The Adoration of Shakespeare
“I loved the man and do honour his memory on this side idolatry….” Well yes I have to share Ben Jonson’s confession and OK I do accept that such hero worship at my age is rather weird, but what’s even weirder is that I might not even be staring at Shakespeare every time I go to worship my hero. This is the famous “Chandos Portrait” thought to be the only surviving image of Shakespeare created during his lifetime. Probably painted between 1600 and 1610, and possibly by John Taylor, the figure does bear a striking resemblance to the woodcut of Shakespeare which appears after his death in the First Folio of his plays published in 1623. As the woodcut was commissioned by friends and family, we must assume that the painting is a fair resemblance to the actual man which lends support to the claim that the Chandos portrait really is of Shakespeare.
Called “The Chandos Portrait” because it was once owned by The Duke of Chandos, the painting was in fact the first acquisition of the newly founded National Portrait Gallery in 1856. Apart from the occasional national or world tour, the painting has hung ever since in the Gallery and is one of my “must sees” every time I am in London. As this year marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death there are many ceremonies and celebrations of the man’s life, in London, Stratford and throughout the nation- and yes I’ll be attending as many as is humanly possible, especially in April.
Another intriguing fact about Shakespeare is that he probably died on his birthday, April 23rd, which also happens to be St George’s day. The greatest Englishman born on England’s saint’s day and then, having offered to the world the greatest artistic expression known to man departing it on the same date? It does all sound rather too good to be true doesn’t it? And what about the mystery of those words inscribed on his tomb? And what about the mystery of Psalm 46 in the King James Bible? And what about that portrait? Is it really him? The paradox of Shakespeare is that we know so much about him while knowing so little. Each time as I gaze into that portrait I try to fathom the truth and ask –is it really you? – but so far it’s never spoken back to me. More enigmatic than the Mona Lisa’s smile, his gaze eludes discovery. But then this is an artist whose genius lay in the creation of illusion, of playing, of masks, of “lying like the truth.” No surprise then that the man who could create from nothing characters like Romeo, Viola, Falstaff, Lear, Hamlet and make them live beyond the pages that contained them, could also harness that protean skill to defy the limitations of his own physical existence. That painting “teases us out of thought” and I guess I’ll keep on going to pay my respects and keep on asking “is it really you” only really half hoping that one day I’ll have an answer.