American Treasures of the Library of Congress: Memory, Exhibit Object Focus

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Father and Son from Hamlet

Polonius's Charge to Laertes, 1957
Bernard Brussel-Smith (1914-1989)
Polonius's Charge to Laertes, 1957
Color wood engraving
Prints & Photographs Division
Courtesy of Peter Brussel-Smith (2)

Bernard Brussel-Smith studied art at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia and the New School for Social Research in New York. During the 1940s and 1950s, Brussel-Smith established himself as America's foremost wood engraver. In this scene from Hamlet, Polonius, chief minister of the evil King Claudius, gives advice to his son, Laertes, as the young man leaves for school in France. Using himself and his son Peter as the models, Brussel-Smith depicts the love between father and son through a series of broadening circles. According to the folder in which the woodcut is enclosed, "The many hot and cold colors reflect the changing states of a man's mind. The long passageway and steps to the right of Polonius suggest the years of experience, knowledge, and wisdom that man accumulates through the days of his life. In back of Laertes, the Gothic-like portal with its bright light points the way to roads yet untraveled that each youth must take during his own life." Brussel-Smith's assessment of Polonius differs from that of Hamlet, who mocks Polonius as a "tedious old fool." Hamlet and Laertes die in a duel when Laertes's seeks revenge for Hamlet's killing of Polonius, whom he mistakes for the king spying on him from behind a curtain.

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