“What Our Seemers Be”

Is this a Shakespeare I see before me?

Is this a Shakespeare I see before me?

Oh, Stanley Wells, you wag. With an uncharacteristic flourish, that eminent Shakespearean has declared that a previously unregarded painting in a private collection is the only painting of the Bard that was taken from life. In all things, Shakespeare is a will o’ the wisp, and his image is similarly akin to the proverbial scotch mist. Wells knows all this, and his adamancy in approving the Cobbe portrait, whilst unusual, only adds to the publicity and excitement: how few paintings there are, and how exciting we have a new one! Stefanie Peters, at her blog, stands for the breathlessly credulous:  “yes, this is what Shakespeare looked like.”

Of course, nothing in Shakespeare studies is so easy. Something doesn’t ring true about the Cobbe painting. Adam Roberts, over at the Valve, had a good stab at these feelings of uncertainty, but focusing on a nose and a gammy eye always leaves one open to being the victim of a trick of the light. (Luther Blissett, is that really you in the comments?) No, on reflection the real killer muist surely be the subject’s clothes. It is hard, for instance, to reconcile this courtly gent with the picture of the far humbler later Shakespeare so wonderfully built from scraps by Charles Nicholl in his wonderful book, The Lodger. Likewise, the clothing of the man in the Chandos portrait similarly fits with the idea of Shakespeare as a working poet from the provinces than all that lace and embroidery.

In March 20th’s TLS, Katherine Duncan-Jones picks up these threads (geddit?) and demolishes the case for the Cobbe portrait with an ease with ought to make us wonder whether Wells is just having an early April fools. She clear-sightedly fingers Sir Thomas Overbury as the real subject of the painting, comparing the Cobbe portrait convincingly with one of Overbury owned by the Bodleian Library. Overbury was infamously poisoned in the Tower of London after crossing Royal interests in a Jacobean scandal, the celebrity of which neatly links with the Cobbe’s Latin inscription (“Principum Amicitias!” – or “The Leagues of Princes!”), and helpfully accounts for the tight timeframe in which the cluster of paintings similar to the Cobbe and the Bodleian portrait were produced.

It’s worthwhile not having too fixed a picture of Shakespeare in one’s mind; but at the same time he would surely not have been depicted as the foolish, painted thing on show in the Cobbe picture. Not for want of trying, he was just never quite that sucessful at court.

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3 thoughts on ““What Our Seemers Be”

  1. I’ve nothing to add with regards to the authenticity or otherwise of the painting, but I find it wonderful that somone so often highlighted as the pinnacle of English literature, is still so mysterious. Here’s a man that remains famous so long after his time, and yet we don’t know for sure what he looked like. Fantastic!

  2. Shakey’s shadowness may even be a factor in his longevity – we can’t contextualise him in the way we can Marlowe, for instance, and that allows him to shift his positions with the ages. Still, other contemporary and near contemporary playwrights – John Ford comes to mind – are similarly hard to track through the mists of time. Shadowy or not, they still can’t match Will for facility with the language.

    In this, Shakespeare reminds me of Homer: beyond scholarly debate, his artistic relevance and reputation transcend whomever he might once have been. To that extent, it doesn’t matter who it is in that painting. Which, yes, is lovely. 🙂

  3. Pingback: “If There Be Truth In Sight” « @ Number 71

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