Daniella Jancsó

Fancy embodied: William Blake’s Pity and Shakespeare’s Macbeth

In Blake’s illustration Pity, it is the presence of the female figure that has remained a challenge in criticism. Not appearing in Macbeth’s simile on pity, that figure creates difficulties for commentators who first and foremost draw on Shakespeare’s text in their interpretations. This paper approaches the problem by exploring the influence of Blake’s own visual and verbal imagination on the illustration of Macbeth’s lines. This influence becomes evident when we trace the development of the pity concept in Blake’s poetry and examine other prints from the 1795 series, which exhibit hitherto unnoticed visual correspondences to Pity. Finally, by drawing on Luther’s The Bondage of the Will, the paper moves beyond both the Blakean and the Shakespearean perspectives and suggests new dimensions in the interpretation of the painting.

“Fancy cannot be embodied any more than a simile can be painted; and it is as idle to attempt it as to personate Wall or Moonshine”, concludes William Hazlitt in his Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays (Hazlitt 1962, 103). Although Hazlitt’s censorious comment was occasioned by an actual performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, when taken out of context it is often read as a condemnation of the art of illustration, at least that unorthodox art of illustration which William Blake occasionally practised. (01) It is well–known that Blake’s colour print, entitled Pity by convention and completed around 1795, is at least in part a pictorial translation of Macbeth’s sensational simile from his soliloquy in Act 1 Scene 7 of the tragedy:


And pity, like a naked new-born babe
Striding the blast, or heaven’s cherubin horsed
Upon the sightless couriers of the air,
Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye
That tears shall drown the wind. (1.7.21-25)(02)

By painting Pity, Blake did just what Hazlitt deemed “idle”: he painted a simile.(03) What is more, the source of the simile is Macbeth, the play that is in a sense about the embodied fancy — or imagination.(04) Incidentally, Blake’s other lasting inspiration in both his verbal and visual art is A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the very play that prompted Hazlitt’s disparaging comment. (05)

Hazlitt published the Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays in 1817, more than twenty years after Blake completed his colour print. Yet curiously, the opposite of Hazlitt’s comparison—fancy can be embodied just as a simile can be painted—is an apt description of Blake’s unorthodox art of illustration, since Pity is at once a painted simile and the pictorial representation (the embodiment) of the artist’s visual and verbal imagination. The painting, while obviously accessible from its Shakespearean context, also represents some aspects of Blake’s “universal philosophy”. Oddly, the latter aspect has long been neglected. A Shakespearean bias is characteristic for the interpretation of Pity despite the received view on Blake, which gives priority to the illustration over the illustrated. (06)

Working against the preponderance of Shakespearean interpretations, I would like to explore the interaction between Blake’s conceptions of pity as evinced in his poems (particularly in the Songs of Innocence and of Experience) and Shakespeare’s text. Admittedly, a similar approach has already been developed by Jonathan Bate and by Christian Heppner in their discussions of the print (Bate 1989, 125, Heppner 1995, 120); however, to my knowledge, some particulars of the fusion of the Shakespearean and the Blakean vision have not yet been considered. In addition, I would like to extend the scope of the investigation by considering other Blake prints from around 1795. These works exhibit visual correspondences to Pity, and thus testify to the influence of Blake’s idiosyncratic visual imagination on his illustration of Shakespeare’s lines. Finally, by drawing on a text beyond both the Blakean and the Shakespearean perspective, I hope to reveal new dimensions in the interpretation of Blake’s colour print.

Macbeth’s images in the passage illustrated rapidly expand to apocalyptic proportions; a similar apocalyptic quality can be perceived in the first appearance of pity in Blake’s song “When early morn walks forth in sober grey” from the Poetical Sketches. The Elizabethan influence is evident throughout, though the Faustian images accompanying pity in the last stanza owe more to Marlowe than to Shakespeare, when the speaker swears:

O should she e’er prove false, his limbs I’d tear,
And throw all pity on the burning air;
I’d curse bright fortune for my mixed lot,
And then I’d die in peace, and be forgot. (07)

Although ambiguous conceptions of pity are already present—if only in an embryonic form—in America, A Prophecy (08) , it is in the Songs of Innocence and of Experience that Blake exhibits for the first time his mature double–edged perception of pity. While in the later works this duality can be aptly described in terms of unification and division, as Jonathan Bate suggested in connection with Jerusalem and Urizen (Bate 1989, 125), in the earlier Songs of Innocence and of Experience it is perhaps more rewarding to assess pity in relational terms. Accordingly, in Songs of Innocence pity may be regarded as a relational virtue, in Songs of Experience as a relational vice; that is, pity exists only in relation. In fact, it can be demonstrated that the Macbeth illustration is influenced by this relational conception of pity, as we will see.

