Near the end of Henry IV, Part I Shakespeare gives the otherwise negligible Vernon his moment of glory when he puts into his mouth a dazzlingly poetic description of the royalist forces: they are like estridges, eagles, goats and bulls, the month of May and the midsummer sun. Young prince Harry does nothing as prosaic as mounting his horse. He rises from the ground like feathered Mercury and drops like an angel from the clouds on to a fiery Pegasus. How would you paint that?
William Blake had an answer. If Milton had loved him in childhood, ‘Shakespear in riper years gave me his hand’, Blake claimed. Of the many remarkable visual images analysed by Stuart Sillars in his study of the great age of Shakespearean painting, none is more astonishing than Blake’s ‘Fiery Pegasus’. A radiant sun, a cliff edge, a horse poised to jump, a beautiful soaring male nude, and above them, more puzzlingly, a female figure stretched out on a cloud and serenely reading a big book. (This is the ‘mythic history’, Sillars suggests, into which Vernon’s speech has already turned the young Prince.) Another magnificent horse appears in Blake’s no less extraordinary response to Macbeth’s famous lines about ‘pity, like a naked new-born babe, / Striding the blast, or heaven’s cherubin hors’d / Upon the sightless couriers of the air’. But the horse in this painting (in fact one of a pair or more) is more akin to those of the apocalypse. Blake’s visual imagination is not in thrall to Shakespeare’s words nor seeking simply to translate them. It has been unbridled and spurred into new creation of its own.