Sunday, March 29, 2009

Overbury Overdrive, pt. 5: The Empire Strikes Back

The genteel slapping sounds of kid-leather-glove-against-cheek have been on the rise in the pages of the Times Literary Supplement of late.

Last week, this blog noted the arguments put forward by Shakespeare scholar Katherine Duncan-Jones that, in short, the eyes have it: The new "Cobbe portrait," featuring the face of Sir Thomas Overbury, is actually a portrait of Sir Thomas Overbury and not, pace Stanley Wells and his colleagues at the Stratford Birthplace Trust, a portrait of Will Shakespeare.

"Sir,--" Stanley Wells begins his rebuttal in this week's TLS. (Isn't it curious how the newspaper as a medium is dying, reaching out to every reader it can, while one of the world's most legendary upholders of newspaperly traditions hasn't quite gotten around to addressing the ladyfolk yet?)

" Katherine Duncan-Jones," Wells writes, "attempts to revive David Piper’s ill-founded suggestion of 1964 and 1982 that the Cobbe portrait portrays not William Shakespeare but Sir Thomas Overbury (March 20). Piper claimed that an “early inventory” of the Ellenborough collection, sold in 1947....."

The snows of largely irrelevant facts and dates continue to fly as Wells urges his readers to pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.

"[P]erceived resemblance unsupported by documentary evidence is a naive (though natural) basis for identification," Wells writes. "Different people can look alike."

So, let's see... there's an engraving of Sir Thomas Overbury that says it's an engraving of Sir Thomas Overbury. And there's a miniature that says its sitter is Sir Thomas Overbury. Both of these pieces of documentary evidence have the same face as the Cobbe portrait of "Shakespeare." (Not going to rehash the previous posting that makes this straightforward case.)

But, to quote an old sage, your eyes can deceive you. Don't trust them.

Er... well, except when it comes to noticing some interesting similarities between the Cobbe portrait and the Droeshout engraving in the 1623 Shakespeare First Folio.

Wells continues:

"Duncan-Jones waves away our suggestion that the Cobbe portrait was the basis for Droeshout’s 1623 engraving, where the sitter is only slightly less richly dressed. Certainly Droeshout appears to have simplified the image, updated the collar, and given Shakespeare less hair, possibly reflecting his later appearance. He was keen enough to catch the cast in Shakespeare’s left eye, not present in the Overbury portrait. But engravers commonly simplified and updated... Compositionally, the 1623 engraving and the Cobbe portrait match perfectly.

And there you have it. The Droeshout and the Cobbe match one another perfectly. So says the good professor, anyway.

Remember, the Cobbe portrait hasn't even been shown to the public yet. The Cobbe's official unveiling, at an exhibition in Stratford-upon-Avon, is still 25 days away.

Shall we compare the mounting bluster to a summer's breeze? It's certainly getting drafty in here.

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The Skeptical Enquirer

This week the literary blog "The Muffin Post" published a careful and skeptical review of "Shakespeare" By Another Name. "In sum," the reviewer Bruce Lacey writes, "Trust no one. It appears there are good reasons to take the de Vere hypothesis seriously, and also good reasons to be skeptical of it."

Fair enough. Can't argue with a thoughtful, skeptical point of view. Just so long as that same skepticism is applied to the other side too.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Overbury Overdrive, pt. 4: What she said

Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.
     --Trinculo, The Tempest

I'm pleased to report that much of what I wanted to say about the "Cobbe Portrait of Shakespeare" has now been stated by the widely respected (orthodox) Shakespeare scholar Katherine Duncan-Jones in this week's edition of the Times Literary Supplement.

It's not the first time I've nodded in agreement with her -- while, of course, still begging to differ on the slight question of who wrote the plays and poems we're all fawning over. ("Shakespeare" By Another Name's endnotes reference Duncan-Jones's work more than a few times.)

The upshot of her piece: The Stratford Birthplace Trust's April 23 unveiling of the "new Shakespeare portrait" is now, already, an embarrassment. The "Cobbe Portrait of Shakespeare" is actually the Cobbe Portrait of Sir Thomas Overbury. The question that remains is Will the Cobbe's supporters admit defeat gracefully?

I actually hope not. Because I'm not yet convinced that Stanley Wells and his Birthplace Trust cohorts are wrong when they argue that one of these Overbury portraits may have been the original for the famous 1623 Droeshout engraving of Shakespeare in the First Folio. (They, of course, still operate under the assumption that the Cobbe portrait is the new face of the Bard.)

Seems I've got a dog in both fights.

Here, by the way, are the money quotes from Duncan-Jones's article:

"The “Cobbe” portrait is a splendid painting, whose sparkling colours have benefited from recent restoration. The italic inscription at the top of the picture, “Principum Amicitias!” – “the leagues of princes!” – appears too large in scale, as well as highly unusual in its deployment of an exclamation mark, and was perhaps added later. The “Shakespeare” claim does not rely crucially on the authenticity of this motto from Horace’s Odes, II.i, though the authors of the brochure remark that “it can be no coincidence that Horace’s words were addressed to a playwright”. It might have been helpful to examine the picture’s reverse for further inscriptions or telling marks, but at the preview the back was veiled with a brown paper screen. But the man portrayed, with his elaborate lace collar and gold embroidered doublet, appears far too grand and courtier-like to be [the Stratford] Shakespeare.


"Last week Dr Tarnya Cooper, the sixteenth-century curator at the National Portrait Gallery, declared herself “very sceptical” about Wells’s claim, and remarked that “if anything . . . both works [the Folger and Cobbe portraits] are more likely to represent the courtier Sir Thomas Overbury”. A suggestion made long ago by David Piper that yet another version of the portrait, the “Ellenborough”, is of Overbury, is waved away as “mistaken” by the authors of the brochure. Yet the views of experts such as Cooper and Piper cannot be dismissed so easily.


"[Overbury] was an arrogant and stubborn young man. According to Aubrey, it was “a great question who was the proudest”, Sir Walter Ralegh or Sir Thomas Overbury – but opinion favoured Overbury. As a King’s minion’s minion, Overbury’s status was more fragile than he knew. Unrelenting in his opposition to Carr’s proposed marriage to Frances, née Howard (who, at the time the match was proposed, was still married to the third Earl of Essex), he refused various diplomatic postings offered to him as escape routes. On September 21, 1613, hours after telling Sir Henry Wotton how well his courtly career was going, Overbury was arrested and imprisoned in the Tower. He had succeeded in offending both the Queen (at whom he and Carr are said to have laughed mockingly through a window) and the King. Four months later he was dead. Whether this was the result of repeated attempts to poison him, or, as Considine suggests, the ministrations of court physicians, we shall never know. But the upshot was that Sir Thomas Overbury immediately became a celebrity, his colourful story nourishing both court gossip and penny-dreadfuls. Many of his former friends and allies, including Southampton, would have wanted to possess visual mementoes of their friend. He was also mourned by members of his large family, and especially by his devoted father, Sir Nicholas. Perhaps it was he who commissioned the portrait later given to the Bodleian. It may have been painted by the younger Gheeraerts, possibly on the basis of an Isaac Oliver miniature, as hinted by the blue background. With its solid provenance – first with the Overbury family, then with the library – the “Bodleian” Overbury appears to be the “prime” version of which the “Cobbe” portrait and the rest are fine, but smaller, copies. The lack of later copies is readily explained. National events occurred in the mid-century that were even more sensational than Overbury’s murder."

[Thanks to reader R.W. for the tip.]

