Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The unending quest for Shakespeare

Last weekend The Times of London reviewed The True Face of William Shakespeare by Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel, in which the author attempts to prove that we can now know with certainty what the Bard actually looked like. Working from photographs of Shakespeare's funerary bust and the First Folio engraving, Hammerschmidt-Hummel and her team used a variety of computer imaging techniques and detailed comparisons to establish similarities with other images of Shakespeare, such as the Darmstadt mask and the Davenant bust.

I can't imagine what possessed her to use as one of her starting points such a lifeless, bland image as the funerary bust. The Times reviewer points out that the analyses reveal only five points of convergence between the bust and the Darmstadt mask and two divergences. Meanwhile, Hammerschmidt-Hummel's analyses established seventeen features common to the First Folio engraving, the Chandos portrait and the Flower portrait. Her very inclusion of the Flower portrait in her study is in itself an issue that cast doubts on her work: she insists the Flower portrait is a genuine likeness, although National Portrait Gallery staff determined that it was a fake in 2005. For most of the other Shakespeare 'likenesses' Hammerschmidt-Hummel examines, it is impossible to determine dating and provenance.

I am continually bemused by the quest to 'prove' anything about Shakespeare. For a writer of such towering stature, documentary evidence of his life is surprisingly scant: a baptismal record, a marriage license, a will, a list of actors. These paltry primary sources become a sort of literary Rorschach test: any investigations of his life are likely to tell you more about the researcher than the Bard. A 2004 review of Stephen Greenblatt's Will in the World notes that Greenblatt, like Harold Bloom before him, describes a Shakespeare very like himself. The snobs among us want Shakespeare to have not been Shakespeare at all, but the Earl of Oxford. And is it any accident that in our youth-obsessed age, within a few years of Shakespeare in Love, the Sanders Portrait, showing a sly, young Shakespeare, surfaced in an Ottawa suburb?

The best portrait of Shakespeare available to us, or to any generation of his admirers, would be a simple blank canvas on which we can paint the Shakespeare we need.

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