The picture illustrates a scene from Shakespeare's comedy, As You Like It (1599) in Act I, Sc.vi. It depicts the moment when Orlando throws Charles, the Duke's wrestler, to the ground, watched by Duke Frederick, Rosalind and Celia.
The painting is based on a drawing made by Hayman for a six-volume quarto edition of Shakespeare's works published in 1743-4 by Sir Thomas Hanmer (1677-1746). Hayman's drawing closely resembles the present picture, although the latter's format is horizontal rather than vertical. In making his drawing, Hayman was given the following instruction by Hanmer: 'The Wrestling before the Duke, Lords, Attendants, Celia and Rosalind. Orlando a handsome young man well proportioned for strength throws Charles, the Duke's champion. The attendants give a shout of applause, but the two ladies show greater joy than all the rest. Their figures must be set off to all possible advantage as young beautifull [sic] and of the highest rank' (Allen, p.153). The Frenchman, Hubert Gravelot (1699-1773), who also influenced the bright palette and light rococo style of the present picture, engraved Hayman's drawing for Hanmer's edition.
The horizontal format of the picture is similar to that of the large narrative scenes that Hayman painted around this time to decorate the 'supper-boxes', or dining booths, at Vauxhall Gardens. This picture, which is too small to have served such a purpose may, however, have been produced as a demonstration piece, quite probably made for Jonathan Tyers (d. 1767), the proprietor of Vauxhall. At this time Hayman painted a number of other scenes from Shakespeare for Vauxhall, including four large pictures for the Prince of Wales's Pavilion in 1745, none of which have survived.
In the early 1740s there was no established tradition in England of painting scenes from the theatre, the genre being pioneered by Hayman and William Hogarth (1697-1764), whose Shakespearean pictures were inspired by actual stage performances rather than textual readings. Hayman, like Hogarth, had close ties with the London theatre, having worked in early life as a scene painter at the Goodman's Fields and Drury Lane theatres. He remained a keen student of the theatre and by the early 1740s was a close friend of the actor David Garrick (1717-79). Hayman may even have taken part in staged performances of Shakespeare, a 'Mr. Hayman' being recorded as playing the role of Silvius in a performance of As You Like It at Covent Garden on at least three separate occasions between 1744 and 1746 (Allen, p.114).
Brian Allen, Francis Hayman, New Haven and London, 1987, pp.16, 114, 151-5, no.37, plate VII (colour)
Elizabeth Einberg and Judy Egerton, The Age of Hogarth. British Painters born 1675-1709, Tate, 1988, p.43,plate (colour)