Where’s Shakespeare?

Rape Of Lucrece, by J. Ber (1724). The watercolor is so delicate, the exhibit displays a reproduction.  Source: Folger Shakespeare Library.

“Painting Shakespeare,” the current exhibit at the  Folger Shakespeare Library,  includes some amazing paintings of scenes from Shakespeare.  My favorite: Rape of Lucrece by the 18th century French artist, J. Ber. The smallest painting in this not-to-be-missed exhibit, J. Ber’s wonderful composition of color shines like a stained glass window.

“Painting Shakespeare” runs until February 11, 2018.

The exhibit also displays several paintings of Shakespeare himself. But there’s one problem: none of them are thought definitively to be him. According to one of the exhibit’s information plaques:

The Zuccaro Shakespeare. Source: Folger Shakespeare Library.

“Only two portraits of Shakespeare are widely accepted as genuine likenesses: the engraving on the title page of the First Folio . . . and the sculpture on his memorial in Holy Trinity Church at Stratford-upon-Avon. Both are undeniably dull, making contenders such as [the Zuccaro Shakespeare, shown here at the left] an attractive alternative . . . [W]e now know the artist was not Frederico Zuccaro (1540/41-1609), and the sitter was not Shakespeare. Someone in the 18th century painted a heavy moustache, pointy beard, and small earring, and the inscription ‘William Shakespeare’ to disguise a now-unknown man. Conservation treatment in 1988 restored the painting to its original look.”

So, no painting of Shakespeare we’re sure is him? Now, that’s curious.

We have genuine paintings of a whole slew of 16th and 17th century English poets and playwrights—such as Ben Johnson, John Fletcher, Michael Drayton, Philip Sidney, John Donne, and Christopher Marlowe—but none of the greatest of them all. Zounds! Why not? Where’s Shakespeare?

It’s a question “Painting Shakespeare” doesn’t answer. But wait! Maybe the Folger does have a true portrait of Shakespeare after all. It’s called The Ashbourne Portrait and it hangs in the Founders’ Room at the library. I once saw it on a tour.

The Ashbourne Portrait. Is it Shakespeare? It might be.

The three-quarter length portrait of an Elizabethan man in high ruff, his fingers gently clasping a book, his wrist supported by a skull, was discovered in 1847 in Ashbourne, Derbyshire and identified as Shakespeare. The Folger acquired the painting in 1931 and displayed it as a portrait of the Bard, despite analysis showing that the picture had been overpainted to look like the Droeshout engraving of Shakespeare that appears in the First Folio.

Left: Ashbourne Portrait. Right: Droeshout engraving.

Most notably, the hairline had been raised to make the Ashbourne sitter look significantly more bald. One can still see the shadow of his overpainted hair.

You decide: does the face in the Ashbourne Portrait (center) more resemble Edward de Vere (on left) or Hugh Hamersley (on right)?

In 1940, an infra-red photographic analysis of the Ashbourne Portrait confirmed that the portrait had been altered in several ways and supported a conclusion that the sitter was Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. For the Folger, this wasn’t good news: Edward de Vere is the top alternative candidate for the man who wrote Shakespeare.

Over the next thirty-nine years a series of controversial events (including a lawsuit) led to the Folger’s announcement, in 1979, that the Ashbourne Portrait was neither Shakespeare nor Edward de Vere . . . but Sir Hugh Hamersley, who was the Mayor of London in 1627!

The Ashbourne Portrait has a fascinating story behind it (and, apparently, on top of it, thanks to to the overpainting) so it’s a shame it’s not part of the current exhibit. But the Folger’s decision to keep it out of sight is understandable. The Shakespeare Authorship Question can spark contentious debate—take a look at the one Alexander Waugh and Sir Jonathan Bate just had—and I imagine the Folger, realizing this, deemed it too controversial (even risky) to place the portrait in public view.

Moreover, the Shakespeare Authorship Question is not what “Painting Shakespeare” is about. Indeed, as far as I know, the Folger has never presented a program or exhibit about the authorship issue. Perhaps it should.

2 thoughts on “Where’s Shakespeare?

  1. Since Stanley Wells and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust identified the Cobbe portrait as definitively Shakespeare in 2009, on what can only be described as dubious grounds, it has become the standard representation of him on many websites, posters, articles and the internet, invariably with no indication as to its provenance or authenticity. There seems to have been a deliberate policy to present Shakespeare as a well-to-do and wealthy man of significant status, not to say as a remarkably handsome chap, in his later years.

    Since this particular image is currently dominant in the representation of Shakespeare, the known representations of him (the Droeshout engraving; the Trinity Church monument) are being marginalised, while other possible representations, such as the Chandos portrait (containing the date 1588 and the age of the sitter as 24, making his birth year 1564), are now virtually entirely neglected.

    Shakespeare is always political. Each age reinvents him in their own image and rewrites his history so that it conveniently fits with whatever those in control of the industry want people to believe. Since US academia and business now own the vast majority of actual Shakespeare-related materials, such as the first folios, and are major players in key Shakespeare institutions in the UK (The Birthplace Trust; The Globe), it is inevitable that the image projected of Shakespeare matches how they want him to be portrayed, as the man of modest means becoming the brilliant cultural entrepreneur made good.

    Shakespeare’s image has been appropriated and manipulated in one way or another since the Restoration, literally and metaphorically. It is up to contemporary academics, critics and audiences to draw attention to the implications and outcomes of such manipulation, which inevitably involve the suppression of material and information that doesn’t fit with the dominant narrative. This is not a matter of somehow reclaiming the ‘true’ Shakespeare but of applying historiographic and critical perspectives to analyse, challenge and deconstruct the apparent givens related to Shakespeare today, sold to the world as fundamental truths with little or no evidence to confirm their veracity.

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