1000s of historic Shakespeare illustrations are now free to download and use

A digital archive containing 3,000 copyright-free Victorian Shakespeare illustrations is now online – letting you have access for your own work.

One Cardiff University student’s PhD project is offering artists access to thousands of digital versions of historical Shakespeare illustrations – allowing anyone to incorporate the images into their own creative process or finished work. And the best part – it’s free.

Recent English Literature PhD graduate Dr Michael Goodman is behind the online open access digital archive, which contains more than 3,000 illustrations from four major illustrated editions of Shakespeare’s Complete Works in the Victorian era.

The Victorian Illustrated Shakespeare Archive invites users to access word clouds as a tool to search the line drawings by motif – such as witches, fairies, ghosts – with categories like Clowns, Castles, Horses, Kings, Moons, Musicians, Ships and Swords. 

Image: Romeo and Juliet, John Gilbert edition of Shakespeare’s Complete Works.

Alongside the extensive search clouds, the site allows users to search each of the four editions and access each individual play’s digitalised illustrations by type. 

This means artists can have access to illustrations from histories such as King Henry VIII, comedies such as Much Ado About Nothing, and tragedies such as Macbeth, Othello and Romeo and Juliet

All of the content is free through the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license. So you not only can integrate the illustrations in your own creative process, but can also share on social media freely. 

Image: King Henry IV, Kenny Meadows edition of Shakespeare’s Complete Works.

Michael used Photoshop to isolate the illustrations, scanning the hard copies single-handedly and tagging each image. As you can imagine this process was long and laborious, but Michael says the archive lets us appreciate how the plays are “like a hall of mirrors – they reflect certain ideas back to each other”. 

“The database emphasises that there really is a ‘Shakespeare Universe’ where different motifs, ideas and themes recur,” he says. 

But as well as offering an extensive digital database, the online archive gives insight into how different illustrators approached the same text with very different styles. 

Image: Macbeth, Charles Knight edition of Shakespeare’s Complete Works.

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The available illustrated editions are by Kenny Meadows, Charles Knight, H. C. Selous and John Gilbert.

The first, published by editor Charles Knight, appeared in several volumes between 1838 and 1841, illustrated with conservative designs by various artists.

The Kenny Meadows edition published in 1854 contains very different illustrations to Knight’s edition, but the Selous edition published in 1864 saw a return to the more formal realism seen in Knight’s.

Image: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, H.C Selous edition of Shakespeare’s Complete Works.

According to Open Culture, Gilbert’s edition may be the most expressive of the four, retaining realist proportions and mise-en-scene, yet rendering the characters with a psychological realism.

ImageThe Tempest, John Gilbert edition of Shakespeare’s Complete Works.

The illustrations reveal how the Victorians visualised Shakespeare’s world before cinema, relying just as much on illustrations as theatre. 

Michael aims to analyse the philosophical implications of his thesis project, and discover how digital humanities can play a vital role in educational practises.

Image: Othello, H.C. Selous edition of Shakespeare’s Complete Works.

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