I find it very encouraging that in this world of removing apostrophes from street signs (thanks, Birmingham City Council), a potential new portrait of Shakespeare is still considered important enough to make the front page of the Sunday Times (if not any other paper…) The portrait has been owned by the same family for centuries, unsure of whom it depicted, but new research suggests it is likely to be Shakespeare, painted in 1610 while he was still alive.
It’s great people care enough about Shakespeare to be so interested in what he looked like – but why does it matter? I’m fascinated too; somehow it does matter what our greatest playwright looked like, but why? Of course, the Victorians practised the art of phrenology, believing one could read character in a face, but it’s hard not to be sceptical about this, as another article in the Times has recently suggested.
A generation is growing up now convinced that he looked like Joseph Fiennes in Shakespeare in Love (could be worse, I suppose!) so it’s great that this portrait is newsworthy. Stanley Wells is convinced that this recently discovered portrait is Shakespeare, and his word should be good enough for most people, even Shakespearean scholars (which I am not). It does strike me, though, that all the portraits we have of Shakespeare do look broadly the same, even though we know some were painted by people who didn’t know him. Perhaps the point is that portraiture as an art needs to be done from life in order to capture the essence of a person (or at least we feel that to be the case), and so by viewing a portrait known to be painted from the Bard himself, we feel we can somehow access a bit of Shakespeare-ness. Perhaps this could start a new trend for neatly-trimmed goatees. I think the man himself would have loved it.