Mariana by John Everett Millais, 1851


This evocative oil painting by John Everett Millais (1829–1896) depicts Mariana – a woman isolated in a remote farmhouse, waiting for her lover. Like other Pre-Raphaelite artists, Millais drew inspiration from earlier works of literature, particularly those with a focus on female beauty and sexual yearning. This painting was based on a poem called ‘Mariana in the Moated Grange’ written in 1830 by Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809–1892), which in turn was inspired by the ‘dejected Mariana’ who lives ‘at the moated grange’ in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure (3.1.264–65).

In Shakespeare’s play, Mariana is betrothed to the ‘well-seeming Angelo’ (3.1.223), but he has abandoned her because her dowry was lost at sea along with her shipwrecked brother. Angelo’s ‘unjust unkindness’ should have ‘quench’d her love’, but instead made it ‘more violent’ (3.1.240–43).

Tennyson and Millais’s Mariana

Both Tennyson and Millais portray Mariana suspended in a state of longing. The autumn leaves in Millais’s painting symbolise the passage of time, as Mariana pauses in her embroidery of the garden outside her window. The stained-glass shows the Virgin Mary receiving Gabriel’s news that she will conceive the baby Jesus, perhaps to contrast with Mariana’s futile wait for her disloyal lover. This profound sense of stasis and unrealised potential is conveyed in the haunting refrain of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem:

She only said, ‘My life is dreary,
He cometh not,’ she said;
She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!’

Tennyson later returned to the theme in another poem, ‘Mariana in the South’ (1832).

Shakespeare’s Mariana and the bed-trick

In Shakespeare’s play, Mariana is released from her wait by a disconcerting plot-twist. Her fiancé Angelo is now deputy to the Duke, and he has condemned a young man, Claudio, to death for getting his girlfriend pregnant. Angelo makes a bargain to save the young man’s life if Claudio’s sister, Isabella, has sex with him. But Mariana is persuaded to take Isabella’s place in this sexual encounter. When all is revealed, the Duke forces Angelo to marry Mariana and then threatens to put him to death. As a widow, she would inherit Angelo’s property, but instead she pleads for her new husband’s life and the Duke grants him mercy.

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Mariana, 185, Sir John Everett Millais (1829–1896). © Tate, London 2016

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