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A Rose By Any Other Face Would Write As Sweetly

a rose with this face would write as sweetly, originally uploaded by elefanterosado.

“This is Shakespeare alive, with fresh blood pumping through his veins, painted in his lifetime,” Edmondson said with obvious pride. “The copies look dead by comparison.”

Paul Edmondson, Director of Learning at The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, as quoted in a March 9, 2009 story in The Chicago Tribune.

In my humble opinion, the slave-to-beauty, image-loving scholars doth protest a wee bit much.

And true: I’m well behind the news curve with this post. It’s also true that I’m a pipsqueak among Shakespearean scholars, not to mention a full twenty years out of the loop. Yet as someone with a Master’s in something called “Shakespeare: Language and Power” (from a British University, no less) I felt, at the very least, a responsibility to stop hiding and come clean with (what will undoubtedly prove to be), an unpopular response to the newly unveiled portrait of the Bard.

Give this girl the old balding, earring-clad, black and white Willie any day. For it is this beloved, homely and plastic likeness that stands unpresumptuously atop my bureau, and the face that stares back at me from my coffee mug of Shakespearean insults (courtesy of the good folks over at The Unemployed Philospher’s Guild). It is the imagined face that accompanied me into seminars and lectures at The University of Lancaster, where I learned to adhere to a new and radical approach to Shakespeare, fueled in the 1980’s by Jonathan Dollimore’s New Historicism and Catherine Belsey’s Cultural Materialism.

Most recent news stories accompanying the “pinup” portrait of the Bard seem to come juxtaposed with at least as handsome an image of a bearded and beaming Stanley Wells, chairman of the Shakespeare Trust. Though undeniably a reliable and knowledgeable Shakespearean scholar, Well’s adoration of the newly consecrated, rosy-cheeked Bard reminds me somewhat uncomfortably of the general populace’s programming by People Magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People in The World edition. We’re invited, by hook or crook, to get on board with their overriding (and not so secretly) subliminal message: “I’m Beautiful, Therefore I am.”

I get the same uncomfortable sense of subtle manipulation when I hear scholars and historians gush on about the Cobbe portrait. While I don’t deny that it is an event of historical importance, what troubles me is a certain aspect of elitist gloating regarding its discovery. For though no scholar protective of their reputation would dare openly admit it, I can hear the collective sigh of relief, accompanied by the smug refrain of: “At last! Here it is! A beautiful face and extravagant attire to complement the most graceful and eloquent language written by any human being. Oh yes, this man could have written those beatific words. But that ugly imposter with the receding hair line and earring surely could not have.”

Indeed, rosy cheeks and a handsome face—to say nothing of the opulence of a white lace ruff and a gold-trimmed blue tunic—may be all the empirical evidence centuries of naysayers need to rest assured, at long last, that the plume was indeed held in the fair, never-roughened hand of The Bard from Stratford, rather, than say, Edward de Vere, The Earl of Oxford. Oxford has long been the most likely pretender to the throne of Shakepeare’s canon because, well, Oxford was not only handsome, but rich. Now we have proof—almost beyond a shadow of a doubt—that Shakespeare was just as rich, and (damn it all) even more handsome.

What I find most ironic is how readily the very experts who ballyhoo the new image are willing to suspend their belief in the illusion of theater, the very platform which defined Shakespeare’s life and of which he was a veritable master. The great playwright who wrote “all the world’s a stage” was acutely aware that life and art simultaneously and continuously imitate one another. It is therefore within the distinct realm of possibility that a reasonably successful, middle-aged commoner could and would reinvent himself for posterity by the simplest means at his disposal. He could and very well might have begged, stolen or borrowed an elegant doublet, hose, and collar. Even down market photo studios of the current century offer costumes for their customers’ amusement and/or physical edification.

The problem with images is that they are susceptible to alteration, as anyone who has ever airbrushed the tear sheet of a fashion model will tell you. As any photographer who habitually and skillfully employs Photoshop will tell you.

In fact, both the artifice and optical illusion surrounding stunning portraiture reminds me of a conversation I once had with my grandfather regarding the fine paintings of my mother and aunt he had commissioned when his daughters were both in their twenties, and which he had suspended with elegance from the grand walls of the stately manor house he shared with my grandmother in Princeton, New Jersey. My mother, clad in green, looks elegant and redolent, her auburn tresses of medium length and curled under in carefully coiffed 1950’s fashion. My aunt, over in her own frame, looks slightly less attractive in a dress of bluish white. Her hair is both noticeably shorter and straighter than my mother’s. So much shorter, in fact, that I asked my grandfather about women’s hairstyles of the day.

“Your aunt insisted on that boy’s bob, which I thought was awful,” my grandfather told me bluntly. “So I told the painter he’d better add some hair around the back of her neck, or I wouldn’t pay him.”

I’m reminded too of an old storybook rhyme, which described with tongue-in-cheek playfulness the sour note of Henry VIII’s first meeting with Anne of Cleves, the woman who was destined to briefly become his fourth wife. According to the poem: “When he met her face to face, another royal divorce took place.” Actually, it was an annulment, and the marriage was never consummated. Indeed, the German born Anne may have been spared from the executioner’s axe that fell on two of Henry’s other wives due to an unlikely good fortune: in the flesh, she proved too homely for Henry. The artist Hans Holbein The Younger, though instructed not to flatter Anne via his brushstrokes, had obviously taken some liberties. It seems Anne turned out to be swarthy of complexion, solemn by English standards, and old for her age. Holbein’s image of a woman with a high forehead, heavily lidded eyes and a pointed chin were not an honest likeness, at least according to Henry. He married her most unwillingly and sought the annulment the following day.

The time frame of the Ann of Cleves/Henry VIII incident hardly seems insignificant. Henry VIII was the father of Elizabeth I, the reigning monarch during Shakepeare’s lifetime. Henry VIII’s reign lasted from 1509 until his death in 1547. Elizabeth ascended to the throne in 1558 and stayed there until her death in 1603. Portraiture practices can scarcely have changed much in the eleven years between the father and daughter’s respective reigns, nor, if we remember my grandfather’s story, have they much in the 400 years which have elapsed since.

To me, the wisdom of Shakespeare’s writing speak volumes more regarding his views of the physical form than any likeness of his own mortal flesh ever could. In the oft-quoted Act I, scene ii soliloquy of Hamlet, our protagonist laments: “O! That this too too solid flesh would melt, thaw and resolve itself into a dew.” Shakespeare understood that when the curtain came down, the illusion of theater melts, thaws and resolves itself into dew. Indeed, it is impossible for any dedicated scholar to read the canon and miss the great playwright’s many and continual play-within-a-play allusions to illusion.

When it comes to historical analysis, we can only be one hundred percent certain of one thing: that Shakespeare belonged to that grand specter of theatrical illusion of which he was an undisputed master.

Although my humble plastic replica of the great dramatist may now be regarded with a full measure of skepticism towards its authenticity (compared with the ninety percent vote of confidence for the Cobbe portrait), I still take comfort in its unpretentious plainness. For this Shakespeare appears graciously unconcerned—with form, eternal beauty, or the egocentric need to fall headfirst into the gorgeous puddle of narcissism that will eternally reflect only his perfect likeness. My Shakespeare is happy—amused even (to quote no less a person than himself)—to return to that “quintessence of dust” from whence he came.

© All rights reserved by Mary Alden-Allard. Content may not be reprinted except by express written permission of the author.


Comment from Tom Humes
Time March 19, 2009 at 1:02 pm

Nice Site layout for your blog. I am looking forward to reading more from you.

Tom Humes