The Face of Shakespeare?

March 11, 2009 at 1:47 am (Anglophilia, Art, Shakespeare)

A painting in the collection at Hatchlands, a stately home in Surrey, has just been identified as a portrait of William Shakespeare.

Until now, there have been two likenesses thought to portray the Bard. The first is the frontispiece in the First Folio, the collection of his plays published seven years after his death in 1616. It’s a copper engraving by an artist of Flemish descent, Martin Droeshout.


The second is the so-called Chandos Portrait, which currently hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London:


The artist may have been one John Taylor; the subject may have been William Shakespeare. There is no absolute certainty on either point.

And now, this:


The work dates from 1610, which means it was executed during the playwright’s lifetime. Stanley Wells, emeritus professor of Shakespeare studies at Birmingham University and chairman of the Shakespeare Birthday Trust, believes that this is in fact the face of Shakespeare.  Others, such as Andrew Dickson of The Guardian, have reservations.

I’ve always had a fondness for the Chandos portrait. The hint of a smile, the somewhat indirect gaze – behold, they show us a mystery…

This article in the Telegraph features a video on the subject of this recent, rather significant find.  (Stanley Wells is married to Susan Hill, a writer I esteem highly. I love this small world quality of British intellectual life!)

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Once again, in thrall to Shakespeare: The Winter’s Tale at the Folger Theatre

February 27, 2009 at 1:06 pm (Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Shakespeare)

folger-theatre “I am a feather for each wind that blows.” Thus mourns Leontes, ruler of Sicilia. He has allowed himself to become prey to an overmastering  jealousy, and in so doing,  has destroyed his family. It will take sixteen long years for the damage to be repaired.

Of course, the theme of irrational jealousy puts us in mind at once of Othello. But The Moor was goaded to a savage paranoia by the machinations of the crafty Iago. Leontes’s demons spring solely from his own overheated imagination. As the drama commences, he has asked his wife Hermione to persuade Polyxenes, King of Bohemia, to extend his stay  in their company. Alas, in her efforts to prevail upon their guest, Hermione displays too much warmth for her husband’s liking. The fact that she is great with child only exacerbates Leontes’s suspicions. (Whose child is it?) He will not be reasoned with, even when the formidable Paulina, wife to one of Sicilia’s preeminent lords, brings her considerable powers of persuasion to bear upon him. Paulina pleads for Hermione, whom she loves and knows to be virtuous and true. But Leontes’s rational mind is in eclipse; he will not alter his position.

Daniel Stewart as Leontes and Naomi Jacobson as Paulina

Foreground: Daniel Stewart as Leontes and Naomi Jacobson as Paulina

Once the green-eyed monster is unleashed, there is no stopping its destructive force.

I found myself thinking about jealousy and its causes. Today science can provide a definitive answer as to a child’s parentage. This is, however, a relatively recent development. In Shakespeare’s time, there was only the word of the parties involved to offer any assurance. Once a man began to mistrust a wife or lover, there was no easy corrective to hand. Especially where important families were concerned, questions of lineage were crucial. It is perhaps not hard to see that once suspicion took root, especially in a weak or troubled mind, it might easily grow rampant. Thus it proved for Leontes and his hapless queen.

Florizell (Dan Crane) and Perdita (Laura C. Harris)

Florizell (Dan Crane) and Perdita (Laura C. Harris)

There are echos of other works besides Othello in The Winter’s Tale. The lovers Florizell and Perdita at play in the countryside evoke memories of  characters in As You Like it. A statue come to life recalls the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea. At the same time, one also feels the presence of the eternal verities – the obstacles that lovers must overcome; the contrition that must be genuine and heartfelt in order for forgiveness to occur.

After the intermission, we playgoers found ourselves confronted with a scene that contrasted markedly with those that had come before. The stage set erupted in sunflowers; multicolored lanterns descended from above. Clearly this is a place of happiness. Shepherds stroll about, and a fascinating character named Autolycus insinuates himself into the action – he is, in the words of Shakespeare scholar Marjorie Garber, “the trickster, peddler, cheat, and self-described  ‘snapper- up of unconsidered trifles.'”  In her introduction to the Pelican Shakespeare edition of the play, Frances E. Dolan observes that  “Autolycus, cavorting and picking pockets amidst the shepherds of pastoral fantasy, is a figure from London street life – from the underworld, not the green world.”

