss’; ‘the look of the rich light, the smell of the massively enclosed air’ are renewed in James’s mind without ‘taking up the small scared consciousness’. With a final oxymoron, the Louvre remains, ‘under a general description, the most peopled of all scenes not less than the most hushed of all temples.’11

We should rest here with him, in the hush among a crowd, in the bustle of a temple. But there is a final twist, an anti-climax or a let-down to subvert this loftiness of spirit. The main idea, the gist of the splendid and evocative scene just quoted, so personal, so expressive of James, so fit for my purpose, is in fact indebted to a less exalted source — Guy de Maupassant’s nouvelle Le Horla, which James did not particularly like.12 In the second version (1887) of this story in the form of a journal, the protagonist is haunted by a visitation, a ghost, a possible alter ego. On waking up from a nap on 17 August he ‘sees’ the pages of a book left open on a table turning by themselves, in front of his empty chair:

D’un bond furieux, d’un bond de bête révoltée […] je traversai ma chambre pour le saisir, pour l’étreindre, pour le tuer! […] Mais mon siège, avant que je l’eusse atteint, se renversa comme si on êut fui devant moi […] ma table oscilla, ma lampe tomba et s’éteignit, et ma fenêtre se ferma, comme si un malfaiteur surpris se fût élancé dans la nuit, en prenant à pleines mains les battant. // Donc, il s’était suavé; il avait eût peur, peur de moi, lui!

Exactly as in James (though he improves on it, stylistically and otherwise). Sic transit gloria mundi? Is the glory of the Galérie d’Apollon dissipated, and its brightness obfuscated by this source? It fits rather, I believe, with the Shakespearean dichotomy with which we began: even here, the inextricable tangle of light and darkness.


To restore some kind of balance, I find the (possible) violation of the sacredness of art by its restoration to full light, and the fear and awe inherent either in light or twilight, beautifully expressed by Fernando Bandini, known for his poems in Italian, Veneto dialect and Latin, in his Caelum Sacelli Xystini (1999, winner of the ‘Certamen Vaticanum’ in 1996),13 written after the epochal cleaning and restoration of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. It opens with wonder and rejoicing at the new brightness and light of the frescoes: ‘inassueto stupeo splendere nitore / tamquam sol infans irradiaret eas’ (ll. 3–4), as on the first day of creation (ll. 37–38). We see now the miracle that our fathers saw in the twilight mode (‘Quae tamen aspicimus nos nunc miracula, nostri / viderunt crepera luce repressa patres’, ll. 57–589). The secrets of the painter and of humanity come to life and light (ll. 69ff.) now that they emerge from the old colour (‘vetere emergente colore’, l. 83). One can hope that the wrath of God be extinguished (‘Ut demun extingui caeli desiderat iram!’, l. 147). But a fear of impending doom, that light will be lost and darkness prevail, resurfaces at the end: ‘Huius sed nobis obscuro tempore saecli / nunc egressuri spes quoque lucis abest’ (ll. 185–86). Only old prophets can tell us of our future:’‘Tum corde ausculto nostrum si forte futurum / Ionas vel qaedam sacra Sibylla canat’ (ll. 193–94).

1 ‘The Old Masters at Burlington House’ (1877), in John L. Sweeney (ed.), The Painter’s Eye. Notes and Essays on the Pictorial Arts (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1956), p. 124. — The fog must have been very heavy. Emily Dickinson (presumably with no idea of a close encounter) seems to echo Shakespeare’s concept in her poem N. 611: ‘I see thee better — in the Dark — / I do not need a light — / The love of thee a prism be — Excelling violet /… / What need of day — To Those whose Dark — hath so — surpassing Sun’ (ll. 1–4, 13–14).

2 See Anna De Biasio, Romanzi e musei. Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry James e il rapporto con l’arte (Venezia: Istituto Veneto di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti, 2006), who works extensively with classic texts on the subject, e.g. Pierre Bourdieu’s The Field of Cultural Production (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986). — I have a Japanese print, the gift of a dear friend, that in full daylight is black and white, but in the twilight or near darkness shows a delicate pastel colouring. In ‘The Lesson of the Master’ (1888) James noted that museums (and studios) had rooms ‘without windows, but with a wide skylight at the top, like a place of exhibition’. This was possible on top floors, or one-storey buildings.