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Overbury Overdrive, pt. 3: The (modern day) back-story

Here is a fascinating interview Channel 4 (UK) did with the family owner of the Cobbe portrait of "Shakespeare," the art restorer Alec Cobbe. An affable chap. After the 35 minute mark, the interviewer asks a few questions about the possible Thomas Overbury identification. And Cobbe says, essentially, that facial features can't be used to identify a sitter in a portrait.

But rewind the tape by about ten minutes, and there's Cobbe arguing for his portrait being a "Shakespeare" portrait by appealing to the similarities between his painting and the Droeshaut engraving of Shakespeare.

So there you have it. It can when you want it to, but it can't when you don't.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Foofy nihilism

Couldn't let today's New York Times commentary about the "Cobbe Portrait of Shakespeare" go unnoticed.

The thing about the Bard, commentator Verlyn Klinkenborg writes, is that if you "Go looking for the man... you will find only the person doing the looking."

Shakespeare is just one big hall-of-mirrors. Mm-kay?

The article's kicker offers up my favorite sentence:

Every claim to have found some relic of the original Shakespeare is just another reminder that his work needs no biography.

Shorter NYT: Bard's bio no workee. Bio = bad.

Thankfully, north of the border, a letter-writer to the Toronto Globe and Mail chimes in with a fine rejoinder to the Times' muddle-headed navel-gazing:

Too bad [the Cobbe] is not a portrait of Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, the man who wrote plays and poems under the nom de plume "Shakespeare." That would have been really interesting.

Overbury Overdrive, pt. 2: The Face

Before getting into the new Cobbe (misattributed "Shakespeare") portrait in detail, I wanted to make sure that it is abundantly clear just how precise the match is between the Cobbe's face and undisputed images of the face of Sir Thomas Overbury.

Here is why it matters: The "new Shakespeare portrait" is no such thing. It is a big snafu-in-the-waiting that could also have significant implications beyond this little embarrassment for Stratfordian scholarship. For the nonce, I'm just going to lay that claim out there, with the promise that I'll be following up on these bigger issues in subsequent posts.

Below I've attached a Photoshop exercise that I'll explain after the jump. (Click on the image to enlarge.)

The image here is a gradual fade-in of the Cobbe "Shakespeare" over an engraving of the Jacobean poet Sir Thomas Overbury. As noted in the previous post, it should be as plain as can be that each of these two images is portraying the same face.

Incidentally, I reversed the engraving of Overbury. Note that that would have been the way the image appeared when being struck by the engraver, one Renold Elstrake. The dating of the Overbury engraving is c. 1616, which would put it after Overbury's scandalous death. So presumably Elstrake had to use another Overbury portrait as his source. As the above portrait overlay makes plain, the resemblance between the two faces is close -- so close that I think a good case can be made that the "Cobbe" portrait may have even served as the original for the Overbury engraving.

And, to bring in a third witness here, to the right is another image of Overbury -- revealing the same face as the Overbury engraving and as the face in the Cobbe portrait.

Now just to be clear: I'm not talking about the authorship theory in these postings about the Cobbe portrait. The story, the theory, the whole enchilada of "Shakespeare" By Another Name -- Edward de Vere as "Shakespeare" -- remains.

I just think this "Cobbe portrait" business is a mixed-up jumble of Stratfordian wishful thinking foisted upon an undeniable portrait of Thomas Overbury.

There may well, on the other hand, still be a different kind of "Shakespeare" connection to the Cobbe portrait.

And that's a mouse-trap for another day.

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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

"Is this the real Shakespeare?" Um... No.

You may have caught the latest bit of Stratford Birthplace Trust-spawned media hype over the past few days. Here's a quick summary: We have a new portrait of Shakespeare! One painted during his lifetime! At long last!

Ahem. Yeah. Nice "new" picture of an old Jacobean poet there, guys.

Take a look for yourself. The "new portrait of Shakespeare" is to the left. An attributed engraving of the Jacobean writer Sir Thomas Overbury (1581-1613), to the right. Same guy. Plain as the nose on his face.