Florizell and Perdita are there, as well, as Florizell’s father Polyxenes, disguised as – you guessed it – yet another shepherd. At one point, Perdita, decked out as Flora goddess of flowers, hands posies round to various characters. One is instantly put in mind of the scene in Hamlet where Ophelia does the same thing, although in a setting pervaded with gloom instead of gaiety.

As I watched the festivities on stage, I thought about life and death in Shakespeare’s England. I read somewhere that many of  the Bard’s fellow playwrights died before reaching the age of forty. Life expectancy was so much less than it is now; you could cut yourself and, if the wound became infected, be dead in a matter of days. And yet the characters onstage were embracing life joyously, even recklessly, perhaps even more so in the knowledge of  how capricious fate could be.

Autolycus displays his wares in a painting by Charles Robert Leslie (1836)

Autolycus displays his wares in a painting by Charles Robert Leslie (1836)

I came to this performance knowing next to nothing about The Winter’s Tale. I did know that it contains what is probably Shakespeare’s most famous stage direction: “Exit, pursued by a bear.” (At the Folger, this was staged with piquant playfulness – and a small stuffed bear!) There is, of course, much more to engage us, such as this chilling passage in which Leontes tries to explain his drastically altered state of mind:

There may be in the cup
A spider steeped, and one may drink, depart,
And yet partake no venom, for his knowledge
Is not infected: but if one present
Th’ abhorred ingredient to his eye, make known
How he hath drunk, he cracks his gorge, his sides,
With violent hefts. I have drunk,
and seen the spider.
(Act II Scene 1)

From anguish to sheer joy, as Florizell pours out his love for Perdita:

What you do
Still betters what is done. When you speak, sweet,
I’d have you do it ever: when you sing,
I’d have you buy and sell so; so give alms;
Pray so; and, for the ordering your affairs,
To sing them too: when you do dance, I wish you
A wave o’ the sea, that you might ever do
Nothing but that; move still, still so,
And own no other function: each your doing,
So singular in each particular,
Crowns what you are doing in the present deed,
That all your acts are queens.

(Act IV Scene 3)

Perdita, by Anthony Frederick Augustus Sandys (1866)

Perdita, by Anthony Frederick Augustus Sandys (1866)

Here is Frances E. Dolan’s succinct summation of the action and the effects of The Winter’s Tale:

“In its extremes of emotion felt simultaneously, its jumble of images, its improbabilities, the play feels like a dream. Leontes’ jealousy has the texture of a nightmare, and turns life for Polyxenes and Hermione into a nightmare as well. Nothing is what it seems; the familiar becomes suddenly, terrifyingly strange, yet order is restored as suddenly and surprisingly as it was  disturbed.

That sense of the familiar becoming “terrifyingly strange” reminds me of how many of us felt immediately after the attacks of September 11, 2001. The restoration of order, after a shock of such magnitude, is, of course, what we all desperately craved. And it is that restoration – a positive and gratifying outcome –  which makes The Winter’s Tale technically a comedy rather than a tragedy (although I have seen it referred to variously as a “problem play” and a late romance).

A party of four us saw the play this past Sunday, and on the way home we were marveling – yet again – at the deep knowledge of the vagaries of the human condition bodied forth in these remarkable dramas. As a reviewer of Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World observed, the mystery is not so much that we know so little of Shakespeare’s life some four hundred years ago. The real mystery is that over that same time span and living in such a different world, he knew so much about us.


Note: In the scenes in Sicilia, several of the male characters are attired in pinstripe suits. In the course of Hermione’s trial, Leontes seeks to verify his obsession with her supposed infidelity by having two of his lords travel to Greece to consult with the oracle at Delphi. Now, the juxtaposition of men in pinstripes and the famed oracle of ancient times was somewhat disconcerting. But then you remember that you are in Shakespeare’s dream world, where all things are possible.


In this short video, Daniel Steward (Leontes) and Connan Morrissey (Hermione) discuss their respective roles in The Winter’s Tale.

The Winter’s Tale runs through March 8 at the Folger Theatre.

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All hail the Bard! Henry IV Part One at the Folger

November 11, 2008 at 2:53 am (Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Shakespeare)

henry-iv-play-bill Lucky me, to have seen this marvelous production yesterday! All the performers did a splendid job, and it was a special treat to see Delaney Williams of The Wire playing that inimitable rascal Sir John Falstaff.

Delaney Williams as Jay Landsman in The Wire

Delaney Williams as Jay Landsman in The Wire

and as Falstaff in Henry IV Part One

and as Falstaff in Henry IV Part One

The Falstaff scenes are certainly entertaining. They give Prince Hal’s vocabulary great scope. How many ways can you call someone fat? Here’s one of the best known:

“Falstaff sweats to death, / And lards the lean earth as he walks along.”