3 Passages from the French and Italian Note-Books (Boston: The Riverside Press, 1883), p. 286 (8 June, 1858), among others. At the Louvre, he confessed ‘that the vast and beautiful edifice struck me far more than the pictures, sculptures, and curiosities which it contains’, ibid., p. 20 (8 January, 1858).

4 See Journals (Evanston and Chicago: The Northwestern-Newberry Edition, 1989); the lecture is rpt. in The Piazza Tales volume of the same edition. Melville had little to say of busts, even the Dying Gladiator (or Gaul), in the Hall of Emperors in the Capitol Museum (26 February 1857). Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin, ‘behind a coat of smoky grime’ in the Frari church, had been hung in the bright light of the Academy Galleries when he saw it, and he noted that some observers complained that its colouring was too bright (ibid., p. 504).

5 For Dorothea, in Rome ‘the past of a whole hemisphere seems moving in funeral’, and she prefers the Campagna, ‘where she could feel alone with earth and sky, away-from the oppressive masquerade of ages’. She is crushed by the Imperial and Papal city: ‘Ruins and basilicas, palaces and colossi, set in the midst of the sordid present, […] the long vistas of white forms whose marble seemed to hold the monotonous light of an alien world: all this wreck of ambitious ideals, sensuous and spiritual […] at first jarred her as with an electric shock’, and then checked the flow of emotion. Later on, she would equate the overwhelming décor of St. Peter’s to a sickness of the retina. Parallels with Isabel’s experiences and realizations are stringent (e. g. ‘the large vistas and wide fresh air […] were replaced by anterooms and winding passages which seemed to lead nowither’), but Isabel finds a companionship of suffering, and a relief, in Rome’s museums and in St. Peter’s (ch. 49), as well as in the Campagna.

6 Lewis Mumford, The Golden Day (Boston: Beacon Press, 1957), p. 105. In The Wings of the Dove: ‘The weather, from early morning, had turned to storm […] It was a Venice all of evil that had broken out for them alike […] a Venice of cold lashing rain from a low black sky, of wicked wind raging through the narrow passes, of general arrest and interruption ’ (IX, 2). And yet, ‘The weather changed, the stubborn storm yielded, and the autumn sunshine […] came into his own again […] Venice glowed and plashed and called and chimed again’ (IX, 4). In William Wetmore Story and his Friends (1903) James admitted that the ‘lingering lurid, in Venice, did more for the charm’.

7 Two of the best are Adeline R. Tintner, The Museum World of Henry James (Ann Arbor: Umi Research Press, 1986), and Viola Hopkins Winner, Henry James and the Visual Arts (Charlottesville: Virginia University Press, 1970). Recently, Jean Pavans, Le musée intérieur de Henry James (Paris: Seuil, 2016).

8 Originally in Transatlantic Sketches (Boston: James R. Osgood & Co., 1875), p. 31, then in English Hours, now in Collected Travel Writings. Great Britain and America (New York: The Library of America, 1993), pp. 78–80, also quoted in V. Winner, op.cit., p. 27, who rightly stresses the danger, in a museum world, of the estrangement of art from life: ‘the portrait becomes a picture; the goddess or saint, a statue; the household object, an objet d’art’, ibid., p. 128. This idea was also entertained by Paul Valéry in Le problème des musées, in Pièces sur l’art (Paris: Gallimard, 1934), pp. 115–23, quoted in Di Biasio, pp. 52–53, and by Lewis Mumford, for whom the museums were ‘filled with the scraps of other cultures, the repository of an irrelevant and abstract conception of culture for our own day — quite divorced from history and common experience’ (The Golden Day, cit., p. 108).

9 ‘The National Gallery’ (1877), in The Painter’s Eye, cit., p. 122

10 The relevant pages in A Small Boy and Others (New York: Scribner, 1913), are pp. 346–51.

11 The relevant pages in Autobiographies (New York: The Library of America, 2016), pp. 208–11.

12 ‘Not a specimen in the author’s best vein — the only occasion on which he has the weakness of imitation is when he strikes us as emulating Edgar Poe’, James had written in his otherwise appreciative essay of 1888, ‘Guy de Maupassant’, now in French Writers, Other European Writers, The Prefaces (New York: The Library of America, 1984), p. 536.

13 Vicenza: Errepidueveneto, 1999; with facing Italian translations by the poet himself, which are equally beautiful.