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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Unknown said...

Thanks Mark for researching the background to the Cobb picture! Just a question: the subject is wearing a lace collar. As I understand the customs of the time it was illegal for a commoner to wear such a sign of nobility. So any portrait of Shaksper would have to be without such decoration, wouldn't it? As are a couple of the reputed Shakespeare images....

Mark said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mark said...

Indeed, Dave. I need to do a little more digging into what's called the "sumptuary laws" of the time to see just how restrictive those prohibitions against aristocratic finery like lace collars were. The challenge of this exercise is to be thorough -- more thorough than the Stratfordians. So please stay tuned.

[Deleted previous entry to fix my grammar!]

Robert Loughlin said...

Mark--I find it interesting how quickly the supposed "experts" jump to the conclusion that the portrait is that of Will S. without further investigation.

Not only that, Time magazine quotes Stanley Wells, noted Stratfordian, who says that the painting is proof that its subject is "a man of high social status...the portrait of a gentleman"--is this a new vision of Will from Stratford, no longer the common man, but now elevated to the ranks of the elite?

Unknown said...

Its stunning how this sort of thing is swallowed whole and reported without meaningful inquiry, while serious investigative work regarding Shakespeare's identity is largely disregarded.

The most positive aspect to this thing that I saw was the number of references to Mark Anderson and deVere there were in the comments on HuffPo's link to the story.

About the book said...

"Shakespeare" isn't really a person but a phenomenon. And no one seems to question the history (I'm writing this from England today). I wish more people would read your book. I have to say, though, that when I argued the question with a smart well-read person recently, she blew me out of the water and I realized I didn't know enough to make a strong enough case that Shakespeare isn't shakespeare. You'll have to help me out with that one of these days, Mark!!

Mark said...

Robert: Interesting, isn't it? Note the arguments along similar lines by another noted Stratfordian, Katherine Duncan-Jones.

AgathaX: Thanks. Good to know about the comment threads.

AboutTheBook (aka James): This is a thorny argument, no two ways about it. Probably no accident that we're 400 years out from the works themselves and still no resolution in sight.