Songs of Innocence like “The Divine Image” and “On Another’s Sorrow” establish pity as a relational virtue, a worthy sentiment aroused by another’s distress, “an expression of human, which is to say divine, love”, in E.D. Hirsch’s words (Hirsch 1964, 191). By contrast, “The Human Abstract", the counterpiece to “The Divine Image” and the central poem of the Songs of Experience (09), expresses a thoroughly negative attitude to pity, and sets it up as a relational vice: “Pity would be no more / If we did not make somebody poor”. It is often noted that pity is conspicuously absent from the poem “London”, which regularly precedes “The Human Abstract” in the collection;(10) were it present, it would qualify as a virtue, and so be at odds with the general negative conception of pity in the Songs of Experience.

Besides the recognition that pity, whether positive or negative, is always conceived of in relation, the other relevance of the Songs of Innocence and of Experience to a discussion of Blake’s painting is that the collection as a whole shows the “Two Contrary States of the Human Soul”, just like the scene in Macbeth from which the illustrated lines originate. In that scene, the contemplative Macbeth wavers between murder and mercy, damnation and salvation. The two contrary states of his soul are marked by his two contrary decisions; first he declares “we will proceed no further in this business” (1.7.31), only to change his mind and announce “I am settled, and bend up / Each corporal agent to this terrible feat” (1.7.80–81). (11)

Before discussing the translation of the idea of the “two contrary states of the soul” into visual terms, I would like to focus on the female figure in the painting. Commentators on Blake’s illustration are invariably confronted with the difficulty of interpreting the woman since her presence cannot be accounted for directly by Macbeth’s simile. An elegant solution is to suggest that her presence is indirectly motivated by the preceding lines (Spangenberg 1967, Bate 1989, Heppner 1995), when Macbeth, speaking of Duncan, states that he

Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been
So clear in his great office, that his virtues
Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued against
The deep damnation of his taking-off; (1.7.16-20)

Consequently, in a Shakespearean frame of reference, the woman can be identified as the personification of the pleading virtues of Duncan. Appealing as this explanation may be, it is nevertheless strange that Duncan’s virtues, so vigorous in Shakespeare, are represented in Blake by a figure so passive that Rossetti could only see her as “dying or dead” (Gilchrist 1863, II.237). The pencil sketches of Lady Macbeth and a Winged Figure with a Trumpet, designed sometime between 1790 and 1795, suggest that Blake may have actually considered a literal representation of the virtues as trumpet–tongued angels. (12) Yet this unequivocal image is abandoned in the colour print in favour of the rich ambiguity of the female figure.

That this figure is indeed ambiguous is attested by the ‘Blakean’ critics, who associate her with Enitharmon, alias Pity. (13) It is well–known that Pity (Enitharmon) appears as the first woman in Blake’s Urizen, created by division from Los. Although most of these interpretations lead to the establishment of the print as the expression of Blake’s negative view of pity (14) —a controversial conclusion—still, the Enitharmon–connection proves to be productive in one respect, at least.


The creation of Enitharmon, her division from Los, parallels the creation of Eve from Adam; thus, as regards their origins at least, Eve and the figure of Pity seem to be closely associated in Blake’s imagination. Support for this claim is provided—rather unexpectedly—by another print from 1795, entitled Satan Exulting Over Eve. In this print, Eve is lying naked on the ground, in a position quite similar to that of the female figure in the painting Pity. Remarkably alike are the overflowing lush blond hair and the position of the head, tilted slightly backwards in both prints. In addition, the female figures, both in the foreground, occupy comparable portions in each painting. Although the woman in Pity is clad in a shroud, in all drafts (pencil sketches) of the illustration she is naked, like Eve.  
"Satan Exulting Over Eve" Click picture to enlarge

If the female figure is (also) Enitharmon, the concept of pity is doubly represented in the illustration, once as a woman, and once as a child. Though this double representation may seem perplexing and strange, it is not unparalleled in Blake’s art; curiously, the painting I’ve just associated with the colour print Pity, that is, Satan Exulting Over Eve exhibits just such a doubling, since Satan is pictured both as a winged evil angel and as a serpent coiled around the naked body of Eve. (15)

The ‘double–bond’ of the woman in Pity, once to a Shakespearean and once to a Blakean frame of reference, bears witness to the fusion of the two visions. In the following, I consider some more examples of such a ‘double–bond’ in the painting.