The owner of the "new Shakespeare" (a.k.a. Overbury) portrait, a British art restorer named Alec Cobbe, also set off a wave of media coverage in 2002 when he brought out what he claimed was a new portrait of the Earl of Southampton [PDF] that he owned. (Southampton was the dedicatee of the epic Shakespeare poems Venus and Adonis and Lucrece and is widely believed to have been the "fair youth" of The Sonnets. No one, short of the author and his family, is so closely tied to the conventional history of Shakespeare.)

Cobbe's would-be Southampton image was long thought to be a woman. But, in the process of researching an exhibition on his family's art collection, Cobbe says he discovered the Southampton connection.

Compare the media coverage of the 2002 and 2009 Cobbe-related news events:

The Guardian, Apr. 21, 2002:
But it was not until earlier this year, he says, after the Kenwood exhibition had closed, that 'the penny finally dropped. Suddenly I realised that the face reminded me of pictures I had seen during my research into my family's history. "My God," I thought, "could this be the third Earl of Southampton, Shakespeare's patron and, perhaps, his lover?"'

The Telegraph, Mar. 9, 2009:
It remained in the same family for centuries and was inherited by art restorer Alec Cobbe. In 2006, he visited the National Portrait Gallery and saw a painting of Shakespeare that hangs in the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington. It had been accepted as a life portrait of Shakespeare, but was discredited 70 years ago. Mr Cobbe saw the painting and realised the similarities with the painting he had inherited.

Kind of incredible. So according to the 2002 and 2009 news reports, then, Cobbe has transformed two old portraits owned by his family into two images of the two most important historical figures in Shakespeare studies.

Uh-huh. Sure.

Important to emphasize: I don't know nor do I really care what Cobbe's motives are in making the attributions that he has. I have no cause to suspect that he or anyone else driving this story doubts the "new Shakespeare portrait" attribution they've made. But I do find the attribution faulty. Especially when this "Shakespeare portrait" has Overbury's face!

And the portrait's Latin inscription, I think, seals the case that the portrait's subject was Thomas Overbury -- not William Shakespeare. Or, for that matter, Edward de Vere.

More on that in a day or two. [D'oh! Katherine Duncan-Jones beat me to the punch.]

[Thanks to readers G.Q. and R.C. for their help in putting together this post.]
[Edited to clarify how Cobbe says he made his 2002 discovery and to add the final point of emphasis.]

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Sunday, March 08, 2009

Here's looking at you, scurvy jack-a-nape

(Creative Commons image by dejahthoris)

Poetry, music and culture blogger Remy Wilkins offers up a curious (if a little oddly worded) mind game this weekend on his blog The Whole Garden Will Bow:
"The Movies I’d Watch With Dead People if I Could Watch One Movie With Someone Dead"

[in no order]
1. The Darjeeling Limited with G.K. Chesterton
2. Magnolia with Flannery O’Connor
3. There Will Be Blood with Herman Melville
4. Gattaca with Fedor Dostoevsky
5. The Decalogue with Moses
6. Spirited Away with Booker T. Washington
7. Beowulf with St. Boniface
8. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind with E.E. Cummings
9. Die Hard with Jane Austen
10. Casablanca with Edward de Vere

Not to get too Facebook-y, but this top-10 list does have the air of a challenge to it.

Whoever you think Shakespeare was (or wasn't), what movie(s) would you want to sit the Bard down and have him watch? Just to see what the guy thinks about the stories we tell on the screen. Ten that would at least be on the short list, for me, would be Taxi Driver, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Away From Her, His Girl Friday, The Matrix, Brazil, The Incredibles, Trouble in Paradise, The Life Aquatic... and for the last one, I'm thinking either Pink Panther 2 or Paul Blart: Mall Cop. Toss up.

I'm resisting the historical period piece or adaptations of his own canon. You gotta figure, the man would probably have seen enough Shakespeare to last him a lifetime.