William Shakespeare – 'Chandos' Portrait (ca. 1610, possibly by Richard
Burbage or John Taylor,
image (c) National Portrait Gallery, London, England; used by permission)
"Shakespeare is the only biographer of Shakespeare; and even he can tell nothing, except to the Shakespeare
Ralph Waldo Emerson: Shakespeare; or, the Poet (Representative Men, Seven Lectures, 1850).
Despite William Shakespeare's paramount literary and theatrical stature, there continues to be an apparently unquenchable amount of speculation and conjecture over his life and legacy, from the exact date of his birth to the question whether the Will Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon was the same person as the London playwright and actor, and whether that person, in turn, really was the (sole) author of the (at last count) 43 plays, 154 sonnets, three long and sundry short poems more or less reliably associated with his name. Even for his appearance, we have few, if any, reliably authenticated contemporaneous pictures – a state of scholarly discussion at least approaching that of consensus currently seems to exist with regard to only three portraits:
As a matter of fact, all these uncertainties are not so very unusual for an Elizabethan era personality not belonging to nobility; and one can probably even make a fair case that we know a good deal more about William Shakespeare than about most other subjects of the Virgin Queen (and her successor James I) outside the ranks of their own class. And whatever as-yet unresolved issues remain, they are not significant enough to shake my personal belief that the gentleman from Stratford-upon-Avon was identical with the London playwright, and that the latter did actually author at least the great majority of the works coming with the byline "written by William Shakespeare." Indeed, but for the notion that reliable insights about Shakespeare's life very likely will also shed some light on the background and interpretation of his plays – and that the conspiracy theories which are bound to fester on ground as fertile for speculation as the blank spots remaining in his biography, in the long run, can likewise only be countered by meticulous research – part of me sometimes even regrets that so much attention is given to matters outside his plays and his poetry: to me, their beauty and majesty alone makes him a larger than life figure that commands my full attention and leaves me little time to worry about anything else.
That all said, here is a summary of the facts on which at least the vast majority of scholars seem to be able to agree.
John Shakespeare, as depicted in a window in Guild Chapel, Stratford-upon-Avon,
(photo (c) Ulrike Boehm; all rights reserved).
The legend reads: "John Shakespeare, held many offices under the Council & served as Bailiff & Justice of the Peace 1568."
Baptismal Register (copy) of April 26, 1564, Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon,
'Gulielmus filius Johannes Shakspere'
(photo (c) Ulrike Boehm; all rights reserved)
The third of eight children (and first son) born to landed heiress Mary Arden and prosperous Stratford-upon-Avon glove maker and alderman John Shakespeare, Will was probably born in late April 1564: church records of the baptism of "Gulielmus filius Johannes Shakspere" of April 26, 1564 in Holy Trinity Church indicate the boy's birthday as of three days earlier, i.e., April 23, 1564. (Dates are given according to the Julian calendar; the Gregorian calendar was introduced in England only in 1752 – almost 200 years after its creation by Pope Gregory XIII and over a century after its adoption by most other European countries.) The family lived in a spacious two-storey home in Stratford's Henley Street, which John Shakespeare had acquired in 1556 and which also housed his glover's shop. After the 1646 death of the last member of the Shakespeare family who had continued to live there, William's sister Joan, the building was converted into a tavern named "Maidenhead."
William's father, himself the son of a farmer named Richard Shakespeare who for a while had been a tenant to Mary Arden's father, Robert Arden of Wilmecote, attained enough public respect to be one of fourteen burgesses serving on the town council in 1560, and to be elected high bailiff (mayor) and justice of the peace in 1568, but in the 1570s lost his fortune and position in society, possibly over a charge of participation in the black market in wool. He only came to regain social and financial ground towards the end of his life, almost 20 years later. After an earlier (1570) application had been withdrawn for unnamed reasons, in 1596 – on the intervention of his now-famous son – John Shakespeare was granted a coat of arms by the College of Heralds: a visual representation of the name "Shakespeare," and the motto "Non sanz droict" ("not without right"), which drew on an ancestor's loyal service to Henry VII.
Of the family's other children, three – William's pre-born sisters Joan and Margaret and his younger sister Anne – died in childhood; another sister of his likewise named Joan, however (the aforementioned last family member to occupy the house in Henley Street) lived to age seventy-seven, a truly high age at the time. She also passed on the family's Thespian gifts, which were thus not limited to William alone, to her son from her marriage to hatter William Hart: William Hart junior, like his uncle Will Shakespeare, in the 1630s became a member of the King's Men, and while he never married, some even believe – though with nary a piece of hard evidence to show for – that he was the father of noted Restoration period actor Charles Hart (ca. 1625-1683). Another family member likewise drawn to the stage was William Shakespeare's brother Edmund, who, however, tragically died at age 27, without ever having been able to establish much of a reputation for himself. (For an overview of the individual family members' biographical data, see the family tree reproduced at the end of this page.)
Although next to nothing is known about William's earliest years, and it is likewise not known with certainty whether either of his parents were able to read and write – John Shakespeare signed documents with a pair of glovers' compasses and Mary with a running horse – Will himself very likely attended Stratford Grammar School (or the King's New School of Stratford-upon-Avon, as it was known as of a 1553 charter) next to Guild Chapel, on Church Street.
Again, there are no records that would confirm his attendance of classes at this or any other school; however, his knowledge of classical Latin and Greek at the very least suggests a course of instruction in these subjects, and more fundamentally speaking, in light of the supreme quality of his writing it seems plainly unlikely that he should have had no formal schooling at all. In fact, John Shakespeare's public position would even have enabled him to send his son to the highly-reputed local grammar school tuition-free. Thus, in writing Act IV, Scene 1 of "The Merry Wives of Windsor" (approx. 1597), where young William (!) Page is questioned about his progress in school by Sir Hugh Evans, Shakespeare may well have drawn on his own experience: the exchange between William, the street smart Mistress Quickly, and Sir Hugh is essentially a pun on the typical roster of subjects taught in 16th century grammar schools (arithmetic, grammar, and Latin), and on the manner of instruction dispensed in these schools. – It seems certain, however, that Shakespeare did not also go on to university.
On November 28, 1582, eighteen-year-old William Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, the daughter of a gentleman farmer from nearby Shottery, whom he may have known via their respective fathers' business dealings, and who was eight years his senior. The couple's betrothal, likely precipitated by Anne's pregnancy, was witnessed by local farmers Fulk Sandalls and John Richardson. Seven months after their wedding – on May 26, 1583 – Anne gave birth to a daughter named Susanna. Two years later, the family was further enlarged by the arrival of twins Judith and Hamnet, born on February 2, 1585 and named for William's friends Judith and Hamnet Sadler, who became the twins' godparents and in turn named their own son William. Considering the similarity of names, the heartbreak striking the family when young Hamnet died, only eleven years later, on August 11, 1596, may well have served as an impetus for the creation of the tragedy "Hamlet, Prince of Denmark;" and it likely also inspired Constance's lament over her son Arthur's death in "King John" (Act III, Scene 4), which was probably written that very year (1596):
Stratford-upon-Avon, England: Holy Trinity Church (photo (c) Ulrike Boehm; all rights reserved)
Young Arthur is my son, and he is lost:
I am not mad: I would to heaven I were!
For then, 'tis like I should forget myself:
O, if I could, what grief should I forget!
Preach some philosophy to make me mad,
And thou shalt be canonized, cardinal;
For being not mad but sensible of grief,
My reasonable part produces reason
How I may be deliver'd of these woes,
And teaches me to kill or hang myself:
If I were mad, I should forget my son,
Or madly think a babe of clouts were he:
I am not mad; too well, too well I feel
The different plague of each calamity.
Yet, almost nothing is known with any true certainty about William Shakespeare life between the 1585 birth of the twins and his arrival in the London theatrical scene. There are varying degrees of circumstantial evidence, guesswork and downright speculation about such things as a hurried flight from Stratford after having been caught poaching on a local nobleman's land, a stint as assistant schoolmaster in Lancashire, and various travels to the continent, but general scholarly agreement has not yet been reached with regard to any of this. What does seem fairly clear, however, is that even after the Bard's own move to London, his wife Anne continued to live in Stratford, and except for the burial of their son Hamnet (which he is thought to have attended, although again there is no solid proof to that effect), Anne may very well not have seen her husband again until 1609, when there is some evidence that he may have returned for a visit during the London theatres' traditional Lent closing. But no other trips back to Stratford are recorded, although that of course does not rule out the possibility of (even frequent) unrecorded visits. Indeed, one should think that, even if a continued affection for his wife wasn't reason enough for him to return home every so often, at the very least the business interests associated with his later land ownership would have given him grounds to return to Stratford from time to time even before that one 1609 occasion.
In any event, Shakespeare is thought to have arrived in London in the late 1580s or early 1590s: even then, a cultural magnet much like today's metropolis; or in some respects even more so – a bustling city of roughly 90,000 inhabitants whose streets, boulevards, courtyards, dockyards, merchants' contors, alehouses and inns were teeming with life, whose citizens were engaged in trades of all sorts (on both sides of the law), and where courtiers and commoners alike delighted in the plays performed at such theatres as the Rose, the Fortune, the Hope (all owned and operated by Philip Henslowe), the Swan, and the Curtain, by companies typically named for their respective sponsors; first and foremost the [Lord] Admiral's Men, led by flamboyant Edward "Ned" Alleyn, who right around this time rose to particular fame with the one hit wonder "The Spanish Tragedie" by Thomas Kyd (1550-1594) – which is sometimes cited as a source of "Hamlet" – and with the plays of Kyd's sometime roommate Christopher "Kit" Marlowe (1564-1593), and who was also the son-in-law of the aforementioned eminent theatre manager Philip Henslowe.
Arend van Buchell: Copy of Johannes DeWitt's sketch of the Swan Theatre, built in 1595 (original sketch lost)
(public domain image from the collection of Shakespeare-related images contained on the website of Professor William Kemp, Department of English, Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg, VA, USA)
For his part, William Shakespeare, too, now fairly soon seems to have established himself as an actor and writer of growing recognition. The first solid indication of this was his characterisation, in rival playwright Robert Greene's "A Groatsworth of Wit" (1592), as "an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you: and beeing an absolute Johannes factotum, is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrey." The phrase "with his Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde" satirises the line "Oh, tiger's heart wrapped in a woman's hide" from captive Richard, Duke of York's rebuke of feisty, French-born Queen Margaret – the wife of King Henry VI of Lancaster – for her taunts over the death of his youngest son in Shakespeare's own "Henry VI, Part 3," written approximately 1590-1591:
She-wolf of France,
Whose tongue more poisons than the adder's tooth –
How ill-beseeming is it in thy sex
To triumph like an Amazonian trull
Upon their woes whom fortune captivates!
O tiger's heart wrapped in a woman's hide!
How couldst thou drain the life-blood of the child
To bid the father wipe his eyes withal
And yet be seen to bear a woman's face?
Women are soft, mild, pititful, and flexible –
Thou stern, obdurate, flinty, rough, remorseless.
Some time after Greene's death, his editor Henry Chettle (1560-1607) apologised to the now famous Shakespeare for the mockery of his play, stating inter alia that he was "as sorry [for his part in that publication] as if the original fault had been [his] fault, because [he himself had] seen [Shakespeare's] demeanor no less civil than he excellent in the quality he professes."
In writing the "Henry VI" trilogy, Shakespeare had drawn on the era's major compendium of the history of England, Scotland, and Ireland, Raphaell Holinshed's 1577 Chronicles, on which he would also base his later history plays, as well as the tragedies "Macbeth" (1606) and, in parts, "King Lear" (likewise ca. 1605-06) and "Cymbeline" (1610-11). Most of his Roman tragedies, on the other hand, owed their core narrative contents to some extent or other to Thomas North's 1579 translation of Plutarch's "Lives;" while his comedies had a variety of sources, including William Painter's 1575 compendium "The Palace of Pleasures," a collection of "'Pleasant Histories and excellent Novelles" drawing, for its own part, on material such as Giovanni Boccaccio's "Decameron" (1353), Matteo Bandello's "Novelle" (the 1554 collection also containing a retelling of the Amleth saga from Saxo Grammaticus's "Gesta Danorum"), and Marguerite de Navarre's "Heptameron" (1559); as well as works by 14th century English poet John Gower (who also appears as the Chorus/ narrator in "Pericles," ca. 1607, and was probably originally portrayed by Shakespeare himself in that role), Ovid's "Metamorphoses;" Richard Robinson's 1577 translation of the medieval chronicle "Gesta Romanorum" (thought to date from the first half of the 14th century), again, North's translation of Plutarch's "Lives," and a number of popular individual Roman, Greek, English, Italian and even Spanish sources.
Raphaell Holinshed: Chronicles of England, Ireland, and Scotland, 1577 – copy
displayed in the Birthplace Exhibition, Stratford-upon-Avon, England
(photo (c) Ulrike Boehm; all rights reserved)
Records show that like the "Henry VI" trilogy, the other early works of the Bard-to-be, "The Two Gentlemen of Verona" and "The Taming of the Shrew" (both likely written between 1589 and 1591), as well as "Titus Andronicus" (ca. 1592), already enjoyed much popularity. They may have been produced by the highly acclaimed Pembroke's Men (named for Henry Herbert, the Earl of Pembroke), or by the Lord Strange's Men, either of which Shakespeare may have joined at some point before 1592. Like Edward Alleyn's Admiral's Men, both troupes often performed at Court. In 1593, William also obtained the personal sponsorship of Henry Wriothesley, the third Earl of Southhampton (1573-1624), and submitted his first long poem – "Venus and Adonis" – with the Stationer's Registrar on April 18 of that year; followed by "The Rape of Lucrece" on May 9, 1594. Southhampton and the Bard remained friends for a long time; there is some speculation to the effect that the Earl may also have been the young man addressed in the first cycle of William Shakespeare's sonnets.
By 1594, Shakespeare was a managing partner, playwright and actor with the Lord Chamberlain's Men, who performed at a Shoreditch playhouse simply known as the Theatre and soon rivalled the Admiral's Men in the role of London's preeminent acting troupe. Like their formidable competitors, they were regularly called to perform at Court, and where the Admiral's Men could boast the acting skills of a Ned Alleyn and the financial backing of a Philip Henslowe, the Lord Chamberlain's Men counted among their number the likes of master comedian Will Kempe and famed tragedian Richard Burbage, who together with his brother Cuthbert also held the majority ownership interest in the company's theatres, which they in turn had inherited from their father James. Among Burbage's greatest parts were the title roles in William Shakespeare's "Hamlet" (ca. 1600-02) and "Richard III" (ca. 1592-93), the latter of which also gave rise to one of the best-known anecdotes in theatrical history:
One day, the tragedian was asked to "entertain" a young lady of society after the show. Always intent to leave a favourable impression on occasions like these (with which, due to his prominence, he was about as familiar as any top-selling movie star would be these days), Burbage took special care to look his best when complying with her invitation, not least because the lady had specifically requested that he come fully made up as Richard III. When he finally arrived at her door, he grandiosely asked her maid to inform her mistress "that King Richard is come." From inside the appartment, however, his announcement was answered in a voice that he knew only too well: "Please inform the gentleman that William the Conqueror came before Richard III ..."
In 1598, Shakespeare moved to St. Helen's parish, Bishopgate, and headlined a list of actors for "Every man in his Humor," a piece by Ben Jonson, who would later become England's first Poet Laureate. Notwithstanding the two playwrights' professional rivalry they were close friends; and the successful 1598 production of his play by the Lord Chamberlain's Men greatly contributed to Jonson's professional fortunes, which had until then depended in no small part on the pieces he had written for Philip Henslowe. Indeed, to this day Jonson's postmortem praise of his famous friend constitutes the cornerstone foundation of all Bardolatry: it is to his pen that we owe Shakespeare's description as the "sweet swan of Avon," the affirmation that he "loved the man ... on this side idolatry, as much as any," and the praise of Shakespeare's works as "not of an age, but for all time." Jonson also authored the poem "To the Reader," which is part of the front matter (preface) to the 1623 "First Folio".
After James Burbage's 1597's death, the Lord Chamberlain's Men had lost the lease of the Theatre and temporarily moved to the nearby Curtain, which they had previously used as their secondary stage. Thanks in no small part due to the financial ingenuity of Richard and Cuthbert Burbage however, they were soon able to build a new, larger stage in the Bankside district south of London, across the Thames, where several other playhouses already existed; among these the Rose, the Swan, and the Hope Theatre, which was also known as the Bear Garden or Bear Baiting House. Timbers from the closed Shoreditch Theatre provided the building materials for the company's new home. They called it "The Globe;" and it opened in July of 1599, bearing the motto "Totus mundus agit histrionem," which roughly translates as "A World of Players," or, in the version that audiences of one of the very first plays produced there, William Shakespeare's "As You Like It," would soon hear proclaimed from the house's very own boards: "All the World Is a Stage." – Also in 1599, Will Kempe left the troupe, probably out of disagreements with Shakespeare over his frequent improvising, which rankled the Bard seriously enough to still make him allude to it some two years later, in Hamlet's lecture to the Players (Act III, Scene 2):
"And let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them. For there be of them that will themselves laugh, to set on some quantity of barren spectators to laugh too, though in the mean time some necessary question of the play be then to be considered. That's villanous and shows a most pitiful ambition in the fool that uses it."
(There is a theory according to which these words are levelled at Will Kempe's role model Richard Tarlton, the Elizabethan Age's first and one of its foremost clowns, but Tarlton already died in 1588, which – even assuming that he and the Bard did cross paths at some point – would make him a far less likely addressee than Kempe. Others, incidentally, also think that Hamlet's put-down of Polonius during the First Player's recital of Pyrrhus and Hecuba – "He's for a jig or a tale of bawdry" – allude to the burlesque Tarlton, who was particularly known for his jigs, and yet others see Tarlton as the model of Hamlet's childhood friend, the court jester Yorrick.)
After Kempe's departure, the role of Shakespeare's clowns passed to the wistful Robert Armin, in whose incarnation their parts were curtailed (sometimes to a single scene), while at the same time assuming a more reflective, but occasionally also sharply satirical stance, such as it is epitomized by Lear's Fool, the Porter in "Macbeth," Feste in "Twelfth Night," and of course also the First Gravedigger in "Hamlet." – Shakespeare himself does not seem to have appeared in any starring roles in his own plays; in addition to some truly minor parts, he is, however, believed to have played crucial supporting characters such as the Chorus in "Henry V," Theseus in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," Menenius in "Coriolanus," Gower in "Pericles," Old Gaunt in "Richard II" and, notably, also the Ghost in "Hamlet."
After James I's accession to the English throne in 1603, the extraordinarily popular Lord Chamberlain's Men were redesignated the King's Men, or the King's Company; their letters patent specifically charging Shakespeare and eight other named members "freely to use and exercise the art and faculty of playing Comedies, Tragedies, Histories, Interludes, Morals, Pastorals, stage plays ... as well for recreation of our loving subjects as for our solace and pleasure." The King's patronage not only further enhanced their popularity but also provided them with a substantial income; as such, records indicate the payment of £30 per person for one 1603 performance alone – performances before Queen Elizabeth, by comparison, had brought their participants £10 each: not a small sum, either, of course.
Documentary evidence indeed suggests that Shakespeare became very affluent during his London years; notwithstanding the fact that he was also listed as a tax defaulter for four years running from 1597 to 1600. He not only owned real property in Blackfriars (where the King's Men also entertained a second – private/ indoor – theatre, which they used as their winter quarters and otherwise leased to children's companies); moreover, he was able to purchase the second largest house in Stratford, a building know as "New Place" just north of the Guild Chapel at the corner of Chapel Lane and Chapel Street, across from Stratford Grammar School. The 1605 acquisition of certain leases of real estate near his city of birth for roughly £440 quickly doubled in value, providing him a yearly income of £60, as well as, conceivably, the freedom to write unencumbered by the need to compromise his time for the sake of financial needs. In 1609, his sonnets were published without his permission, after unauthorised copies (so-called quarto editions) of his plays had already begun to appear in earlier years – the first time a playwright had ever enjoyed so much popularity as to create a consistent and near-insatiable demand for printed copies of his works.
The end of Shakespeare's active participation in Globe Theatre performances came with the theatre's destruction by fire on June 19, 1613, caused by a canon shot from the roof during a gala presentation of his last (or second to last) play, "Henry VIII," probably written that same year. Although the audience, enthralled with the performance, initially ignored the smoke from the thatched roof and only became aware of the danger when the theatre's walls and curtains went up in flames, remarkably there seem to have been no casualties in the ensuing mass exodus. – The next spring, the company had their theatre rebuilt "in a far fairer manner than before," but although Shakespeare still invested in the reconstruction, he himself retired from the stage. The second Globe Theatre, in turn, suffered the fate of all London theatres by being closed by the Puritan regime in 1642, and it was pulled down two years later. It then took until 1997 (!) for a third Globe Theatre to be opened near the original Bankside location, reconstructed according to period drawings and sketches on the initiative of American sponsor Sam Wanamaker.
Shakespeare spent the remaining years of his life living and writing at New Place in Stratford. (The building, which dated from 1483 and stood next to a house later owned by John Nash, the husband of Shakespeare's granddaughter Elizabeth – the only child of his daughter Susanna – was unfortunately pulled down in 1759, and is remembered only by a stone plate and by small parts of its foundation remaining in the garden of Nash House.) Shakespeare had bought the home and land holdings, described in the deed of sale as "one dwelling house, two barns, and two gardens with their appurtenances," in 1597 for £60 with money from his plays, between fifteen and twenty of which had been written and performed at the time of the purchase.
William Shakespeare died on his 52d birthday, April 23, 1616, his last will and testament conveying almost all his property to his daughter Susanna, except for £300 – bequeathed on his daughter Judith – and his "second best bed," which went to his wife Anne (and was indeed their marriage bed, the best one being the guest bed); as well as token gifts to fellow actors, close relations, select friends and the Stratford poor. "Wilh. Shakspere, gent" was buried in Holy Trinity Church on April 25, 1616.
In "Hamlet," the Prince of Denmark comments to royal Counsellor Polonius that "after your death you were better have a bad epitaph than [the Players'] ill report while you live" (Act II, Scene 2): ever the Thespian, Shakespeare himself of course did not leave the composition of his epitaph to just anyone but rather, left the world's stage forever with these last words of his own:
Good friend, for Jesus' sake forbeare
To digg the dust enclosed heare!
Blest be ye man that spares thes stones
And curst be he that moves my bones.
– as listed in The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works, gen. eds. Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor, Clarendon Press, Oxford, UK, 1986/2005. Dates in parenthesis are the approximate years of the plays' composition; plays listed in brackets are only partly attributed to Shakespeare or of uncertain authorship.
1623 First Folio – Cover with engraving signed by Martin Droeshout (By Permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, D.C., USA)
Due to the gaps and ambiguities in the records about William Shakespeare's life – even the name Shakespeare itself, which was very common in the Stratford area at the time, could be spelled any which way from Shagspere to Shaxpere and even Chacsper – there is an ongoing debate over the question whether the William Shakespeare who is the subject of the Stratford records was indeed the same person as the London writer and actor, and whether the body of literary work attributed to that person wasn't in reality, either wholly or in part, authored by others.
The issues surrounding Shakespeare's birth relate to the fact that the Book of Common Prayer required children to be baptised on the next Sunday or holiday following their birth, which in this particular case – assuming a Sunday, April 23, 1564 birth date – would have been Tuesday, April 25 (St. Mark's Day), not Wednesday, April 26, the day the baptism in fact seems to have taken place. Some explanation for the delay may be found in the fact that St. Mark's Day was traditionally considered unlucky – even doomed – but then the baptism still ought to have occurred the following Sunday, not the Wednesday after the eschewed holiday.
A similar mystery seems to concern Shakespeare's wedding, because of two consecutive (and contradictory) entries in the Episcopal register at Worcester: one of November 27, 1582, indicating the granting of a marriage license to "Wm Shaxpere et Annam Whateley de Temple Grafton;" and the other one, of just a day later, affirming "that William Shagspere on the one party and Anne Hathwey of Stratford in the diocese of Worcester, maiden, may lawfully solemnize matrimony together, and in the same afterwards remain and continue like man and wife according unto the laws in that behalf provided." While this is sometimes simply put down to a clerical error, it seems quite possible that Shakespeare in fact did know two young women named Anne, both daughters of friends and/ or business acquaintances of his father's. Why – if both entries in the Episcopal register do refer to "our" William Shakespeare – he would have applied for wedding licenses with two different women on two consecutive days is the subject of a fair amount of speculation, the most popular theory apparently being Anthony Burgess's, according to which the Bard-to-be "was exercised by love for the one and lust for the other" (Burgess, "Shakespeare") and ultimately just did the honourable thing by marrying the woman bearing his child.
Suggested alternative or co-authors of Shakespeare's works include some of the era's most noted personalities, from Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626) and Sir Walter Rale(i)gh (1552-1618) to Sir William Cecil's ward Edward de Vere, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford (1550-1604), and even Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593). Since collaboration was a habitual practice, it is conceivable – albeit at least in the majority of his mature works, stylistically unlikely – that, even if William Shakespeare was the major draftsman, a number of his plays also bear the stamp of one or several other playwrights. He is in fact known to have collaborated with John Fletcher (1579-1625) on "The Two Noble Kinsmen" – which was adapted from Chaucer's "Knight's Tale" – and on "Henry VIII," as well as probably on the lost "Cardenio;" and he is at the very least suspected to have taken more than a page out of George Wilkins's book when writing "Pericles," the only play now part of the accepted canon of Shakespeare's works not yet included in the "First Folio" (it first appeared in the 1663 "Third Folio" alongside a number of plays now considered of doubtful authorship). So, too, Shakespeare is believed to have worked with George Peele (ca. 1556-1596) on "Titus Andronicus" and with Thomas Nashe (1567 – ca. 1601) and others on "Henry VI, Part 1;" and the sole surviving version of "Macbeth" – the one included in the "First Folio" – almost certainly contains later edits and additions by Thomas Middleton (1580-1627), who may have lent a hand in "Timon of Athens" as well. Lastly, Shakespeare is thought to also have contributed individual scenes or helped revise works principally attributed to others, including a play called "Edward III" (whose principal authors remain to be determined with greater certainty), as well as the highly problematic "Book of Sir Thomas More" by Henry Chettle and Anthony Munday (ca. 1560-1633), which even after the death of Elizabeth I, and after substantial revisions, did not make it past the censorship of the almighty Master of the Revels, Sir Edmund Tylney. Collaboration, corruption and multiple revisions are thus issues that need to be taken into account with regard to Shakespeare's plays, just as they are associated with the works of other Elizabethan playwrights. Yet, most scholars agree that the body of works we have come to know as "written by William Shakespeare" were indeed penned (and almost all of them, exclusively) by the gentleman from Stratford. And even granting, for the sake of argument, that there is no absolutely watertight evidence (yet) on the authorship question either way – and notwithstanding the interpretative vagaries some associate with Ben Jonson's poem "To the Reader," found in the front matter of the "First Folio" – the express attribution to Shakespeare alone of the 36 plays published in that compilation, which to this day is considered one of the few authoritative texts of the plays included therein, by his former fellow actors John Hemmings and Henry Condell, should in and of itself deserve the weight of some pretty strong circumstantial evidence in favour of his authorship.
Then, there are the bequests expressly made to some of the King's Men in the will of that Stratford landowner buried in Holy Trinity Church, and the many literary equations of the "gent" from Stratford and the London playwright by the latter's friends and contemporaries, such as his description as the "Sweet swan of Avon" in another memorial poem by Ben Jonson, also contained in the "First Folio" and echoed in a 1637 ode by William Davenant, and in the following inquiry in a commemorative poem by the Stratford gentleman's neighbour Leonard Digges, published in a 1640 collection of the London playwright's poems: "What praise more powerful can we give the dead than that by him the King's men live, his players, which should they but have shared the fate, all else expired within the short term's date, how could the Globe have prospered, since through want of change the plays and poems had grown scant?" (Digges's stepfather Thomas Russell was, incidentally, also one of the Warwickshire acquaintances mentioned in the Stratford will alongside the London playwright's associates from the King's Men.)
Richard Westall: William Shakespeare Between Tragedy and Comedy (1825 – image used by permission of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Stratford-upon-Avon, England)
Equally importantly, "Kit" Marlowe was already killed in 1593, and the suggestion that he didn't actually die but merely went underground in order to to hide from creditors or other enemies not only blatantly ignores the fact that William Shakespeare had already begun to establish himself as a playwright for all the world to see while Marlowe was still alive; it also disregards both Marlowe's own character (and best interests) and those of his plays' star performer, Edward Alleyn, and the latter's father-in-law Philip Henslowe: The flamboyant Marlowe himself would probably have been ill-inclined to give up name recognition for his plays in the first place (not to mention that once in hiding, he would have been decidedly safer if he had ceased to write for publication, period, instead of adopting a pseudonym); but even if he had simply continued to write under another name, it is hard to imagine that the equally boisterous Ned Alleyn and his wife's father Henslowe, whom Marlowe's plays had brought a considerable fortune, would really have let all the fame and fortune associated with the works of "their" playwright go to the rival King's Men and their star (and majority owner) Richard Burbage without exclaiming Foul and Injury over the matter. – Edward de Vere, too, predeceased the gentleman from Stratford by a full twelve years, enough to fall terminally short of having been able to oversee the production of anywhere from twelve to fifteen of Shakespeare's most famous plays, possibly beginning with "Measure for Measure" and "Othello" (both of which are thought to have first been produced ca. 1604) and definitely including such masterpieces as "Macbeth," "King Lear," "Antony and Cleopatra," "Coriolanus," and of course Shakespeare's final works, "Henry VIII" and "The Two Noble Kinsmen," all of which show enough structural and stylistic differences from the Bard's earlier plays to forestall any thought that they might simply have been written earlier and just been produced for the first time after their author's death.
Last but not least, one cannot help but wonder why, since all of these alternative candidates had excellent names of their own – including and in particular as men of letters – they would suddenly have felt compelled to write under a pseudonym ... and why such an immense amount of people as that scheme would have had to involve should have consented to being part of a conspiracy whose sole aim was to conceal the true authorship of some the era's most successful plays (since after all, in light of the Kings Men's extensive connections and enormous popularity, the conspiracy could hardly have been limited to only a small circle of people "in the know"). More particularly, it is hard to conceive what possible motive not one but two English monarchs should have had to be part of that conspiracy: the only theoretical link advanced at all, to my knowledge, is the notion that Henry Wriothesley might have been the illegitimate son of Edward de Vere and Elizabeth I, who was then forcefully kept from succession and who is remembered in Shakespeare's sonnets. This theory, however, quite apart from its disregard of the history of the Southampton title and its other improbably leaps of faith, at a minimum requires the reader to accept that de Vere was Shakespeare, which for the reasons detailed above I can't bring myself to do in the first place. – Possibly even more to the point, though, one cannot help but wonder what should have been Ben Jonson's reasons for being part of such a conspiracy, in which case Jonson would, after all, even have had to lie to himself, as it is in no small part from his personal notes that we know of his association with (and esteem for) William Shakespeare. And then again, conspiracies, even if they do exist on a monumental scale, hardly ever outlive their respective conspirators: history is replete with examples to that. There is absolutely no logical reason why this particular case should be the one exeption to that rule, nor why after, say, 1616 or, for that matter, during and after the mid-1600s Puritan interregnum, anybody should have felt compelled to go on guarding such a secret.
Be the outcome of the authorship debate what it may, well did in any event Ben Jonson do to warn the "First Folio"'s readers not to get too hung up on appearances but focus on the book's contents; and though his warning may simply have been in accorcance with his era's prevailing views which, not without reason, favoured contents over visuals as a rule, he would very likely have had even more to say on the subject had he been able to foresee the debate that would later begin to rage, not only over Shakespeare's identity, biography, and the authorship of the plays associated with his name, but also over the seemingly so simple question: So what exactly did he look like?
Of course there is the statue in Holy Trinity Church, which is thought to have been commissioned shortly after the Bard's death, and which may well be referenced in yet another commemorative poem (again by Leonard Digges) contained in the "First Folio" that expressly mentions "thy Stratford monument," which in turn, together with some other circumstantial evidence, suggests that the statue probably dates from somewhere between 1616 and 1623. However, the portrait most closely resembling (and in fact based on) that statue – the so-called "Stratford Portrait, or Hunt Portrait," – is merely a late 18th or 19th century copy; and for the longest time it seemed anything but certain that so much as a single genuine contemporaneous portrait of William Shakespeare had survived until today: Even the Droeshout engraving on the cover of the 1623 "First Folio" was, after all, a "second hand" impression, on which Ben Jonson already commented in "To the Reader" that apparently "the graver had a strife with nature to outdo the life."
So how, in our age and time, is the poor follower of the Bard's simultaneously overwhelming and somewhat ethereal shadow to know for sure whether an alleged likeness that he or she may have run across in an exhibition, or in an edition of Shakespeare's collected works, really is a fair representation of Ben Jonson's "sweet swan of Avon"? – There are two intrinsic qualities of a picture that primarily offer themselves as starting points for the determination whether you are looking at a genuine life portrait of any given person: on the one hand, the material the portrait is made of (i.e., its frame, canvas, the paints used, etc.), which will tell you whether it is a work of art from the era in question; and on other hand, the sitter's physical features, which may or may not resemble those of the subjects of other portraits known or believed to show the same person. Neither aspect will be determinative in and of itself: knowing that a painting dates from a certain era does not yet answer the question who is depicted in it – this, in fact, had always been one of the major issues associated with the "Chandos Portrait" – and comparing the facial features of the subjects of two or more portraits may perhaps support the notion that you are looking at the same person in each of these pictures, but it doesn't tell you whether either picture is, in fact, a first-hand likeness produced during the sitter's lifetime. (After all, it's virtually a foregone conclusion that nothing will resemble a picture so much as an exact copy of that very picture; in fact, you may even be hard-pressed to determine which is the original and which the copy ... generations of art forgers have survived on nothing but their ability to mimic another painter's works and his style.) In addition, an approach based primarily on the comparative likeness of the pictures' subjects, even if it rests on the bone structure of these persons' heads (i.e., the shapes of their skulls, noses, ears, etc.), and not on features that may change (like their hair line, hair style, beards, glasses, etc.), intrinsically presupposes the pictures themselves to be accurate representations of the persons in question, which is an assumption that you can really only make, if you can make it at all, about photographs – not, however, about paintings or statues. Leaving aside that, with regard to Shakespeare's life, we're talking about a time when the laws of perspective and human anatomy were not yet fully explored anyway, at the very least you have to take into account the simple fact that not all artists are equally talented, and that even the most talented artists may experience a considerable incentive to flatter on occasion – as evidenced, not least, only a few decades before the apex of Shakespeare's life, by Hans Holbein's portrait of Anne of Cleves, which, inter alia by considerably embellishing on the lady's nose, had made King Henry VIII feel so sorely deceived upon personally encountering the woman intended to be his fourth wife that he was instantly turned off her once and for all. Thus, both if you are starting your examination with a portrait's material and if you are starting with the facial features of its sitter, you will also find yourself turning to extrinsic evidence, such as the picture's ownership history, the circumstances of its discovery, its precise dating within the alleged sitter's life circumstances, etc.
Recently, there have been two major research ventures intended to verify the authenticity of a number of portraits heretofore associated with William Shakespeare's name; one, by the (British) National Portrait Gallery in preparation of its "Searching for Shakespeare" exhibition, which ran in London from February through May 2006 and thereafter was hosted by Yale University in Connecticut, USA, and the other, an interdisciplinary approach initiated by German scholar Dr. Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel of Mainz University. The National Portrait Gallery's analysis started from the historic authenticity of the frames, canvases, colours, etc., i.e., the materials used in the creation of the paintings in question, also taking into account, however the various portraits' ownership history, the current state of research into Shakespeare's life, as well as such things as the customs and fashions of the Elizabethan Age. It looked at the "facial likeness" aspect as one of several relevant factors, but never used it as outcome-determinative in and of itself. The analysis initiated by Professor Hammerschmidt-Hummel, on the other hand, focused on the "facial resemblance" aspect first and foremost, although likewise in conjunction with extrinsic evidence of various kinds; including medical expert opinions regarding a number of particularities consistently appearing in the sitters of several of the portraits analysed.
The good news about the results of these two courses of intense scholarly and scientifc scrutiny is that they agree on the authenticity of at least one portrait widely held, though heretofore never conclusively proven, to be of William Shakespeare; namely, the so-called "Chandos Portrait." It arguably remains to be determined with greater certainty who precisely painted that portrait: both the occasional references to Richard Burbage as its creator and to someone named John Taylor, likewise allegedly a fellow actor of Shakespeare's, are somewhat sketchy and ambiguous (the famous List of the Principall Actors in the front matter of the 1623 "First Folio", for example, only mentions Joseph, not also a John Taylor, and no other connections between Shakespeare on the one hand and a painter or an actor named John Taylor whose biography would coincide with that of William Shakespeare on the other hand have been established conclusively). However, the painting's material shows that it actually is from the early 1600s, its probable year of creation (ca. 1610) "synchs" with the Bard's age and personal circumstances of that time, as does the manner of the sitter's depiction as that of a well-to-do actor, playwright, or other member of the growing affluent middle class; and last but not least, the sitter's facial features resemble in essential parts those of both the bust in Stratford's Holy Trinity Church and the Droeshout engraving on the cover of the 1623 "First Folio" – the only two portrayals at least believed to be based on (possibly lost) contemporaneous first-hand impressions by other artists. (According to Professor Hammerschmidt-Hummel's research, the sitter's appearance is also consistent with a number of other portraits associated with William Shakespeare's name, whose authenticity the curators of the National Portrait Gallery for their part, however, have not likewise confirmed – more on this controversy below.)
Unfortunately, the agreement over the authenticity of the "Chandos Portrait" is where the commonality of results of the two research programs ends – at least, as far as the confirmation of portraits as genuine contemporaneous likenesses of Shakespeare goes. They do agree that two other items included in the National Portrait Gallery's "Searching for Shakespeare" exhibition most likely do not represent William Shakespeare: namely, the so-called "Grafton Portrait" and a Canadian discovery that has come to be known as "Sanders Portrait" (a/k/a "the Canadian Shakespeare"). [See note, below.] They also agree that a fourth portrait included in the National Portrait Gallery exhibition, the so-called "Soest Portrait," though intended to depict Shakespeare, is neither a contemporaneous nor probably a realistic one.
The "Grafton Portrait" had previously been the romantic favourite and had inspired, inter alia, the Bard's depiction by Joseph Fiennes in the movie "Shakespeare in Love;" it was, however – although undoubtedly Elizabethan – ultimately determined by the curators of the National Portrait Gallery to depict an entirely different person, because as a 24 year-old travelling actor and young father, which Shakespeare would most likely have been if the portrait had been his, he simply would not have been able to afford the rich clothing worn by the man in that picture. – Concerning the so-called "Sanders Portrait," which is (somewhat vaguely) attributed to a painter called John Sanders, and which bears the inscription "Shakspere, Born April 23 1564, Died April 23 1616, Aged 52, This Likeness taken 1603, Age at the time 39 ys," there is some documentary evidence supporting the notion that the portrait might be one of Shakespeare, and scientific tests performed by the Canadian Conservation Institute have confirmed that the painting's wooden panels and the carbon label on its back really date from the right era. However, the gentleman shown does seem to be considerably younger than the 39 years of age which the Bard would have been in 1603. – Professor Hammerschmidt-Hummel, for her part, has ruled out the authenticity of both the "Grafton" and the "Sanders Portrait" on the basis of their respective sitters' rather obvious facial discrepancies vis-à-vis other portraits known or suspected to be of Shakespeare. – The "Soest Portrait" (or Zoust Portrait), finally, is generally accepted as an intended depiction of William Shakespeare created by Dutch painter Gerard Soest, who was born in 1637; however, it was painted several decades after the Bard's death, possibly as late as during the reign of Charles II – i.e., after 1660 – and is probably based primarily on the artist's imagination, as unquestionably inspired by the "Chandos Portrait." It also used to be known under the names of several of its former owners; i.e., "Douglas," "Lister Kaye" and "Clarges Portrait."