Whether she represents Enitharmon or not, the female figure in the print is associated with the concept of pity in several ways. Heppner notes that in the pencil sketches the naked woman is obviously in distress, “twisting as in agony from having given birth” (Heppner 1995, 114). Conflating the sketches with the print he interprets her as the mother of pity, representing a consequence of the murder of Duncan.

Yet when viewed in sequence, the sketches and the print seem to tell a different story about the pity concept. The change in the woman’s condition, in agony in the sketches, peaceful in the print, lacking all signs of distress, her hands signalling prayer, seem to illustrate not Shakespeare (or not only Shakespeare), but (also) Blake in “The Divine Image”:

To Mercy Pity Peace and Love,
All pray in their distress:
And to these virtues of delight
Return their thankfulness.

Thus pity, the relational virtue in the Songs of Innocence, finds its way into the illustration of Shakespeare’s lines.

Beside the woman, the other figures in the painting—the babe, the cherubs and the horses—can be also regarded as expressions of various aspects of Blake’s vision. This is all the more interesting since each of these figures is explicit in Macbeth’s images, and thus more readily explicable in Shakespearean terms. This easy reference may in fact account for the Shakespearean bias, and for the limited exploration of these figures embedded in Blake’s visual and verbal imagination.


As there is a visual counterpart to the female figure in Pity in the painting Satan Exulting Over Eve, so there is a visual counterpart to the babe in another of Blake’s prints from 1795. In the painting entitled The Good and Evil Angels Struggling for Possession of a Child, the figure of the child vividly recalls the babe in Pity. Although their relative sizes differ, their faces and their gestures are very similar, and both are full of energy. In his discussion of the painting The Good and Evil Angels Butlin notes that the “child is not paralleled in Blake’s contemporary writings” (Butlin 1981, 175). We can add, however, that he is paralleled in Blake’s contemporary paintings: once again, we have a ‘double–bond’. In this context it is perhaps not uninteresting to note that Blake’s illustration to Thomas Gray’s The Progress of Poesy shows Shakespeare in the figure of a child, whose gestures and facial expression vividly recall the babes in Pity and The Good and Evil Angels....  
"The Good and Evil Angels Struggling for Possession of a Child" Click picture to enlarge

The visual correspondences between the two paintings, Pity and The Good and Evil Angels, are not confined to the child. The figure on the left, commonly identified as Orc and representing the evil angel in the painting, gives the impression that were he not fettered, he would fly just like the creature facing away from us in Pity. This posture—flying with arms outstretched—is already familiar from the painting Satan Exulting Over Eve discussed before. Whether representing Orc or Satan, in the colour print series and elsewhere in Blake (16), this posture is consistently associated with evil forces. Therefore, it is perhaps not too bold to propose that the dark, unidentified figure behind the sympathetic cherub is a threatening presence rather than a Raphaelean angel, as is often suggested. (17) With the sinister figure representing evil, the painting Pity hints at the drama that is fully acted out in The Good and Evil Angels Struggling for Possession of a Child.


Before pursuing this argument further, let us examine a rather curious example of this figure flying with arms outstretched. It dates from 1826, just one year before Blake’s death, and in this example the figure represents none other than Blake himself. It appears in Blake’s autograph, entitled A Flying Figure of a Nude Man Holding a Scroll, dated 16 January, 1826, designed for a collection of autographs published by William Upcott in 1833. (18) Blake’s figure “holds a scroll enfolding the beginning of his inscription which runs: William Blake one who is very much delighted with being in good Company; Born 28 Novr 1757 in London & has died several times since” (Butlin 1981, 539). In the light of Blake’s practice in his oeuvre of consistently associating figures flying with outstretched arms and evil powers, the autograph is overtly ironical. Blake’s irony is directed both against himself and his company, that is, the other contributors to Upcott’s celebrity volume. But let us return to our principal subject, Blake’s Pity.  
"A Flying Figure of a Nude Man Holding a Scroll" Click picture to enlarge

The hypothesis that pity, the vulnerable new–born babe, is in the hands of both good and evil powers, ties in with Blake’s dualistic conception of pity. As the Songs of Innocence and of Experience demonstrate, pity may serve both divine and demonic purposes. Visually, the divine aspect is expressed in the triangle of bright figures in the painting—the cherub facing us, the babe, and the woman—while the demonic side is intimated by the dark cherub riding a dark horse.