Falstaff himself utters what is probably the play’s most famous line: “The better part of valor is discretion, in which better part I have sav’d my life.”  I was waiting to hear this – it isn’t spoken until the last act – and so, I think, were others, as the audience greeted it with delighted laughter.

Here’s an interview in which Delaney Williams talks about playing Falstaff.


I last saw this play at Stratford-Upon-Avon some forty years ago. So this was a special occasion for me and brought back memories of my youthful solitary –  and revelatory –  trek through England.

henryfive One of the delights of Stratford was that as you walked the theater’s park-like grounds, you saw the actors doing likewise. And one of the many pleasures of the Folger is that you encounter the actors in a similar way, though the setting is decidedly more urban. We parked on a side street by the theater, a privilege for which one must ordinarily pay. It being Sunday, though, we were reasonably sure we didn’t have to feed the meter. We asked a young man passing by, and he reassured us on the question. About an hour later, he appeared before us on the Folger’s stage – one of the actors in this fine production!

Falstaff and his nefarious doings constitute a welcome and boisterous distraction, but there’s a very serious question at the heart of this play: can the scapegrace Prince Hal shake off his youthful indiscretions in time to assume the mantle of ruler?  Eventually he does prove himself in battle, much to his anxious father’s relief.

agincourt I couldn’t help thinking of the book Agincourt: Henry V and the Battle That Made England. Juliet Barker tells the astonishing story of the battle that should have been impossible for the English to win – and yet win it they did.

Tom Story as Prince Hal

Tom Story as Prince Hal

And once again we return to Shakespeare, this time Henry V and the King’s famous exhortation to his troops, the Saint Crispin’s Day Speech:

“This day is called the feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian:’
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.’
Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day: then shall our names.
Familiar in his mouth as household words
Harry the king, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remember’d.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember’d;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day”

Here’s the Washington Post’s review of Henry IV Part One. I also liked this piece from DC Theatre Scene, as the writer’s affection for the play and delight in this production mirror my own.

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Readings: Shakespeare

May 6, 2008 at 9:05 pm (Book review, books, Magazines and newspapers, Shakespeare, Uncategorized)

Those devoted to the works of Shakespeare should enjoy this article about Stephen Greenblatt that appeared in the Sunday New York Times’s Arts & Leisure section. Seems that Greenblatt, one of our leading Shakespeare scholars and author of the wonderfully readable Will in the World , has himself written a play!

[Stephen Greenblatt, left, with his collaborator Charles Mee]

Here’s a review of Will in the World that appeared recently in the Howard County Library’s blog, “Highly Recommended.”

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All Hail Macbeth! The Folger Theatre’s stunning production

March 10, 2008 at 11:22 pm (Performing arts, Shakespeare)

macbeth-playbill.jpg This is the scariest, most formidable Macbeth imaginable. The play begins, in a sense, before it begins, with a lengthy announcement, presumably from the management. The announcer’s spiel is cut short in a way that theatergoers will not soon forget. (I will say no more about this, in case you are lucky enough to have tickets.)

Extreme stagecraft was employed in this production. Sudden loud noises, abrupt appearances and disappearances, blindingly bright strobe lights – and buckets of blood. In the capable hands of directors Teller (of Penn and Teller fame) and Aaron Posner, these elements intensified the focus on Shakespeare’s language and on the anguish of the characters. A collective “Ah!” seemingly arose from the packed house on many occasions. I felt as though I were watching the prototype of tragedy, reduced to its most laserlike capacity to terrify.

macbath.jpg Ian Merrill Peakes as Macbeth is transfixed by “a dagger of the mind.”

The acting is first rate. I admit to a prejudice where Shakespeare performances are concerned: I prefer the actors’ speech to have a British inflection. These were American actors, so they spoke American English. After the first five minutes or so, it ceased to matter. I was mesmerized and stayed that way, right to the end.

As this most inexorable of tragedies unfolded, certain lines of dialog seemed to leap out and hang in the air. Many of them were uttered by that archetype of bad influence, Lady Macbeth:

“The raven himself is hoarse / That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan / Under my battlements.

“We fail!/ But screw your courage to the sticking place / And we’ll not fail.

“Look like the innocent flower / But be the serpent under’t.

