When Hamlet lifts a skull from churchyard earth, it takes just the word of a gravedigger for him to recognize it:
"Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio; a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. . . . "
Recognizing the man who wrote those lines is quite a bit trickier four centuries later. Although William Shakespeare's plays and poems are the greatest treasure of English literature, we know next to nothing about the man himself — not even what he looked like.
In the past, few authors were public figures, and readers didn't care much about their personal lives or physical appearances. But now, when almost every writer has a Web site and the best way to plug a new book is a guest spot on The Daily Show or the blessing of Oprah, readers hunger for dish about authors just as fans do for any celebrity.
Shakespeare isn't going to Twitter us, of course (2B OR NOT 2B?), but he's both famous and mysterious — even if he did die in 1616.
So when Paul Edmondson, director of learning at the Shakespeare Learning Trust in London, unveiled a rediscovered portrait of Shakespeare on Monday, it created the biggest literary buzz since the revelation of the seventh Harry Potter title.
Debate, scholarly and otherwise, over whether the portrait really is Shakespeare heated up on the Internet before the sheet covering the painting hit the floor. The identification is based on three years of testing and research, but there is no absolute proof, no label on the back in an elegant Elizabethan hand saying, "Zounds, looks just like me! Will Shakespeare."
If it is authentic, it is the only known portrait of Shakespeare painted from life. The skillful oil on wood panel was made about 1610 (when Shakespeare would have been 46) by an unknown painter.
Passed down for centuries by the Cobbe family, who live near Dublin, it was not identified as the playwright until recently. It came to the aristocratic Anglo-Irish family when one of them married a descendant of Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, Shakespeare's literary patron (and perhaps more).
Only two images of Shakespeare have been definitely identified as likenesses of him: the stolid, reserved middle-aged chap with a lot of forehead in Martin Droeshout's engraving for the 1623 First Folio of the plays, and the tubby, almost clownish memorial bust in Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-on-Avon, probably commissioned by Shakespeare's family. Neither was made during his lifetime, and no one knows how accurate a representation they are. About a dozen other portraits have been touted as genuine, but most cannot be connected to him directly or have been exposed as outright fakes.
The Cobbe portrait bears some resemblance to others, but it's a much more vigorous depiction of a handsome, dark-haired, rather dashing man with a fresh complexion, lively eyes and the hint of a smile. He wears a richly embroidered deep-blue tunic and elegant lace ruff, the style of the day for successful gentlemen like the Bard of Avon. (He also looks startlingly like Joseph Fiennes, who played him in the 1998 movie Shakespeare in Love.)
Sara Deats says of the portrait, "He looks like a poet."
Deats, who is Distinguished University Professor in the English department at the University of South Florida and an expert in Renaissance drama, has been teaching Shakespeare's works for decades.
She says, "In my office I have a big poster of the (Droeshout) engraving. But it has never corresponded to the way I imagined Shakespeare. It didn't look to me like the man who could write Hamlet and Lear."
No one knows for sure whether the new portrait is Shakespeare, Deats says. "But the Cobbes descended from the Earl of Southampton, who was his patron and dear friend and the man to whom we believe he wrote the sonnets. So that makes it a probable."
She thinks that students in her classes will respond positively to the portrait. "This is a man who looks sensitive and intelligent — and very handsome."
Because so little is known about Shakespeare's life, disputes about whether he really wrote the plays credited to him have raged among scholars for centuries. "Stratfordians" believe Shakespeare was Shakespeare, but some scholars believe his plays were secretly written by Christopher Marlowe, the Earl of Oxford or several other candidates.
Deats says, "I'm a Stratfordian, of course, but the Marlovians and Oxfordians say Shakespeare could never have written those plays because he was just a country bumpkin. Well, this is not the portrait of a country bumpkin. It's a portrait of a sophisticated, aristocratic man." She says she'll replace her poster with an image of the new portrait "as soon as I can."
Michael Donald Edwards, the producing artistic director for Asolo Repertory Theatre in Sarasota, says of the portrait, "We would love anything that brings us closer to the flesh and blood reality. He's been so taken over by the scholars and historians that it's good to see him as a real man."
Edwards says he was struck to see Shakespeare "so successful-looking. We like to think that, too, that he enjoyed his success.
"He was a star in his day, from a very young age. The Henry VI plays were his Star Wars."
Edwards, whose past positions include a stint as artistic director at Shakespeare Santa Cruz in California, is the director of Asolo's current production of Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale. "Everyone is struck by how beautiful and contemporary and funny it is."
Shakespeare, he says, "is alive in our culture. It is a cool and happy thing to see him on the front page of the New York Times."
I shared Deats' and Edwards' reaction. To my eyes, the Cobbe portrait, glowing with life and looking smart and curious and just a little wicked, seems much more like the endlessly exuberant, insightful, powerful writer whose work I love.
Can we really read the genius of the creator of Hamlet and Othello, Romeo and Juliet, the sublime sonnets, in the forms and pigments of a portrait?
Shakespeare answered that question for us in Macbeth: "There's no art to find the mind's construction in the face." But that doesn't stop us from trying.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435.