What’s in a face?

What’s in a name?

–Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

The less clear we are about “who wrote Shakespeare”, the more “Shakespeare” can be idealized and indeed idolized. … Just as “man bites dog” is a more eye-catching headline than “dog bites man”, so “Oxford is Shakespeare” makes a better story than “Shakespeare is Shakespeare”–at least in some quarters. The brouhaha about any portrait is beside the point if the subject of the portrait didn’t write the plays.

–Marjorie Garber, “Looking the Part” (in Shakespeare’s Face, 2002)

It all began in the spring of 2001. Stephanie Nolen, a young reporter for the Toronto-based Globe and Mail, was chatting on the phone with her mother. Seems the parents’ up-the-street neighbor in a suburb of Ottawa, Lloyd Sullivan, was the proud heir to the only oil portrait of William Shakespeare painted in the Bard’s lifetime. The modest-sized likeness, dated 1603, was rendered on oak board by one John Sanders, Lloyd Sullivan’s distant ancestor. Sullivan had gone to a lot of trouble to trace the painting (which had spent many years under his invalid grandmother’s bed in Montreal!) to its source. He had spent ten years and thousands of dollars to have it authenticated by the best experts in the field, and now he was finally ready to make it public. Nolen, captivated from the first moment she laid eyes on “Willy Shake”, as Sullivan had dubbed the picture, was more than happy to break the news to the world. And everyone who heard the story was agog.

Why such a fuss over a little old oil painting?


Well, aside from the subject matter, there is the fact that only two undisputed images of Shakespeare exist, neither of them very distinguished. One was a rather clumsily executed engraving by Martin Droeshout, which appeared on the front of the First Folio of Shakespeare’s collected works shortly after his death. The other was his tomb effigy, for which he’d posed some months before his death. In the case of both likenesses, his friends attested that they were accurate in their lineaments. But both lack character, and so give us no clues as to what kind of a man Shakespeare was. And indeed, the bust on the tomb is curiously lifeless; it shows the familiar, bald-domed Bard in a plain white collar, red doublet and black leather jerkin, with a quill pen in his right hand and a piece of parchment under his left. But there is no expression; the eyes just stare blankly into space, not engaging the viewer. Likewise, the Droeshout engraving gives us no clues as to the personality of the man; it just stares blankly out at us. There is nothing in either one to help us understand how Shakespeare lived, breathed–and above all, wrote.

Both are clearly of the same man, however, and their authenticity is beyond doubt, so they must serve as a starting point, however cold and dull, for the odyssey that follows.

The Sanders portrait, by contrast, brims with life. The sitter is 39 years old, if the date given is true and if indeed it is Shakespeare. Certainly he looks it; his hairline is receding, with a pronounced widow’s peak, though he is not yet fully bald in front as in the Droeshout engraving and the tomb effigy (both of which were made later). There are soft hints of laugh lines around the blue-grey eyes, which twinkle with subtle merriment. The small mouth turns up in a gentle smile, as though he were just about to share a cracking good tale (and probably quite a bawdy one) with the viewer. “It was a rogue’s face, a charmer’s face that looked back at me with a tolerant, mischievous, slightly world-weary air,” Nolen writes. “There was nothing austere or haughty about him, nothing of the great man being painted for posterity.” Yet, as the book goes on to unravel in great detail, with biographical and technical notes along the way from several experts, this wonderfully expressive face certainly seems to be that of William Shakespeare–painted as an up-and-comer who had already made a considerable mark on his world, and who would go on to greater things still before his 52 years were up.

The book also cuts through the briarpatch of false mystique that has grown up around the man and his works over the years. Yet, even in demystifying Shakespeare, it doesn’t rob us of our wonderment and delight in his art; on the contrary, it deepens our appreciation. We learn just enough about him to get a real feel for how he thought, what true-life undercurrents shaped his poems and plays. And this is necessary–not only to force us to finally stop swallowing any more horseshit that “Shakespeare wasn’t really Shakespeare, he was X in disguise”, but also to help us get behind the often ornate language that, for far too many students nowadays, poses a barrier. How dreadful it would be if that barrier remained unbreached; Shakespeare certainly didn’t write exclusively for upper-class snobs. He wrote for everyone. The humbler characters who provided the “comic relief” in so many of his plays speak not in noble iambic pentameter, but in the prose of ordinary English, sometimes even the slang of their day. They helped to bring it all down to earth for the “groundlings” at the Globe Theatre. As Nolen asserts at the very beginning of her book, “Shakespeare knew us.” Indeed he did–he knew everyone, from aristocrats like the lordling who was his earliest patron (Henry Wriothesley, the third Earl of Southampton–and likeliest contender for the title of the “fair youth” to whom many of the sonnets were written), to royalty like King James I (who made Shakespeare an unpaid courtier in the same year the Sanders portrait was painted, a major coup for a social climber of the day) to the ordinary working folk from whose stock he was, in fact, descended (he was the son of a glover and probably worked in leathers himself during a lull in his artistic career). And he was equally skilled at rendering all of them, and making them so lifelike that they still speak to us today, long after the other “greats” of his age have ceased to captivate anyone but scholars and hardcore fans of Renaissance English literature–both of whom are rare birds; the latter, virtually an endangered species. It was Shakespeare’s wonderful elasticity of language that inspired Anthony Burgess to create his unforgettable Alex, antihero of A Clockwork Orange, as a punk with a poet’s flair. No, Shakespeare doesn’t need any more ennoblers; he needs humanizers. It would therefore be a tragedy if someone did not give us a lifelike portrait of him–someone who truly knew the man who knew us all.

