Henry Fuseli

Lady Macbeth Seizing the Daggers

?exhibited 1812

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Henry Fuseli 1741–1825
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1016 × 1270 mm
frame: 1213 × 1454 × 100 mm
Purchased with assistance from the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1965


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.

Further reading:
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.

Frances Fowle
5 December 2000

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Display caption

This dramatic work was probably inspired by a performance of Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth. Encouraged by the deceptive prophecy of witches, Macbeth and his wife plot to take the crown of Scotland by murdering King Duncan in his sleep. Here Macbeth emerges horrified from the murder scene off-stage, still holding the bloodied weapons. Lady Macbeth takes control of the situation but by the end of the play, consumed by guilt, she succumbs to madness and suicide. Fuseli treats the scene with an almost supernatural intensity.

Gallery label, February 2016

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Catalogue entry

Henry Fuseli 1741–1825

T00733 Lady Macbeth Seizing the Daggers ?exhibited 1812

Not inscribed.
Oil on canvas, 40 x 50 (101.5 x 127).
Purchased at Sotheby’s with assistance from the Friends of the Tate Gallery and from the National Art-Collections Fund (Grant-in-Aid) 1965.
Coll: Thomas E. Lowinsky; his widow; their daughter, Mrs. J. Stanley-Clarke; sold Sotheby, 10 March 1965 (107).
Exh: (?) R.A., 1812 (39); R. E. A. Wilson, 24 Ryder Street, March–April 1935 (2, repr. as ‘Mrs. Siddons in the character of Lady Macbeth’); Roland, Browse and Delbanco, May–June 1948 (2, same title); Arts Council, London, and tour, 1950 (25, as ‘Lady Macbeth’); The Romantic Movement, Tate Gallery, July–September 1959 (162); Shakespeare in the Theatre, Guildhall Gallery, May-June 1964 (14, ‘Sarah Siddons as Lady Macbeth’). Lit: Frederick Antal, Fuseli Studies, 1956, pp. 143–4, n. 6; Marcel Brion, Romantic Art, 1960, p. 210, pi. 60; Michael Levey, A Concise History of Painting, from Giotto to Cézanne, 1962, p. 259, pl. 457.

The picture exhibited at the R.A. in 1812 was entitled ‘Lady Macbeth seizing the daggers: A sketch for a large picture “—Infirm of purpose! Give me the daggers!” Macbeth, Act II, Scene 2’. She is not actually seizing the daggers and there is no record of Fuseli having painted a later version, though he is said to have been working on another composition of Lady Macbeth at the time of his death (see Sotheby Sale, 10 March 1965, lot 157). The identification of the present sketch with the exhibited one cannot be regarded as certain, but is highly probable. It has not been possible to trace the history of No. T00733 before it appeared in the collection of Thomas Lowinsky. His daughter had no recollection of when and where he acquired it, but thought it may have been at the R. E. A. Wilson exhibition in 1935 as he had the catalogue.

The composition must have been inspired by the acting of Mrs. Siddons, but was not intended as a portrait. She first played the part of Lady Macbeth in London on 2 February 1785 at Drury Lane, chose it for her farewell to the stage on 29 June 1812, but continued to play it for private and benefit performances up to 5 June 1817, and it was considered one of her most celebrated parts. The picture and other versions of the subject are discussed in detail in the Report, pp. 12–15.

Published in The Tate Gallery Report 1964–1965, London 1966.


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