Fascination with the life and times of William Shakespeare abounded in the Victorian world, especially in London, where American artist Edwin Austin Abbey settled permanently in 1883. The Bard's writings provided lifelong inspiration for Abbey: as a teenage writer, he used a pen name from Hamlet; from the age of 20 he illustrated hundreds of Shakespearean subjects for magazines; and in the 1890s he painted seven large Shakespearean scenes, including this canvas, which he exhibited at London's Royal Academy.
The theme of this painting is drawn from Shakespeare's Two Gentlemen of Verona. The title "Who is Sylvia? What Is She, That All the Swains Commend Her?" is the opening question in a song composed by Proteus, one of the many suitors (or swains) of Sylvia, the Duke of Milan's stunning daughter. All heads turn toward the regal beauty as she lifts the skirts of her Italian Renaissance-style gown while descending a brilliantly carpeted staircase. Each admirer gazes at her and reaches to play an instrument or to offer her a love token. The figure at far left presents a luxurious feather fan; the next man a small dog; and the figure leaning against the column bows in devotion, holding his hat in one hand and a book of poetry in the other.