The picture is based on a scene from Shakespeare's Macbeth (Act II scene 2) and represents the moment immediately after Macbeth has murdered Duncan, King of Scotland, who was a guest at his castle. Macbeth staggers forward, staring in horror, and still grasping the bloody daggers with which he has committed the deed. He tells his wife, 'I am afraid to think what I have done; Look on't again I dare not.' It is at this point in the play that Lady Macbeth seizes control. 'Infirm of purpose!' she responds to her husband, 'Give me the daggers.'
Fuseli was introduced to Shakespeare's plays during his student days in Zürich with the Swiss scholar Jacob Bodmer and while in Switzerland he translated Macbeth into German. In 1766 he attended a production of the play in London, with the celebrated actors David Garrick and Mrs Pritchard in the lead roles. Inspired by this particular scene, he made a drawing, 'I have done the deed' (c.1766, Kunsthaus, Zürich), similar in composition to Lady Macbeth Seizing the Daggers, but more realistic in approach. Traditionally the Tate picture is known as Mrs Siddons as Lady Macbeth, and may have been inspired by Mrs Siddons' acting, but is clearly not a portrait. Mrs Siddons first played the part of Lady Macbeth at Drury Lane in 1785, and it became one of her most celebrated roles. She even chose it for her farewell performance on 29 June 1812.
The picture is probably a sketch for an intended larger work. The figures are wraith-like and executed with tremendous freedom. Fuseli once wrote that 'All minute detail tends to destroy terrour [sic]'(Henry Fuseli, Lectures on Painting, 1801, p.109, n.(b).), and his intention was to work on the viewer's psyche, rather than to create an accurate representation. He painted several other scenes from Macbeth, including the three witches from Act I, and Lady Macbeth sleepwalking from the opening scene of the final act. He was particularly drawn to the cruel and erotic elements in Shakespeare's work and was inspired by several other plays, including Hamlet, King Lear and A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Henry Fuseli 1741-1825, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1975, p.59, reproduced p.58.
Masterpieces of British Art from the Tate Gallery, exhibition catalogue, Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum 1998, p.222, reproduced p.94, in colour.
5 December 2000