The Future of History

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Saint William?

With apologies for taking so long to post since my last offering, let us now return to the subject of Shakespeare portraiture.

It's a thorny subject.  There are quite a few portraits which have been "identified", at one time or another, as Shakespeare, but only a few appear regularly enough to be considered "authentic".  But maybe we're missing something here.

This is the so-called "Flower Portrait", which has been in the Royal Shakespeare Company's collection since it was donated by Mrs Charles Flower in the 19th century.  The portrait is so similar to the more famous Droeshout engraving - printed at the beginning of the First Folio of Shakespeare's plays in 1623 - that for many years it was assumed that the portrait was the original upon which Martin Droeshout the Younger based his engraving.

It was probably the other way round.  Although the Flower Portrait bears the inscription "Willm Shakespeare 1609", it is not contemporary with Shakespeare.  The gold paint visible on Shakespeare's doublet was not available before the early 1800s.  The portrait is a late forgery.

But let us not dismiss it straightaway. It might be a rather crafty copy of a better known image of Shakespeare, but that does not mean it has nothing to tell us.

The Flower Portrait was, in fact, painted over an earlier image.  That earlier image represented the Virgin Mary with the Christ child and St John the Baptist.

I was intrigued when I first came across that snippet of information.  It meant that this image of Shakespeare was painted over a religious image - a Catholic image, you could say.  Bear in mind the fact that William Shakespeare's parents were John (Shakespeare) and Mary (Arden), and you should spot a fascinating coincidence: the Flower Portrait of Shakespeare replaced, as it were, an image of a special child accompanied by two sainted individuals who happen to have borne the names of Shakespeare's mother and father.

Maybe that is just a coincidence.  But the portraits of Shakespeare present us with a conundrum.  The only hint that there might have been portraits of William Shakespeare around during his lifetime comes in a play performed by students at Cambridge University in 1601.  In The Return from Parnassus a character named Gullio expresses great admiration for "sweet Mr. Shakespeare" and vows to obtain a picture of him for his study.

Otherwise, there is no evidence that any of the surviving portraits said to be of William Shakespeare was painted during his lifetime.  But quite a number of "Shakespeare" portraits appeared after his death.  Why?  And why are so few of these accepted as genuine?

There are perhaps two problems here.  The first is, what would count as an authentic image of Shaespeare (and how would we know it if we saw one)?  The second, then, is: what if some Shakespeare portraits were not intended to be exact likenesses, but were intended to perform some other function?  Getting a portrait painted was usually a pretty costly business.  You'd have to be a big fan of the dead poet to want your own version of his portrait.

I think the Flower Portrait might provide the key to this problem.  It was obviously a copy of a well-known Shakespeare image, and it was painted over a religious image.

In the years that followed Shakespeare's death in 1616, a radical and fanatical faction - the Puritans - enjoyed a period of predominance.  These Puritans hated religious imagery with a passion: they considered it "papist" and somehow anti-Christian.  The ownership of any such Catholic imagery would not only be an invitation for an armed mob of Puritans to visit your house and destroy your precious artwork - it would be seen as proof that you were a "popish" traitor.  You could then be imprisoned, tortured, possibly executed, and all your possessions seized.

On the other hand, there were plenty of people who retained their Catholic faith, and many of these belonged to wealthy families.  Whether they supported the Royalist side during the English Civil War or simply clung to the Catholicism of their forefathers, these people bravery trod a dangerous path.  Their ultra-Protestant enemies sought for any opportunity to denounce and ruin them.

Now, as I have tried to establish in Who Killed William Shakespeare?, the Bard was a victim of the vicious sectarian infighting which was rife during his lifetime.  As a Catholic, or a Catholic sympathiser, Shakespeare was always a little suspect, and his death became inevitable when the Puritan faction began to gain ground at the Court of King James.  His death was then followed by a suspicious, eerie silence, as if those who knew anything at all about Shakespeare's beliefs and the circumstances surrounding his death thought it prudent to keep very, very quiet indeed.

If Shakespeare was indeed a martyr to the old religion, his image would have become rather precious to those who, like Shakespeare, kept the faith through the terrible years that followed.  To have a portrait of William Shakespeare would perhaps seem relatively innocuous - "I'm a lover of literature, that's all" - but, at the same time, it was a way of remembering and honouring a famous victim of Puritan malevolence.

The Flower Portrait might be an extreme example of a Catholic devotional image (the Virgin Mary, Christ child and St John) being hidden beneath a portrait of William Shakespeare (parents, John and Mary), but that fact might help to explain the proliferation of Shakespeare portraits after his death.  They were a way for certain families to commemorate a Catholic martyr whilst being able, at the same time, to deny that they were anything other than devoted lovers of plays and poems.

This would indicate that there are, in fact, two kinds of Shakespeare portrait.  These two kinds are not in any way mutually exclusive.

On the one hand, there are the portraits - like the Chandos Portrait in the National Portrait Gallery - that are about as accurate and authentic as you could get.  On the other, there are portraits which were definitely intended to represent Shakespeare, although they might not have aimed for the exact same degree of truth-to-life as the Chandos example.  But they were, all the same, portraits of the Bard, commissioned by an individual or a family which wanted to honour a victim of the Protestant ascendancy and its trademark brutality.

They were, that is, relics - of a sort - and further proof that Shakespeare was a dissident.  Born to Catholic parents, he spent much of his life and career pleading the cause of the embattled "papists".  It was a cause he died for.  And those who remembered this commemorated him by means of his portraits.

We would have known this, had we not been forced into forgetting Shakespeare's Catholicism and the ferocious violence and illegal persecution which was meeted out against the Catholics by the new order.  Such was the determination with which later Protestants sought to distance Shakespeare from his Catholic roots that they perversely created relics of their own - secular mementos designed to honour Shakespeare, not as a Catholic dissident, but as a Protestant mouthpiece.  And after a while, the purpose of the many Shakespeare portraits was forgotten.  They became mysteries, uncertain images of an uncertain subject.

The subject, though, was probably Shakespeare - and the likenesses, though not exact, were close enough to reflect the man who was being remembered and honoured, like a British saint.

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