Glimpsed in the Glare

Michael Neill

  • 1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear by James Shapiro
    Faber, 423 pp, £20.00, October 2015, ISBN 978 0 571 23578 0

Perhaps the first ever ‘lifestyle magazine’, Country Life was founded in 1897 to cater for the leisured interests of the upper class, and was devoted to articles on golf and racing, leavened with discreet advertisements for manorial estates. Now a subsidiary of Time Inc., it has become a lavishly ornamented real estate window for the 1 per cent, and for those who dream of joining that porcine elite, its readers thrilling at what a mere £18 million might buy them in Surrey, Tuscany, Florida or the Côte d’Azur. But Country Life also likes to flatter its patrons with a notion of their better selves, as connoisseurs, collectors, lovers of theatre and occasional readers of books. Thus on 20 May this year it offered them a Special Historic Edition, whose gilded cover proclaimed ‘The greatest discovery in 400 years’ – nothing less than ‘Shakespeare: His true likeness revealed at last’. The detective who had ‘cracked the Tudor code’ was the botanist, horticulturalist and historian of gardening Mark Griffiths: his elaborately illustrated essay, ‘Face to Face with Shakespeare’, focused on John Gerard’s well-known Elizabethan manual of botany, The Herball or, General Historie of Plantes, and purported to demonstrate that one of the four seemingly allegoric figures on its ornamental title-page – a figure clad in a Roman costume and crowned with triumphal laurels – was in fact the ‘only … demonstrably authentic portrait of Shakespeare drawn from life.’[*] Depending less on Griffiths’s ingenious tessellation of botanical and historical detail than on his decrypting of a printer’s mark as a cunning cipher for the dramatist’s name, the article maintained that the figure’s costume could be explained as a tribute to Shakespeare’s earliest tragedy, Titus Andronicus, while the cob of maize in its left hand was a witty reference to a political metaphor from the play’s final scene: ‘O let me teach you how to knit again/This scattered corn into one mutual sheaf.’

Of course ‘scattered corn’ is far more likely to suggest the grain of Shakespeare’s native Warwickshire than the rare exotic his contemporaries called ‘Indian corn’ and while Griffiths’s identification of the other three figures as John Gerard, his patron Lord Burghley and his collaborator the Flemish botanist Rembert Dodoens seems plausible enough, a tissue of improbable conjecture is required to place a mere playwright and actor alongside Elizabeth’s lord treasurer on the frontispiece of an encyclopedic work of natural history. Griffiths convinces himself that Burghley must also have been Shakespeare’s patron, and that the poet’s known familiarity with the Herbal betokens a more personal intimacy: ‘working closely’ with Gerard, he may even have acted as a kind of editor who ‘sprinkled magic dust over Gerard’s prefatory matter’.

Griffiths’s conviction that he has at last discovered ‘what Shakespeare looked like, drawn from life’ is symptomatic of a more widespread desperation. The yearning to uncover a contemporary likeness of Shakespeare has a history involving dozens of paintings, stretching back to the early 18th century, when George Vertue identified the so-called Chandos portrait as an image of Shakespeare painted by a friend and fellow actor, John Taylor. Donated to the National Portrait Gallery in 1856, the Chandos is the only candidate to have been granted much credence, but new ones continue to surface, most recently the Cobbe Portrait, which formed the centrepiece of the evocatively titled Shakespeare Found exhibition organised by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in 2009. Two unquestionably authentic images do exist – the famous engraving that faces the title-page of the First Folio, and the bust that adorns Shakespeare’s monument in Holy Trinity, Stratford-upon-Avon – but both are likely to be posthumous and neither properly satisfies the itch to know the man behind the plays: the bust’s unromantically plump and expressionless features, like the bland formality of the Droeshout portrait in the First Folio, seem calculated only to repel the imagination.[†] ‘There’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face,’ Duncan declares in Macbeth; but we seem to believe that a ‘true likeness’ might somehow give us an insight into genius that we otherwise lack; and the longing to know what Shakespeare ‘really’ looked like shows no sign of abating.

As with the face, so with the life. The scantiness of the documentary record only serves to excite the curiosity of admirers, and to challenge the ingenuity of biographers, whose best efforts far outsell editions of the plays, let alone even the most influential works of criticism. As the founding father of New Historicism, Stephen Greenblatt made his professional reputation with Renaissance Self-Fashioning (1980); but it was Will in the World (2004), his biographical account of ‘How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare’ that won him a huge advance. The established facts of Shakespeare’s life are either disappointingly pedestrian (records of births, deaths, marriage and the purchase of property) or worryingly unattractive (a shotgun wedding, a marriage marked by extended separation from his family, a seemingly ungenerous will, glimpses of financial sharp practice and social-climbing ambition); but on these unpromising foundations surprisingly elaborate constructions are erected, whether shaped by the genial indulgence of what Simon Russell-Beale called Greenblatt’s ‘love letter’ to Shakespeare, or by the hard-nosed iconoclasm of Katherine Duncan-Jones’s Ungentle Shakespeare (2001), whose determination ‘to bring Shakespeare down from the lofty isolation to which he has customarily been elevated’ exposes the Bard as a penny-pinching, bisexual misogynist who succumbed to syphilis. Considered as a genre, conventional literary biography, even at its best, is never far from gossip, and sometimes almost equally unreliable; in the case of Shakespeare it easily becomes little more than well-informed fiction, whose scattering of documentary bricks is cemented by a great deal of speculative mortar: ‘Shakespeare possibly/may have/might have/could have/probably’ – the verbs of qualified conjecture slide easily into the conniving imperative of Greenblatt’s opening sentence: ‘Let us imagine that Shakespeare … ’

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[*] The next issue of the magazine contained a second (equally fanciful) piece by Griffiths, using the connection he claimed to have demonstrated between the playwright and Gerard’s patron, Lord Burghley, to assert Shakespeare’s authorship of A Country Controversy, the entertainment commissioned by the Lord Treasurer for the queen’s visit to his country estate in 1591 – a wordy little dialogue between a Gardener and a Molecatcher which Griffiths describes as ‘possibly [Shakespeare’s] shortest, by no means his best, but undoubtedly one of the most important [works] of his career’.

[†] The not uncommon practice of commissioning funeral monuments before one’s death makes it possible that the bust was done from life, and not from a death mask, as is usually supposed; but in any case the conventions of funeral portraiture did not invite vivid characterisation.