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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.

Doubters over the years have proposed some 60 candidates as the real Shakespeare, among them Sir Walter Ralegh, Christopher Marlowe and Queen Elizabeth herself. The popular favorite among skeptics of the 19th and early 20th centuries was Francis Bacon, philosopher and writer. Some Baconians maintained that secret codes sprinkled throughout Shakespeare's plays pointed to the works' true author. (For example, by counting the difference in total words in two passages from Henry IV, Part 1, multiplying that by the number of hyphenations, then using the result to move up or maybe down a page somewhere else, you can begin to extract hidden messages in the plays, such as "shak'st...spur...never...writ...a...word...of...them.") Other contenders were decidedly far-fetched—a long-dead member of Henry VIII's court; a cabal of Jesuits—but the very proliferation of theories demonstrated how deeply unsatisfying many people found the Stratford story to be. In recent decades, the debate has largely settled down to a dispute between two opposing camps. On one side are the mainstream defenders of the status quo, known as Stratfordians. The anti-Stratfordian movement, meanwhile, backed by books, Web sites and conferences, has coalesced mainly around a single candidate: Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford (1550-1604).

Oxfordians, as they are known, dismiss Will of Stratford as a frontman for the ink-stained earl who used his name as a pseudonym. (More or less. Will's surname was often Shakspere but sometimes Shaxspere, Shagspere or Shaxberd, though variants on the spelling of names were hardly uncommon at the time.)

"Shakespeare the writer, whoever he was, was one of the most broadly educated authors in English literature," says Anderson, an avowed Oxfordian. The poet-playwright was steeped in the classics and drew on source texts that hadn’t yet been translated into English. His working vocabulary of more than 17,000 words—twice that of John Milton's according to lexicons compiled for both men in the 19th century—includes nearly 3,200 original coinages. Could such erudition, Anderson asks, really come from a man with, at most, an English grammar-school education?

There is other circumstantial evidence against "the Stratford man," as Oxfordians condescendingly call Shakespeare. Neither his wife nor his daughter Judith, it appears, were sufficiently literate to write their own names. The man himself is not known to have traveled beyond southern England, yet his plays suggest a firsthand knowledge of the Continent—Italy especially. In Stratford he was known as a businessman and property owner with some connection to the theater, not as a writer. His death attracted no notice in London, and he was buried—beneath a marker that bore no name—in Stratford.

The glimpses of Shakespeare's character afforded by the few surviving legal documents from his life, moreover, don't square with the current popular notion of a wise and lofty-minded poet. He apparently sued over debts as small as two shillings. A London acquaintance once sought his arrest, along with that of some other men, "for fear of death." And in 1598, he was accused of hoarding grain in Stratford during a famine, prompting a furious neighbor to demand that he and his fellow profiteers be "hanged on gibbets at their own doors." Then there is his will (a centerpiece of the Yale exhibition), in which he bequeathed to his wife his "second best bed." As poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in 1850, "Other admirable men have led lives in some sort of keeping with their thought, but this man in wide contrast."

The two portraits of Shakespeare that have been widely accepted as authentic have probably contributed to the doubts. The best-known—an image instantly recognizable today—is a posthumous engraving made by Martin Droeshout, a none-too-talented Dutch artist of the early 1600s. It appeared on the title page of the First Folio, the massive compilation of plays by Mr. William Shakespeare published by John Heminges and Henry Condell, fellow actors and longtime friends of the Bard, in 1623, seven years after his death (see "Folio, Where Art Thou?"). In Droeshout's anatomically awkward rendering, which he likely copied from a life portrait that no longer exists, the subject looks distant and slightly uncomfortable, as though he'd rather not be posing at all. The second generally accepted portrait, also posthumous, is a memorial bust in Stratford's Trinity Church, which many find even more disconcerting than Droeshout's engraving. Critic J. Dover Wilson likened the well-fed, vacant-looking man in the carving to "a self-satisfied pork-butcher." The two portraits, Wilson wrote in his 1932 biography The Essential Shakespeare, are "so obviously false images of the greatest poet of all time that the world turns from them in disgust." Wilson seems to have been overstating matters, for evidently both likenesses were acceptable to Shakespeare's own friends and family.

In the years following these two early efforts at depicting him, Shakespearean portraiture became something of a cottage industry. "New portraits turn up quite often," says curator Tarnya Cooper in London. "In the last three months, I've had three." So far, all have been deemed fabrications or portraits of someone else. Last year, a scientific examination revealed that one of the most familiar likenesses of the playwright, the Royal Shakespeare Company's so-called Flower portrait—once thought to have been done in the Bard's lifetime and to have perhaps been the source of the Droeshout engraving—was actually concocted in the 19th century. In 1988, the subject of another rendering, the Folger Shakespeare Library's Janssen portrait, inscribed with the date 1610, proved to be hiding a full head of hair; the subject's domelike forehead was a paint-over added in the 17th or 18th century.

Though Cooper can't affirm that any of the "Searching for Shakespeare" portraits were painted from life, she labels as "pretty high" the odds that a living, breathing William Shakespeare posed for the National Portrait Gallery's own Chandos portrait, which she calls "our Mona Lisa." The undated painting is attributed to an obscure English artist and possible bit actor of Shakespeare's day named John Taylor. A succession of owners since the mid-1600s have deemed it an authentic portrait of Shakespeare, and it was the first work the gallery acquired at its founding in London in 1856. The portrait's swarthy, somewhat lugubrious subject didn't look sufficiently "English" to a few of the Bard's early admirers, however. "Our author exhibits the complexion of a Jew, or rather of a chimney-sweeper in the jaundice," complained an 18th-century editor named George Steevens.

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