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.]


Karim said...

Now, why would they use the Overbury drawing as Shakespeare's engraving? That makes no sense. Also, you should consider that, assuming this is the case, a new candidate emerges, and his name is Thomas Overbury. So this could get more tangled than you think, really..

Don't mean to sound rude, it's 5:09 am and I'm still up, working on my math. Sigh.

Mark said...

I'm not going to get into the argument in this reply space, Crumbs, in part because I'm still developing this idea (and it actually does make some sense when the broader historical context is brought in) for a talk I'm going to be giving in May on this subject in the Boston area. So I'll have more to say on this topic and more details about the public talk soon.

Bottom line: The topic statement of this blog ("Edward de Vere was "Shakespeare." Who was Edward de Vere? Now we're talking...") still holds true. But there may be some interesting wrinkles that the latest portrait kerfuffle brings in to the story.

Please stay tuned.

Karim said...

What I meant was it would sound like a conspiracy theory if someone said, "Oh, they wanted to hide Shakespeare's identity, so they engraved some man from Overbury's painting." I don't mean to sound rude, I'm still up and working outside of human limits, rights and dignity, but work I must.

Thomism said...

I just recently heard of The Monument by Hank Whittemore. I noticed you thanked him in your book. It looks like quite a piece of work!

Mark said...

Whittemore's The Monument definitely deserves credit for its monumental scope -- attempting to explain practically every word of every Sonnet. I agree with the author on some points and disagree on others. Case in point: The Monument is spot-on, I think, in singling out the Essex Rebellion trial in 1601 as a primary inspiration for many of the Sonnets. (Edward de Vere sat on the jury on this trial.) I do not, however, agree with The Monument's day-by-day, sonnet-by-sonnet "calendar." The evidence for the latter, I think, is wanting.

Unknown said...

Mark in examining the Shakespeare engraving of the First Folio. I've read recently online that some speculate that his collar is perhaps a shield in 3D flat pointing back into the picture with the head resting on it. Have you heard this observation? Perhaps the engraving is a "story picture" as the one you mentioned in your book which was observed in de Vere' study.
Keep on researchin' !