Walking into Searching for Shakespeare, the exhibition that opens tomorrow at the National Portrait Gallery in London, I took a wrong turn. Someone was standing in front of the “exhibition this way” sign, so I forged straight ahead, and was puzzled to be confronted by a sword, a workmanlike rapier with just a hint of gentlemanly damascene decoration. The label explained: “On formal occasions and at court Shakespeare would have worn a sword, and in his will in 1616 he left it to a friend from Stratford-upon-Avon called Thomas Coombe. This example from the period …” So, a hint, a flavour of his age, but not really Shakespeare.
Turning around, I went back to the beginning, and found another absence. On a perspex stand is a wonderful fancy, and very warm-looking hat, from the 16th-century, an astonishing survival and fascinating, but again, not Shakespeare’s (what would it be worth if it were?), but one like he “might have worn”.
Yet next, in front of you, are some real signs that, as though scrawled by some graffitist on the wall, “Shakespeare was here”. There are the papers that he touched, that recorded his life before he was “the Bard” and was just a young lad from Stratford-upon-Avon . There’s the parish register from Holy Trinity Church, open at the entry for the baptism on May 26, 1583, of his first child, Susanna. It sits beside the bond recording his marriage, just five months before. They are mute but eloquent witnesses to the reason why a lad of 18 would be marrying a woman of 26. By the standards of the time she was about the right age for marriage, but he was certainly not; you can just imagine the matrons of the town tutting, saying: “He’s ruined his life.”
The end of that life – the dead Shakespeare if you like – is also here, in the will that famously left most of his wealth to that oldest child, Susanna, and only his “second best bed” to his wife, Anne Hathaway. But, as Tarnya Cooper, the exhibition curator, explains, that can’t be taken for the slight that it seems to be. Wives by law received a third of their husband’s wealth for their use, and it is not uncommonly for them to be left out of the bequests in consequence. This will is nonetheless an oh-so-human document, Lines are crossed out, words inserted – there was, on this death bed, no time to make a fair copy.
So we’ve found the young son of a glove-maker, and the old man on his death-bed in Stratford-upon-Avon. But these are not The Bard – the star of London’s great Tudor flowering …
It is at the far end of the exhibition that you find this Shakespeare, indeed not one Bard, but many, looking phlegmatically out at the modern parade. For the core of the exhibition is one room containing eight Shakespeares, or rather eight “Shakespeares”.
At the centre is the one painting that probably, almost certainly IS Shakespeare, yet, tantalisingly, complete proof is denied us. It is known as the Chandos portrait, after the family that owned it, and the full array of modern science – microscopic paint anaylsis, tree ring analysis, chemical tests – have all indicated that it is the right age, the right style, the right everything. But they cannot make it speak, cannot make it say: “My name is …”
Around are all of the false trails. Some are easily dismissed. There’s the so-called Janssen portrait, which is indeed Jacobean, but modern science has demonstrated that the portait had been overpainted in the late 18th-century to look rather more like “Shakespeare” than the original. (It has now been restored to its original appearance.) And the Flanner portrait, now definitively dated to the early 19th-century, although painted over a 16th-century Madonna. And the Sanders protrait, which was painted in 1603, when Shakespeare was 39. There’s a resemblance, but surely this man is too young?
Others are near-misses in this painstaking search for Shakespeare. Closest perhaps is the so-called Grafton portrait. Painted on it are its date – 1588 – and the age of the sitter (24). That matches Shakespeare exactly. And the general shape of the face, the high forehead, the ears, show similarity to the Chandos image, and yet, and yet … The man here wears a slashed crimson silk doublet – too rich, too grand, for the humble travelling player that Shakespeare is thought to have then been.
Then there are two almost certain “pretty good likenesses”. One is the marble bust from about 1620 that was put in the Bard’s parish church, probably based on a now lost image. Many of the people who looked on it then would have known the man himself, so it’s a fair bet he looked rather like this. And there’s the engraving from the First Folio edition (left), for which Ben Jonson, Shakespeare’s friend, praised the engraver’s ability to capture a “face”.
And finally there’s the Soest protrait, which is also what it says on the tin: Painted in the late 1660s, the features are thought to have been derived from the Chandos portrait, but the Bard has been “cleaned up” for contemporary tastes. No earring, for one thing. But the painter would not have known the man, was working only from Chandos and, perhaps, another work. A lost work? A lost work that will one day show â€œShakespeareâ€ to us?
So we’ve approached Shakespeare – the young man, the middle-class man, the famous author, got within, almost a finger’s touch of the Bard, but no closer. The journey in search of Shakespeare has been rich and rewarding, but ultimately unsuccessful.
But I’ve rushed it. Back at the beginning of the exhibition again, I find not Shakespeare, but a rich and detailed portrait of his world. Sir Henry Peacham provides the first, and perhaps the best, view. A careful ink sketch shows the actors of Titus Andronicus, as staged in 1594. This is the first known illustration of the London stage, and it is so lively, so immediate, that you feel for a second as though you are there. The actors are in full dramatic flow – gesturing with arms spread wide, praying with fingers clenched tight. (And one – fascinatingly – is shown as though he is black-skinned. This is clearly elaborate and intentional: was there perhaps a black actor, or did one of the players “black up”? Dr Cooper said this was a question without answers.)
Nearby is the first known drawing of a London playhouse, as carefully copied by Arendt van Buchell from the work of a friend who had visited London. It looks astonishingly familiar, you think, before realising of course this is The Globe. Well actually it was, in the 17th-century, The Swan, but the builders of the modern replica theatre leant heavily on this image in their reconstruction. The fact that a European visitor, and a Continental resident would go to so much trouble does, however, tell us something new, Dr Cooper suggested. Huge, purpose-built playhouses, London’s whole thriving literary culture, were something new, astonishing, surprisingly, noteworthy across the continent.
On the wall, just as it was once pinned backstage in a theatre such as this is a “Platt” or plot from The Second Part of the Seven Deadly Sins, a play performed about 1592. The script is now lost, but here, set out for the actors in neat handwriting, is their crib sheet. A list of the characters, cast members, props and stage effects required for each scene. You are not backstage with them, but are tantalisingly close.
Then we’re brought even further to earth, reminded that the Elizabethans were not the age of grand, polite scholarship of the driest of Shakespearean productions. Beside the Platt is a bear’s skull – a female brown bear’s skull, the label tells us – and she died, probably, from a blow to the back of the head. She was finished off, perhaps, after being almost torn apart by dogs for the entertainment of the crowd. No this is no polite age, not Shakepeare’s.
We can get close to it, see it, almost touch it, but cannot, finally get into it, just as we cannot finally, pin down, lay hold of the bard himself, cannot lay him out for careful scientific study. And that, perhaps, is as it should be. For in the end we have the plays, and that is enough. But we canâ€™t but want to know the man who produced this wonderful stage world, and if we want to know that, and the man, this exhibition is the closest anyone is likely to get â€“ for a generation, and maybe forever.
Searching for Shakespeare opens on March 2 at the National Portrait Gallery and continues until May 29. It will then be touring to the Yale Centre for British Art, New Haven, from June 24 to September 17. Tickets can be booked online. (Timed ticketing.)
Images copyright respectively: By permission of The British Library; University Library, Utrecht