Lady Macbeth by Kenny Meadows, engraving by W.H. Mote

Today marks the 399th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare. His date of birth is unknown, but it seems fitting to celebrate the passing of a writer who ended so many of his plays by killing nearly his entire cast. His oeuvre is vast, consisting of at least 38 plays, 154 sonnets, and two long narrative poems. His plays have been translated into every major language and have been performed more than any other playwright’s.

In the AIGA Design Archives, works related to the bard appear over 80 times and span seven decades, the earliest being “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” designed by M.B. Glick in 1941.

One of the more provocative entries is the cover image for “Shakespeare’s Unruly Women” from 1996. Considering the title, the cover is a study in the “less is more” constraint.

Design by Antonio Alcalá, illustration by Kenny Meadows, engraving by W. H. Mote.
Design by Antonio Alcalá, illustration by Kenny Meadows, engraving by W.H. Mote.

“Shakespeare’s Unruly Women” was an exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library that contained essays and artifacts and covered the three major facets of how Shakespeare’s heroines were viewed in Victorian England. According to jacket designer Antonio Alcalá of the design firm Studio A, these were:

“First, a rising middle class developed a desire for objects to use as decorations in their homes. Because paintings were too expensive, engravings based on important paintings, including those of Shakespearean scenes or characters, were produced to meet the demand. Second, during this same era, Shakespeare’s heroines were often used to instruct young women about the proper (or inappropriate) manner to behave and conduct oneself. Finally, there was significant interest and belief in the ability to gain insight into a person’s character through the study of their physiognomy. That is, by studying a person’s facial features, one could determine what kind of person they were.”

Alcalá chose a period portrait of Lady Macbeth, by Kenny Meadows (1790-1874), the British caricaturist and illustrator and frequent Punch contributor, with an engraving by William Henry Mote. He cropped in on two unexpected details. Alcalá notes, “I isolated her eyes (are these the eyes of a killer?) and her hand holding a dagger. The typography reflects similar interests in contrasts/contradictions by typesetting the single word ‘Unruly’ in an elegant, script typeface. On the back of the catalogue, I reproduced the Lady Macbeth engraving in full.”

In many ways Shakespeare’s own countenance is as mysterious as this catalog cover. While frequently rendered, there are no known official portraits, and so his features are open to interpretation. In the Archives, many artists have contributed to his visage. Among them are James McMullan, Heather Cooper, Jim Jacobs, Isadore Seltzer, R.O. Blechman, Walter Einsel, Vin Guiliani, and Laurie Rosenwald.

Some of the most arresting interpretations of Shakespeare’s plays are Milton Glaser’s Signet Book series from the early ’60s, of which over a dozen appear in the Archives. At once illustrative, graphic, and classic, these covers set the standard for Shakespeare volumes to follow for decades—so much so that Glaser was enlisted in the ’80s to create an entirely different line of competing Shakespeare titles for Pelican Books.