Just as directors have interpreted Shakespeare’s stories of star-crossed lovers, familial power struggles, and political corruption in myriad ways, graphic designers have experimented with their visual representation in equal measure.
“To create a poster for a Shakespeare play is to tap into its essence and evolve an ideograph, a visual gesture that epitomizes the particular production,” writes Julie Taymor in the preface to Presenting Shakespeare, a new book from Princeton Architectural Press by Steven Heller and Mirko Ilic.
“Like the director and the stage designer, the poster artist searches for emblematic clues in Shakespeare’s poetry, from its fantastical and graphic imagery presented in both word and action and also from the overarching political, psychological, and philosophical themes of the play,” Taymor says.
Take Hamlet, for example. The iconography of skulls, hearts, daggers, and crowns reoccurs through the poster designs spanning hundreds of years. Illustrator Edward Gorey hones into the theme of psychological turmoil by depicting a solitary figure standing on a precarious ledge. Similarly, Paula Scher relays the dramatic nature through a pensive portrait of the lead actor.
Because the plays have been in near constant production since the 1600s, posters advertising the work also reads like a veritable history of graphic design. “To be or not to be” might be the question, but the answer for representation could lie in a cartoonish illustration, in expressive typefaces, or in a morbid hyperrealistic heart gushing blood.
Catch a few of our favorite Hamlet posters in the slide show above and purchase Presenting Shakespeare: 1,100 Posters from Around the World at papress.com for $50.