They say you should never meet your heroes, which has been just as good for fans of literature who for centuries have been told that they would never see an exact picture of William Shakespeare.
Until recently, there were only two definitive portraits of the playwright widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and both were thought to have been painted posthumously. Art critics have even argued that the most famous, the Cobbe portrait, was most likely a painting by the courtier Sir Thomas Overbury, not the Bard at all.
But now it seems that the mystery has been solved. A groundbreaking discovery means that we finally know at least how Shakespeare wanted to be seen.
The effigy on his grave in the Church of the Holy Trinity in Stratford-upon-Avon is believed to have been installed several years after his death in 1616 and, as a posthumous monument, is not an actual image. The 20th century critic John Dover Wilson once characterized him as a “self-satisfied pig butcher.” But new research has found that the bust was, in fact, modeled from life by a sculptor who knew it.
Professor Lena Cowen Orlin, professor of English at Georgetown University in the United States, said: “It is very likely that Shakespeare commissioned the monument. It was made by someone who knew him and had seen him in life. We can think of it as a kind of portrait of life, a design for death that gives evidence of a life of learning and literature. “
Dr Paul Edmondson, head of research at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust (SBT) in Stratford-upon-Avon, said: “This is truly significant. Therefore, we can say that this is how Shakespeare wanted to be represented in our memory. This is huge. It’s a compelling new light on how it looked and how it operated. “
Orlin’s evidence now attributes the bust to a sculptor “other than the one we have been given to understand”, a craftsman who specialized in creating such life memorials and whose workshop was “a few steps” from the Globe Theater in London. where Shakespeare’s plays were first performed.
The painted effigy is a half-height representation of Shakespeare holding a quill, with a sheet of paper on a cushion in front of him. In the 17th century, a Jacobean sculptor named Gerard Johnson was identified as the artist behind him. Orlin believes that the limestone monument was created by Nicholas Johnson, a tomb maker, rather than his brother Gerard, a garden decorator.
He said that Nicholas Johnson also worked on another monument at Holy Trinity Church dedicated to Shakespeare’s friend John Combe. “The evidence is that this man’s monument – he died in 1615 – was created by a London sculptor whose practice was to travel with the sculptures to see his installation,” Orlin said. “If this sculptor had followed his usual practice, he would have been in Stratford sometime in the year before Shakespeare’s death. Even if not, his workshop was around the corner from the Globe. It is very probable that then he would have seen Shakespeare’s face. “
She argued that the inscription painted on the monument’s plaque shows that it was made during Shakespeare’s lifetime, as space was left for funerary data to be added after the playwright’s death. “Whoever came to fill in the date after Shakespeare’s death didn’t understand that they were supposed to use a full line to give that important information,” he said. “The fact that he is so uncomfortable is further proof that the rest would have been done during Shakespeare’s lifetime.”
Orlin concluded that this would explain why Shakespeare, unlike other eminent contemporaries, did not give instructions for a monument in his will. “I would also suggest that he designed or supervised the creation of his own monument,” he said.
His research also links the effigy to monuments that at the time were specifically related to Oxford. The figure wears an Oxford University undergraduate gown, and cushion detail is found on monuments commemorating distinguished lives in their university chapels.
She said that the fact that he wanted to be commemorated with ties to college, even though he never went to college himself, “now suggests a collegiate association that we don’t know about.”
She conducted part of her research at SBT, where she is a trustee. She will reveal her findings at this year’s Shakespeare birthday conference on April 23, hosted annually by the SBT and the Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham. He will include them in a book, The Private Life of William Shakespeare, to be published by Oxford University Press in July.
“Lena shows that the person we thought had sculpted the monument for years, Gerard Johnson, is not the right person and that, instead, Nicholas Johnson produced monuments of people while they were still alive. It is simply amazing. I think the monument will never be the same again after Lena’s investigation. It made us look at him with new eyes, ”Edmondson said.
He described the investigation as “a kind of portrait,” noting that in Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale, Hermione’s statue comes to life at the end. “Lena is bringing Shakespeare’s monument to life,” he said. “What you are saying is groundbreaking.”
Tickets for the conference, priced at £ 5, are available at SBT.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism