Waiting for William, seeing history's greatest writer for the first time





If it's him, we're going to have to rethink the hair. The styled courtier who gazes out of the portrait is undeniably a seducer, and that much was true of William Shakespeare: He was an arch-persuader with language. But we didn't reckon he was such a looker. Frankly, we always thought he was a bald pudge. Whereas this man is bouffant and handsome, complicatedly so, with his doily of a collar and come-hither expression.

The fellow is clearly no earl -- he lacks the arrogant jaw -- but he's someone. Maybe too much of a someone to be a mere playwright. Then again, there's a touch of Shakespearean mischief in his face. He wears a barely checked smile and a blush. He's ardent, and Shakespeare was nothing if not a lover. He loved roses, mirrors, doomed lords and, of course, a good psychological mystery.

The story of the Cobbe portrait would delight him. It's got everything from denouements to sex, and at its heart is the questionable identity of Shakespeare himself. The Cobbe, oil-on-panel circa 1610, is the centerpiece of a controversial exhibit through the first week of October in Stratford-upon-Avon titled "Shakespeare Found." The claim, backed by renowned scholar Stanley Wells, is based partly on the strange coincidence by which it was discovered: It is a dead ringer for a portrait held by the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, a picture that from 1770 to the 1940s was considered legitimately Shakespeare, until it was declared a forgery. Now it's possible that the Folger may not own a sham at all, but a scholarly grail, a true likeness of the bard painted during his lifetime.

For more than 250 years, the Cobbe portrait was a nameless head hanging obscurely in an Anglo-Irish country house outside of Dublin. Alec Cobbe glanced at it a thousand times as a boy and never thought much of it. "It wasn't the most interesting picture in the room, because it was just a man who was supposed to be Sir Walter Raleigh," says Cobbe, a 64-year-old with antic eyebrows who peppers his speech with cricket expressions...

... The hunt for a likeness of the bard in his heyday has turned up various candidates over the centuries, almost all of them illegitimate. Up to now, the painting with the most credible claim as a life image is the Chandos portrait, the star of London's National Portrait Gallery. It shows a dusky, writerly-seeming man with receding hair and an earring. But its provenance is unclear. The search is complicated by the fact that a 1770s mania for Shakespeare souvenirs resulted in a spate of good forgeries. The Janssen portrait held by the Folger was thought to be one of those. The "Searching for Shakespeare" exhibit was therefore really a show about likely and, mostly, unlikely contenders. Cobbe and Laing wandered through the viewing, looking at bogus bards, until they arrived at a far wall, on which the Janssen portrait hung, on loan from the Folger. The oil-on-wood is legitimately dated to 1610, but it was discredited in 1937 when new X-ray technology showed the brow had been over-painted to make the sitter bald. It fell from grace under the supposition that it was altered to look more like the Droeshout. In 1988, the Folger restored the original hairline and exhibited it as an interesting mistake...

... To believe in the Cobbe portrait therefore means subscribing to a version of the man. If it's him, it would mean he had courtly pretensions. It would also suggest he was intimate with Southampton. Could Shakespeare have risen so far -- and presumed so much? Duncan-Jones says no; Wells says yes. Wells acknowledges the patchwork nature of his reasoning. "You have to do a lot of stitching," he says. "Where you've only got a limited number of pieces, you've got to create the links."

To create those links, the inquirer must use the imagination. Let it travel a little. And when you're on the trail of Shakespeare, where do you go?

Why, England, of course...

... The case for the Cobbe, Wells asserts, is complicated and not easy to trace, but after three years of research and evaluations from art historians at Cambridge and the Tate Museum, he was persuaded it deserved higher consideration than the other impostors parading around in wooden frames.

The proof for the Cobbe is not definitive, Wells acknowledges. "I've never declared myself absolutely finally certain." Still, the various strands of evidence add up to "a very strong circumstantial case." ...







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