An authoritative voice is casting the inevitable doubt on the latest purported “life portrait” of William Shakespeare. If you’re at all intrigued, this detailed, skeptical article by Katherine Duncan-Jones, co-editor of a recent edition of Shakespeare’s poems and a biographer of the Bard, is well worth reading.
I was receptive to her cogent analysis for two reasons. First, the new picture, from the family collection of Alec Cobbe, is of a guy turned out in expensive lace; he looked far too aristocratic to fit my notion of Shakespeare, working man of the theatre. Second, I live in Ottawa, and so I root for the so-called Sanders portrait, another that claims to have been painted of Shakespeare in his lifetime, which is owned by Ottawa’s own Lloyd Sullivan.
Actually, my instinct that the Sanders portrait has the better claim to being the real thing goes slightly beyond hometown boosterism.
The man in the Sanders portrait, which has been definitively dated to Shakespeare’s time by repeated high-tech tests, is dressed as a playwright might dress. Even better, he has a look—amused, intelligent—that anyone might hope to see on the face of our best writer.
The swell in the new Cobbe portrait is an entirely different sort: richly turned out, more confident than reflective in expression. In other words, he looks more like a patron of the stage than like the artist who populated it as nobody before or since.
As well, Duncan-Jones tells us that Shakespeare would have been a fool to pose in the guise of a rich man. “When players dressed above their rank offstage, it tended to get them into trouble,” she writes. “It is hard to believe that Shakespeare would have been rash enough to permit himself to be portrayed in such grand array.”
Which brings us back to the guy wearing that unassuming grey collar, and a subtle, sidelong expression above it, in the Sanders portrait.