Although it is possible that Blake derived the opposed riders from Macbeth’s lines expressing a divided vision, as Heppner suggests (Heppner 1995, 117), it is also conceivable that they evolved out of Blake’s own imaginative world. Thus the contrast between the two cherubs represents not only a divided response to human suffering in general (19), but also Blake’s divided response to pity.

The emblematic image of the divine and demonic powers on horseback opens up new dimensions in the interpretation of the painting as it takes us beyond both the Shakespearean and the Blakean perspective. Particularly germane to the illustration is a passage in Luther’s The Bondage of the Will:

So man’s will is like a beast standing between two riders. If God rides, it wills and goes where God wills [...] If Satan rides, it wills and goes where Satan wills. Nor may it choose to which rider it will run, or which it will seek; but the riders themselves fight to decide who shall have and hold it (Luther 2003, 104).

In Pity, the bright cherub facing us has thrown down the reins, while the dark horse in the background wills and goes where his rider wills. But instead of claiming that Blake illustrated Macbeth’s spectacular images, adopted (and adapted) Luther’s striking simile and expressed aspects of his own philosophy in one single painting, I would rather suggest that it is the exploration of contrary states of the soul (innocence and experience, salvation and damnation) that connects Luther, Shakespeare and Blake, and that this philosophical exploration, which accompanies questions of choice, the freedom and the bondage of the will, finds its metaphorical expression in images of riding. (20)

I started with the claim that Blake’s Pity owes as much to Blake as to Shakespeare. The preponderant Shakespearian interpretations can be counterbalanced by regarding all figures in the illustration as embodiments of Blake’s verbal and visual imagination. But this is not to say that Shakespeare’s text is just pre–text. Rather, the print is an ‘intertext’, (21) it is the site of interaction of Blake’s and Shakespeare’s vision. Moreover, as any ‘open’ work of art, (22) it may be enriched by texts beyond both the Shakespearean and Blakean perspectives, texts still waiting to be discovered.

Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Prof. Christoph Bode and Kathleen Rabl for their valuable comments on the manuscript.

Note on the illustrations: All illustrations are taken from Martin Butlin (ed.) The Paintings and Drawings of William Blake. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981.


Barthes, Roland. Über mich selbst. Transl. by Jürgen Hoch. München: Matthes&Seitz, 1978.

Bate, Jonathan. Shakespeare and the English Romantic Imagination. 1986. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989.

Bindman, David. Blake as an Artist. Oxford: Phaidon, 1977.

Bloom, Harold. Blake’s Apocalypse. London: Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1963.

Butlin, Martin (ed.). The Paintings and Drawings of William Blake. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981.

Clark, David L. “How to Do Things With Shakespeare: Illustrative Theory and Practice in Blake’s Pity.The Mind in Creation: Essays on English Romantic Literature in Honour of Ross G. Woodman. Ed. J. Douglas Kneale. Quebec: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1992.

Eco, Umberto. Das offene Kunstwerk. Transl. by Günter Memmert. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1973.

Erdman, David V. (ed.). The Complete Poetry & Prose of William Blake. New York: Doubleday, 1988.

Gilchrist, Alexander. Life of William Blake. London: Macmillan, 1863.

Glen, Heather. Vision and Disenchantment: Blake’s Songs and Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Hazlitt, William. The Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays. 1817. London: Oxford University Press, 1962.

Heppner, Christopher. Reading Blake’s Designs. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Hirsch, E.D. Innocence and Experience: An Introduction to Blake. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1964.

Luther, Martin. The Bondage of the Will. Transl. by J.I. Packer and O.R. Johnston. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Revell, 2003.

Shakespeare, William. Macbeth.Ed. Kenneth Muir. (1951). London: Thomson Learning, 2001.

