Tuesday, March 10, 2009

No dejected havior in this visage

Apparently a contemporary portrait of William Shakespeare, the first of its kind, has come to light, having sat in a private collection for 300 years. The few likenesses of Shakespeare we have were created after his death; this portrait is thought to have been the original from which the Folio picture is derived.

I'm still not sure how to react to it. There certainly is a resemblance between the two portraits. That it may have come from Southampton would in my mind strongly support its authenticity, given his patronage of Shakespeare. The outfit is quite fancy, but let us not forget Shakespeare was a very successful stakeholder in the Globe, and his family was able to afford a coat of arms in 1596. Dismissing its possible inaccuracy due to a tendency to idealize the subject of a painting during the Elizabethan era is silly; by that logic, what good are any portraits from that time period?

But this is hardly a game-changer if it is authentic. We don't know who commissioned it, and it is still, only a painting. Stratford would have us think it offers new insights into Shakespeare's purported bisexuality, but then again they would say that, wouldn't they? Their industry depends on continuous scholarly and popular interest in Shakespeare, regardless of whether or not there is any new information to have actually been unearthed. Bill Bryson has a refreshingly brief survey of how little we actually do know about the man, which made for a much-needed antidote the inflated (self-)importance and deification I saw in Stratford. Given how Shakespeare has been so Disneyfied by his town of birth, I lean towards caution rather than further bombast.

We have a better picture of who the man was, but it is a picture all the same.

EDIT: I will add, though, this is a considerably more dashing rendition than the Chandor portrait, and also turns his beard red.

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