With regard to the remaining two portraits included in the National Portrait Gallery's exhibition – the so-called "Flower Portrait" and the "Janssen Portrait" – scholarly opinion in the Anglo-American world now seem to cast doubt, near-unanimouly, on the notion that they may be true lifetime pictures of William Shakespeare: The "Flower Portrait" had for a long time been suspected to have been the original from which Droeshout's engraving on the cover of the First Folio had been copied; however, the analysis performed by the curators of the National Portrait Gallery revealed it to contain chrome yellow paint from around 1814, which led them to conclude that it is actually an early 19th century copy of that very engraving, made by an unknown artist in conjunction with the resurgeance of interest in the Bard's plays during that period; just as the Stratford Portrait, or Hunt Portrait is a 19th century copy of the statue in Holy Trinity Church. Professor Hammerschmidt-Hummel, for her part, maintains that the portrait which she analysed (and which she – likewise – insists was the original "Flower Portrait") is a genuine and contemporaneous depiction of Shakespeare. According to her opinion, the chrome yellow paint particles found by the curators of the National Portrait Gallery probably didn't come from the original painting in the first place.
The "Janssen Portrait," in turn (named for Flemish painter Cornelius Janssen (1593-1664), who lived and worked in London from 1618 to 1643, and to whom it was attributed for the longest time), was acquired by the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., in no small part because short of the "Chandos Portrait," it can boast the longest consistent history of having been identified as a lifetime portrait of William Shakespeare. However, citing earlier scholarly sources and due to the discovery, in the course of conservation work performed in 1988, of overpaints in the area of the sitter's hairline and forehead, as well as modifications of both numbers inscribed on the picture, "46" and "1610," the National Portrait Gallery's curators think that it may actually have been a portrait of Sir Thomas Overbury (1581-1613), subsequently modified to resemble the Bard. (In that 1988 conservation work, the overpaints on the sitter's head and face were removed, but the inscription remains in its altered form.)
Professor Hammerschmidt-Hummel, on the other hand, had this portrait compared to the "Chandos Portrait" as well as to the "Flower Portrait," a terracotta bust in the possession of the Garrick Club (London) (which the Garrick Club's own catalogue, however – like that statue's twin in the British Museum – attributes to 18th century sculptor Louis-François Roubiliac), and finally, to a 17th century mask inscribed "† AO DM 1616" (i.e., "Died Anno Domini 1616"), which is in the possession of Darmstadt University, and referred to as "Shakespeare's death mask." Her comparative analysis involved a series of lab tests by a German police specialist, using a 3-D computer simulation program employed to determine whether a series of different pictures in fact shows the same police suspect, based on their respective subjects' bone structure and other features typically not undergoing substantial alterations in the human body (as opposed to, say, a person's hairline, beard, glasses, etc.). These tests revealed a substantial likeness between all items included therein, particularly around their respective sitters' eyes, noses, and foreheads.
The debate over who is right seems to be conducted with a certain amount of acrimony: none other than the Chairman of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, for example, Professor Stanley Wells, who had also acted as Senior Advisor to the National Portrait Gallery in conjunction with their "Searching for Shakespeare" venture, in a recent publication referred to Professor Hammerschmidt-Hummel as "a prolific creator of Shakespearean myths" (Stanley Wells: Is It True What They Say About Shakespeare?, Long Barn Books, 2008; p. 58); and she, in turn, does not hold back, either, with her opinion on those who doubt her results. Thus, far be it from me to add fuel to the fire. Ultimately, it seems that although much can be said with regard to any individual element of the two research ventures, it all more or less comes down to the question whether you consider it possible that the National Portrait Gallery did not perform their tests on the original "Flower Portrait," and/or whether you trust Professor Hammerschmidt-Hummel's choice of scientifically reliable comparison pieces for the "Janssen Portrait."
(As a postscript to this part of the discussion it should be noted that the "Janssen Portrait" made headlines yet again in summer 2006, when the owner/ curator of a large private art collection, paintings restorer Alec Cobbe from Surrey, Southern England, discovered that it was an exact copy of a painting which had belonged to his family's collection for centuries, and which had apparently emerged from the possession of Shakespeare's patron Henry Wriothesley, the third Earl of Southhampton. In light of this, Professor Wells is quoted in a July 10, 2006 article in "The Times" as calling the discovery "very interesting," and adding that "[i]t's not impossible that it's Shakespeare." Indeed, according to that article, "scholars have confirmed that Mr. Cobbe's painting is the original of the famous portrait in the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington," and that the latter painting's 1988 restoration reversed its alterations "to reveal its present state – one that corresponds with the Cobbe portrait." [Dalya Alberge: Is this a true likeness of Shakespeare? The Times, London, UK, July 10, 2006.] And I can already see some minds out there going into overdrive and embarking on yet another round of speculation ...)
Of course there are also plenty of pictures known not to be contemporaneous portraits of William Shakespeare, and generally based either on the "Chandos Portrait," the Droeshout engraving, or any combination of the two, such as the "Chesterfield Portrait" (based on the "Chandos," probably dating from the 1660s, attributed, in turn, to Pieter Borseler, Sir Peter Lely, Frederigo Zuccaro and Sir Godfrey Kneller, and itself the inspiration for several subsequent engravings); the "Wright Portrait" (dated ca. 1687-1689 and, according to an inscription on its back, copied by Thomas Wright from a painting in his own collection, with a marked resemblance to the "Chandos" and "Chesterfield Portraits"); George Vertue's engraving at the beginning of Samuel Johnson's 1765 eight-volume edition of Shakespeare's works; the engraving on the first page of Stockdale's 1784 one-volume edition of Shakespeare's works (which boldly proclaimed to contain "a striking likeness of the author," and whose stated purpose was to "supply the wants" of "many of the middling and lower ranks of the inhabitants of this country [who] are either not acquainted with him at all, excepting by name, or have only seen a few of his plays, which have accidentally fallen in their way"); the engraving allegedly based on a miniature by Nicholas Hilliard, bearing a facsimile of Shakespeare's signature and the graceful handwritten notation "Engraved by T.W. Harland from the portrait by N. Hilliard;" the Ely Palace Portrait (ca. 1800 – 1846, named for the collection housing it); Dante Gabriel Rossetti's copy of the Droeshout engraving (which adorned his private copy of Shakespeare's works and was painted ca. in 1846); and last but not least, the "Humphrey Portrait," Ozias Humphrey's 1873 crayon copy of the "Chandos," commissioned by scholar Edmund Malone and bearing an inscription on its reverse which states Malone's conviction that the "Chandos" is genuine and that Shakespeare was about 43 years old when it was painted, which would date the "Chandos" at around 1607.
