Wednesday, March 18, 2009

To Be (Shakespeare) or Not To Be?

That "portrait of Shakespeare" much ballyhooed last week may not be of the Bard at all, as many have suggested from the beginning. Today in the TLS, Shakespeare editor and biographer Katherine Duncan-Jones pours several gallons of cold water on Stanley Wells' identification of the "Cobbe Portrait" as Shakespeare.

Duncan-Jones calls the portrait "a splendid painting, whose sparkling colours have benefited from recent restoration." She suggests that the "italic inscription at the top of the picture, 'Principum Amicitias!' – 'the leagues of princes!' – appears too large in scale, as well as highly unusual in its deployment of an exclamation mark, and was perhaps added later." "It might have been helpful to examine the picture’s reverse for further inscriptions or telling marks," she suggests, "but at the preview the back was veiled with a brown paper screen." Finally, she believes that the man in the portrait is just "far too grand and courtier-like" to be Shakespeare: "When players dressed above their rank offstage, it tended to get them into trouble. It is hard to believe that Shakespeare would have been rash enough to permit himself to be portrayed in such grand array."

This refutation also makes a very good point about the copies made from this work: "all four versions on panel appear to have originated in the period 1610–20, while a fifth, a copy on canvas, is dated to c1630. It would seem that the subject was a man of huge interest in the Jacobean period, such that several noblemen wanted to possess a good copy of his image, but later ceased to be so. If knowledgeable contemporaries believed this to be an authentic image of 'Sweet Master Shakespeare', would there not have been a market for many further copies or engravings after Shakespeare’s literary re-birth in 1623, when the First Folio was published?"

Duncan-Jones also suggests that we must take seriously the views of National Portrait Gallery curator Dr. Tarnya Cooper and by David Piper that the Cobbe Portrait may actually be courtier Thomas Overbury, rather than Shakespeare (and I have to say it does bear a positively striking resemblance to the known original Overbury portrait, now at the Bodleian - image here, at the top of the page).

The case for Overbury seems to me to be just as good, if not better, as that for Shakespeare. Both are circumstantial, but if I had to make a call, I think Duncan-Jones has the stronger argument.

But the new Shakespeare attributions don't end there. The Telegraph reported yesterday that a new book suggests Shakespeare wrote six additional works than are usually credited to him. In Enter Pursued by a Bear, independent scholar (and psychotherapist) John Casson believes he's found Shakespeare's earliest published poem, his first comedy, and two early tragedies. Reaction to those suggestions is, I'm sure, forthcoming.

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