There she is, giving her hapless husband lessons on how to be evil! But of course all of it catches up with her and overpowers her in the famous sleepwalking scene in Act Five. Here she plaintively voices her amazement:

“Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?”

And finally, this line, which for some unaccountable reason chilled me to the bone: “The Thane of Fife had a wife; where is she now?”

macbeth1.jpg Ian Merrill Peakes, with Kate Eastwood Norris as Lady Macbeth

The play’s most famous speech is uttered by Macbeth himself, when he hears of his wife’s death:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

These may be the most despairing, nihilistic lines Shakespeare ever wrote.

bloom.jpg In Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Harold Bloom observes: “Macbeth suffers intensely from knowing that he does evil, and that he must go on doing ever worse.” Later in the same paragraph: “He scarcely is conscious of an ambition, desire, or wish before he sees himself on the other side or shore, already having performed the crime that equivocally fulfills ambition. Macbeth terrifies us partly because that aspect of our imagination is so frightening: it seems to make us murderers, thieves, usurpers, and rapists.”

I think Bloom is saying that because Macbeth seems at first to be a decent sort – decent in the way we like to think ourselves as being decent – that his swift descent into an infamous kind of Hell seems to exemplify a fate that could befall any one of us. Perhaps this accounts for the claustrophobic unease of the viewer caught up in the play’s precipitous downward trajectory.

macbeth200.jpg “By the pricking of my thumbs, / Something wicked this way comes.” The three witches, truly gruesome hags, were played by male actors. The witches are more often referred to as the the weird sisters. shakespeare-garber.jpg In Shakespeare After All, Marjorie Garber tells us that “Wyrd is the Old English word for “fate,” and these are, in a way,classical witches as well as Scottish or Celtic ones, Fates as well as Norns. The Three Fates of Greek mythology were said to spin, apportion, and cut the thread of man’s life. But the Macbeth witches are not merely mythological beings, nor merely historical targets of vilification, and superstition; on the stage, and on the page, they have a persuasive psychological reality of their own.”

The run for the Folger’s production of Macbeth has been extended; tickets are currently almost impossible to get. People are advertising for them on Craigslist. I’m not surprised.


Addendum, March 11: I meant to mention Thomas De Quincey’s tremendously insightful essay, “On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth,” first published in 1823. In this passage, De Quincey describes the moments that follow Duncan’s murder:

“Here, as I have said, the retiring of the human heart and the
entrance of the fiendish heart was to be expressed and made sensible.
Another world has stepped in; and the murderers are taken out of the region
of human things, human purposes, human desires. They are transfigured: Lady
Macbeth is “unsexed;” Macbeth has forgot that he was born of woman; both
are conformed to the image of devils; and the world of devils is suddenly
revealed. But how shall this be conveyed and made palpable? In order that a
new world may step in, this world must for a time disappear. The murderers,
and the murder, must be insulated–cut off by an immeasurable gulph
from the ordinary tide and succession of human affairs–locked up and
sequestered in some deep recess; we must be made sensible that the world
of ordinary life is suddenly arrested–laid asleep–tranced–racked into
a dread armistice: time must be annihilated; relation to things without
abolished; and all must pass self-withdrawn into a deep syncope and
suspension of earthly passion. Hence it is, that when the deed is done,
when the work of darkness is perfect, then the world of darkness passes
away like a pageantry in the clouds: the knocking at the gate is heard; and
it makes known audibly that the reaction has commenced: the human has made
its reflux upon the fiendish; the pulses of life are beginning to beat
again; and the re-establishment of the goings-on of the world in which we
live, first makes us profoundly sensible of the awful parenthesis that had
suspended them.

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“Under the greenwood tree…:” AS YOU LIKE IT at the Folger

October 31, 2007 at 7:33 pm (Performing arts, Shakespeare)

as-you-like-it-playbill.jpg The Folger Theatre in Washington D.C. has begun its 2007-2008 season with As You Like It. I was privileged to attend this past Sunday’s performance. It was the first time I’ve ever seen this play, and the experience reinforced my belief that in order to fully appreciate Shakespeare’s genius, you must both read and see the plays.

amandaquaid.jpg noel-velez.jpg lover.jpg

This production starred Amanda Quaid as Rosalind and Noel Velez as Orlando. I say “starred,” but to me, it was great acting – and good chemistry – on the part of the entire ensemble that made the production work. The supporting cast was truly excellent. The review in the Washington Post was generally favorable, with a few reservations, not necessarily shared by me. I don’t have the critical skills or knowledge to evaluate theatrical productions; I tend merely to be very grateful to be there and to be both entertained and enlightened, as I was on Sunday. Favorite moments: jon-reynolds.jpg When Amiens (Jon Reynolds) and one of the shepherds sang “Under the greenwood tree.” I had tears in my eyes, not sure why. (“Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean…”) sarah-marshall-playbill.jpg Also almost any scene featuring Touchstone. The role was played by actress Sarah Marshall; her comic turns and impeccable timing alone would have been worth the price of admission!

