To Be or Not to Be Shakespeare

While skeptics continue to question the authorship of his plays, a new exhibition raises doubts about the authenticity of his portraits.

Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

Even if you're a regular visitor to London, it's probably never occurred to you to stop in to see William Shakespeare's original manuscripts at the British Museum or Library. That's just as well. There are no original manuscripts. Not so much as a couplet written in Shakespeare's own hand has been proven to exist. In fact, there's no hard evidence that Will Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon (1564-1616), revered as the greatest author in the English language, could even write a complete sentence.

Is it any wonder that controversy swirls around the authorship of the 154 sonnets and some 37 plays credited to him? Skeptics have long belittled the notion of a barely educated small-town boy who moves to London to work as an actor and is suddenly writing masterpieces of unrivaled beauty and sophistication. Henry James wrote to a friend in 1903 that he was "haunted by the conviction that the divine William is the biggest and most successful fraud ever practised on a patient world." Other doubters have included Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Sigmund Freud, Orson Welles and Sir John Gielgud.

At heart, the Shakespeare debate is about more than missing records. It's driven by an unquenchable need to slip past Shakespeare's verses and locate the real-life artist behind them, whoever he or she might be. Little is known about Dante or Chaucer either, but somehow that isn't as nettlesome. "If Shakespeare hadn’t been metamorphosed into a god, nobody would think it was worth having an authorship controversy about him," says Jonathan Bate, a Shakespeare expert at the University of Warwick, not far from Stratford.

It's certainly curious that the creator of such vivid, recognizably human characters as Falstaff, Lear and Hamlet should himself remain as insubstantial as stage smoke. The most detailed description of the man left to us by someone who actually knew him, it seems, is a less-than-incisive sentence from his friend and rival, the playwright Ben Jonson: "He was, indeed, honest, and of an open and free nature." That covers a lot of ground. As for Shakespeare's appearance, none of his contemporaries bothered to describe it. Tall or short? Thin or chubby? It's anyone’s guess.

An exhibition about the visual side of this quest—the desire to see William Shakespeare's face, literally—is on view through September 17 at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut. "Searching for Shakespeare" brings together eight images of the Bard (six paintings, one engraving and one sculpted bust)—only one of which was likely done from life—along with rare theatrical artifacts and documents. Rendered by long-forgotten artists, each of the six painted portraits surfaced after the playwright's death, in some cases centuries later. "There's something about Shakespeare that connects with those big human issues—who we are, why we feel the way we do, love, jealousy, passion," says Tarnya Cooper, who curated the exhibition at London's National Portrait Gallery, where the portraits exhibit opened last March. "In looking for a portrait of Shakespeare, we want to see traces of those passions in the portrait's face."

Unfortunately, as a flesh-and-blood human being Will Shakespeare of Stratford remains stubbornly out of reach. He was born to an apparently illiterate glove maker and his wife early in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. At 18, he married the pregnant Anne Hathaway, who was eight years his senior. By 21, he had fathered three children. He turns up in the documentary record next at age 28 in London—apparently without his family—working as an actor. He's later listed as a member of a prominent acting troupe, the Lord Chamberlain's Men, and later, the King's Men. His name appears on the title pages of plays printed for popular consumption beginning in his mid-30s. Records show he retired around 1613 and moved back to Stratford, where he died in relative obscurity three years later at 52. And that's about it.

The sketchy paper trail from Shakespeare's life hasn't stopped the publishing industry from issuing a stream of biographies filled with phrases like "may have" and "could have." Last year in the New York Times Book Review, editor Rachel Donadio mused whether Stephen Greenblatt's 2005 biography of the Bard, Will in the World, should be on the fiction or the nonfiction bestseller list.

"There are documents from William Shakespeare's life that concern his career as an actor and theater manager and so on, but there's nothing that suggests a literary life," says Mark Anderson, author of "Shakespeare" by Another Name, an examination of the plays' authorship. "That's what’s so damning about the documentary record. The greatest manhunt in literary history has turned up no manuscripts, no letters, no diaries." The only definitive examples of Shakespeare's handwriting are six signatures, all on legal documents. Of course, few letters or diaries of commoners from that time have survived.


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus