By Dr. Ralph Alan Cohen,
Co-founder and Director of Mission,
American Shakespeare Center
A portrait painted 400 years ago and kept anonymously in an Irish home for much of the time since is now believed to be the only painting of William Shakespeare created during his lifetime. -- CNN
You may have heard that experts recently authenticated a new portrait of William Shakespeare--touted as the only one painted in his lifetime. In fact, all that has really been authenticated is that the portrait dates from before Shakespeare's death. The family's claim that the portrait is actually of Shakespeare dates from a century after the writer's death and is by no means a certainty.
The well known engraving by Martin Droeshot makes Shakespeare look, well, common.
If Shakespeare looks this good, then maybe even literary snobs will accept him as the real author.
My guess is that it is not Shakespeare, but I hope no one proves I'm right, and here's why:
Two hundred and fifty years after Shakespeare wrote his plays, a cottage industry began when a woman named Delia Bacon started a campaign to establish her ancestor Francis Bacon as the true author of his plays. Ms. Bacon based her argument on a sniffy mixture of prudery, snobbism, and ignorance. Ms. Bacon wanted Shakespeare to be an aristocrat with strong academic credentials (like her distant cousin), someone "good" enough to be the "Bard." In her mind the great Shakespeare could not be an actor or the son of a glove-maker.
Since Ms. Bacon, squadrons of like-minded snobs have challenged William Shakespeare as the true author of the plays. Like the matriarch of the movement, the motives of her intellectual descendants are essentially anti-democratic and amount to the curious belief that you have to be an aristocrat with a university education to be smart. Nonetheless, about every two years, the popular press in America passes on these fictions built on un-American assumptions because newspapers know that readers will welcome--probably because they had to memorize a speech in high school--any attack on Shakespeare's legitimacy.
And nothing will persuade the literary flat-worlders that Shakespeare wrote the plays his friends published in The Complete Works of William Shakespeare--certainly not the engraving (from the Droeshout portrait) of him in the front of that book. He looks like such a loser--a teacher maybe or even some sort of merchant, but Shakespeare?
Now, maybe some of this silliness will stop, because the person the Cobbe portrait depicts is so well dressed and soooo good looking and generally so "poetical." The newly discovered portrait it is bound to take some steam out of Ms. Bacon's movement. After all, if a glove-maker's son from the country could dress himself so well and contrive to be such a dish, then maybe he could be smart enough to write the world's greatest literary treasure.
Fine. Now let's go to a play.
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