The subject of this large narrative painting comes from Shakespeare's Henry VI: Part II, act 2, scene 4. Eleanor, having vainly urged her husband, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, the Lord Protector, to usurp the throne of England, has committed the treasonable offense of consulting sorcerers about the length of the king's life. She has been sentenced to three days' public penance walking barefoot through the streets of London. Eleanor stands in the center of the picture clad in a white sheet; soldiers restrain the menacing crowd. Eleanor turns her head to her husband, who stands beside members of his entourage dressed in mourning cloaks, and says to him:
Come you, my lord, to see my
Now thou dost penance too. Look how they gaze!
See how the giddy multitude
And nod their heads, and throw their eyes on thee!
Ah, Gloucester, hide thee from their hateful looks,
And, in thy closet pent up, rue my shame,
And ban thine enemies, both mine and thine!
Abbey's interpretation of the Shakespearean environment as tense and hallucinatory had appeared in earlier canvases and later in his pen illustrations of Shakespeare's plays that were published in Harper's Monthly between 1902 and 1905.
The painting's shallow, crowded frieze of monumental figures is typical of Abbey's work of the late 1890s and reflects both medieval and English Pre-Raphaelite prototypes. Large areas of black, white, and red dominate the canvas in accordance with the artist's belief that these were the basic colors used by all great painters. His preference for this palette surely also derived from the boldness and coherence it gave to his paintings.