The Playgoer: Do We Really Have to Know What Shakespeare Looked Like?

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Monday, March 09, 2009

Do We Really Have to Know What Shakespeare Looked Like?

Well in case you were wondering, here's William Shakespeare:

Not what you expected? Well tell that to Stanley Wells, as eminent a Shakespearean as there is. And he has concluded that this is the Bard at about age 46, in or around 1610--which would be near the end of his playwriting career. (And 6 years before his death.)

No, I am not about to go off on another "Stratfordian" rant of mine. Since this is hardly relevant to authorship.

Still, we cannot but take note that Stanley Wells says this is the real deal. He's not one to skimp on the evidence:

The newly discovered picture has descended for centuries in the same family, the Cobbes. It hung in their Irish home, under another identification, until the 1980s, when it was inherited by Alec Cobbe who was a co-heir of the Cobbe estate and whose heirlooms were transferred into a trust. In 2006 Alec Cobbe visited the National Portrait Gallery exhibition ‘Searching for Shakespeare’ where he saw a painting that now hangs in the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington. It had been accepted as a life portrait of Shakespeare until some 70 years ago, but fell from grace when it was found to have been altered. Mr Cobbe immediately realised that this was a copy of the painting in his family collection.

The painstaking work of researching the picture has been carried out over the last three years by Mark Broch, curator of the Cobbe Collection. The research conclusively demonstrates that the Cobbe picture is the prime version of the portrait and establishes beyond reasonable doubt its descent to the Cobbes through their cousin’s marriage to the great granddaughter of Shakespeare’s only literary patron, Henry Wriothesley, the 3rd Earl of Southampton. In addition to the Folger copy, several other early copies of the Cobbe portrait have been located and no less than three of them have independent traditions as portraits of Shakespeare. In two cases the traditions date back to within living memory of the poet—providing compelling evidence that the identification of the sitter as Shakespeare was correct all along. The conclusion that the sitter is Shakespeare is strengthened by the fact that the original picture, the Cobbe portrait, was inscribed with a quotation from the Classical writer, Horace, taken from an ode addressed to a playwright.
Plus the carbon dating has brought the work within the timeframe of possibility as well.

What's odd about the link to that Folger Collection "fake" (known as "The Janssen Portrait") is that according to Folger's own curator, the only thing that has made the Janssen historically notable is that it's a rare contemporaneous painting (also dated c.1610) that was altered to look like Shakespeare.

So if Prof. Wells and Mr. Cobbe are correct, the Janssen portrait is a contemporaneous copy of a painting originally of Shakespeare, which was then doctored to look...more like Shakespeare? What am I missing here?

Here's the three variations side by side. First, a very poor photo (sorry) of the "baldy" Janssen (yes, that's how they tried to make him more "Shakespearean") as it appeared before the Folger's restoration:

Here's what I'll call the Restored-Hairline Janssen as it hangs today in the Folger:

And, last, here's the new Cobbe portrait once again.

All I know is I still prefer the ol' "Chandos" picture.

Truth be damned--he just looks so much cooler here! Not just the famous earing, but the casual modest clothes, all black, of course, like a true Elizabethan-bohemian, no doubt.

The Cobbe is way too Joseph Fiennes, if you know what I mean. Too pretty boy. Not to mention gawdy in that frilly collar and flashy constricting doublet. Perhaps Stephen Greenblatt--who paints Will as a kind of social climber in his Will in the World--might see such desperation to appear noble all too fitting. But to me that just looks like a writer who's sold out, man!

Plus the guy in the Folio engraving and the bust at the Stratford Trinity Church grave is on the pudgy side, if I may say. So Chandos gets points there, too--especially for a successful retiring scribe of 46!

I stared at the Chandos in the London National Portrait Gallery once for like an hour and I swear the man was speaking to me.

And not to get all phrenological/19th century racial science on you all, but I like to think there's also something a bit Jewy about the overbite. (Not to mention that hint of a sly smirk.) It's not just me: this "semitic" or "oriental" vibe apparently dismayed the establishment back in the day, who intially ruled it out as ill befitting the Bard. Nonsense of course, but for me, wishful thinking: I just like to think he's one of us.

Then again, some people think Shakespeare was a Jewish woman.

See how silly this all gets...

PS. Here's some video of the unveiling today...

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R/T said...

To follow the furor over the portrait is to witness bardolatry at his most absurd. Except for remaining focused on the plays and poetry (and Shakespeare's cultural contexts), I cannot get too enthused about anything else pertaining to Shakespeare himself (which is almost always wildly speculative, lightly entertaining, and thoroughly unproductive).

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the informative post. I am fascinated by contemporary attempts to make sense of history. Since it's impossible to objectively recreate history, we can learn a lot about what we want to believe. The plays themselves, fortunately, stand on their own.