Sunday, March 15, 2009

Shakespeare Portrait?

Since my last few posts have included discussion of the Tudors and a discovered portrait of Leonardo da Vinci, it seems rather timely that earlier this week the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust released to the public what they contend is an official portrait of William Shakespeare (left). It's been given the name the Cobbe portrait because it has been owned by the Cobbe family since the 18th century. However, its original provenance was in the collection of Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, who was Shakespeare's most important patron. It is also worth noting that, despite his marriage to Anne Hathaway (not the actress), some scholars argue that Southampton and Shakespeare were lovers, citing the bard's sonnets which convey male-male sentiments of love and may have been written to Southampton.

The search for portraits of Shakespeare has been something people have spent much time debating over. There is, in fact, an excellent page on Wikipedia called "Portraits of Shakespeare" that shows you what many of them look like, including the most recent Cobbe portrait. But much like the situation with Leonardo da Vinci, I find myself wondering what all the hullabaloo is about. Why should we care what he looks like? I mean, it's interesting to know, but do we need to know him physically in order to understand his writings? Do we need to know what Leonardo da Vinci looked like to appreciate his paintings and drawings? Not really. That said, it is fun to speculate on all of this. Now, I am not an expert on the Northern Renaissance, so I can only cite what I've picked up from others, but one of the things I've read is that Elizabethan portraiture was meant to idealize the sitters and not portray them as they actually looked. Charlotte Higgins from the Guardian newspaper also has pointed out other reasons to doubt this is an actual portrait of Shakespeare. For instance, the Cobbe portrait is supposed to resemble the Janssen Portrait, but apparently that was repainted at a later date so as to make the subject look like Shakespeare. As Higgins points out then, "What we are essentially left with ... is a portrait of just about the right period of a fellow with roughly the right kind of hairdo."

So we're back to square one. Is it Shakespeare? Professor Stanley Wells, Chairman of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, believes so, and has made it the center of an exhibition called Shakespeare Found: A Life Portrait. Is it cool to think it might be? Absolutely! Does it make a difference about how we appreciate Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and The Tempest? No. What does interest me, however, is the news coverage over the find. Articles have appeared in numerous newspapers across Europe and America. Then there are all the subsequent naysayers, many of whom are associated with newspapers as well (see Verlyn Klinkenborg's op ed piece in The New York Times, for instance). Comparatively speaking, the Leonardo portrait barely got even an ounce of the same amount of coverage! What does that say about art and literature? Is there an assumption people are more interested in Shakespeare than Leonardo? If so, why? I think there may be something to be said that people believe literature--even written in poetic Shakespearean language--is more approachable than visual art. Indeed, how many out there have read Shakespeare as compared to studying paintings by Leonardo? It seems like something to think about...

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