One of the many joys of attending a Shakespeare play is hearing phrases and expressions that you’ve heard all your life. msilvermanh.jpg For instance, Celia (Miriam Silverman) exclaims, “Well said: that was laid on with a trowel.” ( Act I, Scene II) And then there is the pleasure of hearing old friends in context, like the famous “All the world’s a stage” disquisition, delivered with a sort of bemused wonder by Jacques (Joseph Marcell). joseph_marcell203_203x152.jpg

Other favorite quotes:

“O, how full of briers is this working-day world!” (Rosalind, Act I, Scene III)

“Beauty provoketh thieves sooner than gold.” (Rosalind, Act I, Scene III)

“Blow, blow, thou winter wind, / Thou art not so unkind / As man’s ingratitude.” (sung by Amiens, Act II, Scene VII)

“When a man’s verses cannot be understood, nor a man’s good wit seconded with the forward child, understanding, it strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little room.” (Touchstone, Act II, Scene III) I have read that the “reckoning” alluded in that line might be an oblique reference to the murder of Christopher Marlowe. Hearing it, even spoken in jest, I broke out in goose flesh!

“Come woo me, woo me – for now I am in a holiday humour and like enough to consent.” (Rosalind, Act IV, Scene I)

“But O, how bitter a thing it is to look into happiness through another man’s eyes.” (Orlando, Act V, Scene II)

“Do you not know I am a woman? When I think, I must speak.” (Rosalind, Act III, Scene II). I hadn’t heard these lines before, but Rosalind/Quaid delivered them with just the right emphasis, causing the audience to burst into laughter!

And my own favorite favorite passage, spoken by Duke Senior in Act II, Scene I, as he celebrates the conditions of his exile in the forest of Arden:

“And this our life, exempt from public haunt, / Finds tongues in trees, books in running brooks, / Sermons in stones, / And good in everything.”

To this Amiens adds, simply: “I would not change it.”

Indeed not.

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It takes bloody nerve for a rank amateur to write about Shakespeare – but here goes anyway, with all due brevity and humility!

July 24, 2007 at 12:11 pm (Shakespeare)

pooletempest.jpg Last month I saw The Tempest at the Folger Theatre in Washington DC. It was the first time I had seen that particular play. I enjoyed it greatly and learned from the performance. I loved the way Ferdinand and Miranda gazed out over the audience as Prospero presented his fabulous pageant. But then, suddenly: “Our revels now are ended.” Here is that famous passage in its entirety:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

Act 4 Scene 1

shakespeare-after-all.jpg These are “…lines that seem to resonate across the centuries,” observes Marjorie Garber in her mighty tome, Shakespeare After All. garber.jpg (And isn’t Marjorie Garber worthy of admiration! The William R. Kenan Professor of English and American literature and the chair of the Department of Visual and Environmental Studies at Harvard, possessor of homes in Cambridge and Nantucket, here she sits, looking justifiably proud, with her two splendid retrievers.)

I was deeply moved by Prospero’s forgiveness of those who had wronged him; even more so, by his deliberate decision to abjure sorcery and return to live in the world of men, in his rightful place as the Duke of Milan.

Then, of course, there is the other famous passage from this work, Ariel’s haunting song:

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:
Hark! now I hear them,–ding-dong, bell.

Putrefaction has been transformed into a thing of beauty, almost of reverence.

fuseli_prospero.jpg nixontempest.jpg The Tempest seems to me a transcendent, mystical play, in which two worlds miraculously exist side by side. It is not only a brilliant but also a consoling work of art, ultimately filled with hope for the redemption of mankind through the sheer force of goodness. (For details about the paintings featured in this post as well as other paintings based on Shakespeare’s works, see Shakespeare Illustrated .)

will-in-world.jpg I remember reading somewhere in a review of Stephen Greenblatt’s hugely enjoyable Will in the World, that the truly strange thing about Shakespeare is not that almost four hundred years after his death in 1616, we know relatively little about him, but that from a vantage point of all those many years ago, he knew so much about us – now.


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