Illustrated companion

Fuseli's interest in Shakespeare was instilled in him during his student days in Zurich by the Swiss scholar Jacob Bodmer. who also introduced him to Milton, Homer, Dante and the German medieval legends known as Niebelungenlied. All became important sources of inspiration for Fuseli, as did the aesthetic ideas of Bodmer who stressed the importance in art of the bizarre, the horrifying and the miraculous.

In 1766, Fuseli attended a production of Macbeth in London, with the celebrated actor David Garrick in the title role. Obviously struck by the moment in the play illustrated in this painting, he made a straightforward documentary drawing of the scene on stage. In the later painting this is transformed into a tense and convincing drama. Driven by his ambitious wife, Macbeth has just reluctantly murdered his king, Duncan, in order to seize the throne of Scotland. He returns to Lady Macbeth still clutching the bloodstained daggers which, in his terror and remorse, he has forgotten to leave behind to incriminate the sleeping servants. Lady Macbeth orders him to return but he refuses, at which she says, 'Infirm of purpose! Give me the daggers' and takes them back herself. This is a turning point in the play, when Lady Macbeth's control of Macbeth becomes absolute and his fate sealed.

Fuseli was fascinated by dominant women and this picture touches on what was a recurring theme of his art. Fuseli had a remarkable ability, beyond any of his contemporaries, to reveal the psychological realities underlying his literary sources. He also painted in a completely non-naturalistic style in which, as in this case, all non-essential detail is eliminated. He also once wrote, 'The most unexplored region of art is dreams'. All this can make him appear remarkably modern, looking forward to the ideas of the Surrealists and to painters like Francis Bacon. Not surprisingly, the only person in his own time really to understand him was William Blake who, in a letter to a magazine which had attacked Fuseli wrote, '... the truth is, he is a hundred years beyond the present generation'.

Published in:
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, Tate Gallery, London, revised edition 1991, p.75