Happily, it turns out that the mysterious John Sanders might just be that someone. While the other pretenders to the Bard’s mantle all seem to have tripped and fallen over that “ennobling” impulse, Sanders, by resisting it, has succeeded in giving us what the others could not: a fully human image of Shakespeare the man. All that the other “portraits of Shakespeare” have in common, besides their reliance on the basic template of the Droeshout engraving, is a preternatural solemnity that attempts to romanticize Shakespeare, but succeeds only in rendering him dreadfully gloomy and ultimately banal. Yet another “noble” Bard–how boring! Alas, poor Yorick–he’s a fake, Horatio. Many an “authentic Shakespeare by a great master” has been unmasked as either an anachronism, or a forgery, or both. One of them turns out to be a reworked image of a Lord Mayor of London (the overpainting was eventually stripped away to reveal his coat of arms, and his true identity); others show unknown men (and in one case, a nameless boy) in attire too rich for Shakespeare’s social status at the time. The devil, it turns out, really is in the details; you have to know something about the costume and portraiture of the day if you’re to spot the difference between the real Willy Shake and a slew of Great Pretenders.

The Shakespeare of the Sanders painting wears a dark doublet with silver threads running through it. His collar is not the starched, lacy ruff of the Elizabethan era, but the simpler flat collar of the Jacobean, with three darts on either side to give it the characteristic, slightly flared shape that we also see, albeit much more stiffly rendered, in the Droeshout engraving. This lends accuracy in point of both social status, and the date on the portrait. The silver threads are appropriate to one like Shakespeare, who was recently elevated to the rank of courtier (but not nobleman; nobles were entitled to richer fabrics still, including cloth of gold); the collar is in keeping with the fashions of the year 1603, when King James I succeeded the late Queen Elizabeth I. Some speculate that the difference in execution between the head and the clothing means that the portrait had two painters, but I humbly submit that this textural disparity is due to nothing more than the difference between flesh and cloth! (A secondary consideration, but still worth noting, is that the likely artist was the sitter’s friend, and so this portrait was taken not as a commissioned show of status on Shakespeare’s part but, in the words of an inscription on another portrait of the age, “to please my frende and not my selfe.” In other words: since this portrait was probably a keepsake, the costume wasn’t the point; the face was, and so more attention naturally would have been dedicated to it than to the much more quickly rendered garments.)

All the signs, to my mind, point to the portrait being one of Shakespeare. The one thing the book doesn’t do, alas, is definitely tell us that it IS Shakespeare. All the experts back away from that notion at the end, which
is disappointing but predictable. After all, they are scholars with hard-won reputations to uphold; how would it look if they blew it all to endorse a portrait which, while definitely of the era and definitely showing a man who could so easily have been Shakespeare, turns out not to be him? What if it’s some other player from the same company that Shakespeare and Sanders both performed in? What if it’s not even that, but just a well-executed picture of a charming rogue who shall henceforth remain forever nameless?

Well, not being a Shakespeare scholar with a reputation to uphold, I will say what they won’t: I think it really is him. The clothes, the hair, the face, the expression–they all tally with his biographical details and the milieus he moved in. This man would probably get a kick out of hearing his likeness dubbed “Willy Shake”; knowing Shakespeare, he’d probably have a good half-dozen naughty witticisms lined up and ready to go. He was, after all, the man who wrote this:

WHOEVER hath her wish, thou hast thy ‘Will,’

And ‘Will’ to boot, and ‘Will’ in over-plus;

More than enough am I that vex’d thee still,

To thy sweet will making addition thus.

Wilt thou, whose will is large and spacious,

Not once vouchsafe to hide my will in thine?

Shall will in others seem right gracious,

And in my will no fair acceptance shine?

The sea, all water, yet receives rain still,

And in abundance addeth to his store;

So thou, being rich in ‘Will,’ add to thy ‘Will’

One will of mine, to make thy large will more.

Let no unkind ‘No’ fair beseechers kill;

Think all but one, and me in that one ‘Will.’

(Sonnet CXXXV)

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail
This entry was posted in Artsy-Fartsy Culture Stuff, Canadian Counterpunch. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to What’s in a face?

  1. Sabina,
    I had an opportunity on March 3rd to view Anne Henderson’s new documentary “Battle of Wills”, about the Sanders portrait.I was intrigued by the presence of the dart decorated collar, which is also present in the Droeshout portrait. This was not mentioned in the film, although Henderson plans to increase the film to feature length. This will doubtless be one of the additional features explored. It has not debuted on TV yet, but has been bought by Bravo.

Comments are closed.