Spangenberg, Heidemarie. Illustrationen zu Shakespeares Macbeth. PhD thesis, Philipps-Universität, Marburg, 1967.


  1. Hazlitt’s remark is for instance the motto of David L. Clark’s essay on Blake’s Pity in which special emphasis is given to the disruptive implications of literal illustration (Clark 1992, 106). (zurück)
  2. All Macbeth quotations in this essay are from the Arden edition (ed. Kenneth Muir, 1951). (zurück)
  3. In this essay, the terms print and painting are used interchangeably, since Blake’s technique in the 1795 series was a combination of the two procedures, as the explanation that Frederick Tatham’s gave D.G. Rossetti makes clear: “Blake, when he wanted to make his prints in oil, took a common thick millboard, and drew in some strong ink or colour his design upon it strong and thick. He then painted upon that in such oil colours and in such a state of fusion that they would blur well. He painted roughly and quickly, so that no colour would have time to dry. He then took a print of that on paper, and this impression he coloured up in water colours, re–painting his outline on the millboard when he wanted to take another print” (quoted in Butlin 1981, 156). (zurück)
  4. Macbeth speaks of the embodiment of the imagination as he considers the possibility that the dagger he sees before him is a “dagger of the mind, a false creation, / Proceeding from the heat–oppressed brain” (2.1.38–39), and once again as he concludes that “There’s no such thing. / It is the bloody business which informs / Thus to mine eyes (2.1.47–49). (zurück)
  5. Jonathan Bate notes that in his illustrations, Blake returned again and again to Macbeth and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Bate 1989, 124). (zurück)
  6. “It seems likely”, as Butlin wrote on the meaning of the series of Blake’s colour plates as a whole, “that Blake is drawing indiscriminately on a number of sources to find images to express various aspects of his own universal philosophy” (Butlin, 1981, 157). (zurück)
  7. All Blake quotations are taken from The Complete Prose and Poetry of William Blake, edited by David V. Erdman (1988). (zurück)
  8. “who commanded this? what God? what Angel!
    To keep the gen’rous from experience till the ungenerous
    Are unrestrained performers of the energies of nature;
    Till pity is become a trade, and generosity a science,
    That men get rich by, & the sandy desart is giv’n to the strong
    What God is he, writes laws of peace, & clothes him in a tempest
    What pitying Angel lusts for tears, and fans himself with sighs...” (America, A Prophecy, Plate 11, 7-14.) (zurück)
  9. Cf. Hirsch 1964, 191 and Bloom 1963, 142. (zurück)
  10. Cf. Glen 1983, 218-19 and Bate 1989, 139. (zurück)
  11. Macbeth’s primary concern in this monologue is that the assassination is not an isolated event: it is a deed pregnant with consequences. Like pity in Blake, it can be conceived of only in relation, in relation to its aftermath: “if th’ assassination / Could trammel up the consequence, and catch / With his surcease success; that but this blow / Might be the be–all and the end–all (1.7.2–5). (zurück)
  12. The pencil sketches, at present in the British Museum, are reprinted in Butlin 1981. (zurück)
  13. Cf. Bindman 1977, 99. (zurück)
  14. Bindman 1977. (zurück)
  15. Although Pity is thought to be the companion piece to Hecate in Blake’s colour plate series (Butlin 1981, 168), I believe that the above parallels link the painting more organically to Satan Exulting Over Eve. For a good refutation of the pairing of Hecate with Pity, see also Heppner 1995, 120-121. (zurück)
  16. Cf. War Unchained by an Angel, Fire Pestilence and Famine Following, c.1780. (zurück)
  17. Cf. Clark 1992, 116. (zurück)
  18. Cf. Butlin 1981, 539. (zurück)
  19. Cf. Heppner 1995, 117. (zurück)
  20. That souls and horses were closely associated in Blake’s imagination after 1795 is suggested by a passage from The Four Zoas.
    Then Urizen commanded & they brought the Seed of Men
    The trembling souls of All the Dead stood before Urizen
    Weak wailing in the troubled air East west & north & south
    He turnd the horses loose & laid his Plow in the northern corner
    Of the wide Universal field. (IX 316-320) (zurück)
  21. Cf. Barthes:1978, 78. (zurück)
  22. Cf. Eco 1973. (zurück)

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