And then, finally, there are those other likenesses that retain a somewhat questionable attribution; first and foremost a 1588 miniature by Nicholas Hilliard (also known as the "Somerville Miniature"), which bears the inscription "Attici amoris ergo," and which some believe to be another portrait of William Shakespeare at the age of 24, coming from the possession of the Bard's friend Somerville of Edstone (the grandfather of poet William Somerville), but which, although frequently exhibited, is so distinct from all the other portraits that its authenticity (other than truly being a work of Hilliard's) is highly unlikely; as well as the so-called the "Ashbourne Portrait," which was discovered at Ashbourne Free school in Derbyshire in the 19th century, is now in the possession of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., and is claimed as a cornerstone piece of evidence by the adherents of the theory that William Shakespeare was in reality Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. The attribution to de Vere was first made in 1940, based on x-rays revealing that the portrait had been modified (primarily by pushing back the hairline to make the sitter look balder), as well as the notion that the coat of arms visible on the portrait was that of de Vere's second wife, and an inscription giving the subject's age as 47 and the painting's year, seemingly, as 1611 (which would synch with the C.V. of Ben Jonson's "sweet swan of Avon," who was after all born in 1564), and further based on the reading of the inscription's initials "C.K." as referring to the artist Charles Ketel, who is known to have painted two other portraits of de Vere. However, a 1979 restoration in preparation of a Folger exhibition revealed the coat of arms to be that of erstwhile London Lord Mayor Sir Hugh Hamersley, who was 47 years old in 1612, and that indeed, the original inscription had been altered from 1612 to 1611. There is no biographical association between Hamersley and de Vere on the one hand, or Hamersley and Shakespeare on the other hand (and again, it should be remembered that de Vere already died in 1604 anyway).
Still, for all that, arguably the question what precisely Shakespeare looked like became obsolete with the Bard's transformation into a universal cultural phenomenon. Long before the advent of 20th century mass tourism – at the very latest, with the 1769 Garrick Jubilee – his birthplace became the center of pilgrimages by literati big and small, from John Keats (1817), Lord Byron, Alfred Lord Tennyson (1840), Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, Sir Walter Scott, Thomas Carlyle and Thomas Hardy (1896) to Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne (1863), Mark Twain (1873), Herman Melville, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Ernest Hemingway, all of whom obligingly left their signatures on the house's walls and on a window on its upper level. (So if you thought this sort of thing was only invented by modern-day graffiti artists, or by a certain Hollywood movie theatre owner named Sid Grauman, you couldn't have been any wronger.) Tours of the house and its "Shakespeare relics" have been conducted at least since the times of an early 19th century tenant named Mary Hornby, who, when she lost her lease in 1820, without further ado whitewashed the signed walls and removed "the relics" to her new abode across the street, where she continued to display them and entered into blatant competition with the house's new owner, a Mrs. Court – probably much to the distress of more than the one visitor who reportedly commented, in the best of Shakespearean traditions:
"What Birthplace here! and relics there.
Abuse from each! ye brawling blowses!
Each picks my pocket, 'tis not fair,
A stranger's curse on both your houses."
Since that time, William Shakespeare's counterfeit, signature, and best-known quotes have graced everything from a British twenty pound note to numerous shopping bags, coffee mugs, refrigerator magnets, toys, tea towels, letter openers, greeting cards, stationary, commemorative medals and coins, tea towels, action figures (!), pins, badges, and other promotional items; and even Pablo Picasso was persuaded in 1964, for the Bard's 400th birthday, to come up with his own take on the image of the gentleman from Stratford. True to form, Picasso delivered not one but several drawings – including some that take up themes from "Hamlet" – which, together with an essay by Louis Aragon entitled "Shakespeare, Hamlet, and Us" (and a surrealist contribution named "Murmur," also by Aragon) were initially published in a limited edition volume, but have long since become part of popular culture in their own right. All of which in turn brings us, I guess, back to where we started on this page: Does it really matter at all how much we know or can speculate about Shakespeare's life, looks, and identity? Shouldn't his plays be more than enough for all of us – for more than just one lifetime? Ben Jonson certainly seemed to think so ...
Note: This page wouldn't be what it is without the gracious assistance of a number of folks at the following institutions – with none of which I have any personal affiliation whatsoever – who not only provided almost all of the images shown here (in addition to my own photographs), and the permission to use them, but some of whom also provided most valuable guidance and advice in other ways: The Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, D.C., USA (cover of the 1623 "First Folio", Janssen and Ashbourne Portraits, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti's copy of the First Folio's Droeshout Engraving), The National Portrait Gallery, London, UK (Chandos Portrait), The Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford-upon-Avon, UK (Flower Portrait), The University Librarian and Director, The John Rylands University Library, The University of Manchester, UK (Grafton Portrait), The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Stratford-upon-Avon, UK (Stratford or Hunt Portrait, Soest, Chesterfield, Wright, and Humphrey Portraits, Hilliard Miniature, George Vertue's engraving at the beginning of Samuel Johnson's 1765 edition of Shakespeare's works, the engraving on the first page of Stockdale's 1784 edition of Shakespeare's works, Richard Westall: William Shakespeare Between Tragedy and Comedy, and Thomas Newland: Shakespeare in His Study), The Art Archive, London, UK (the so-called "Davenant" Bust of William Shakespeare, attributed to Louis-François Roubiliac), and The Guildhall Library, City of London, UK (The Globe Theatre, Bankside, ca. 1647, John Norden, Map of the City of London, ca. 1653, and Wenceslaus Hollar: Panoramic view of London and the River Thames from the south bank; 1647 etching, 1657 engraving, and 1670 engraving).
I also tried to obtain permission to display an image of the Sanders Portrait, but that portrait's owner and the Art Gallery of Ontario (Toronto, Canada), which maintains a copyright interest in photos of the portrait, refused to give such permission, based, "partly, on the fact that [this] website is not specifically about the portrait, but rather about one of Shakespeare's plays, and partly, because the policy of the AGO is not to provide images for web posting to private individuals." (Email of August 8, 2006.) Though I regret their decision, I will, naturally, abide by it ...
Copyright 2002 – 2009: Ulrike Böhm, all rights reserved.