Portraits of Shakespeare don’t look like we want them to. In the well-known Chandos portrait, he is swarthily guarded, thuggish, and the only sign of life is the silver hoop in his left ear. Art historians are not sure if this really is a portrait of Shakespeare. The Flower portrait is more promising–the face is serenely human, and the curve of his lip implies a welcome smile–but last year the National Portrait Gallery in London revealed the painting to be a nineteenth-century forgery. And perhaps the best-known contender, the 1623 engraving on the title page of the first complete edition of Shakespeare’s works–an oversized head perched awkwardly upon an ornate ruff–was drawn by someone who had never met him. Shakespeare portraiture is a speculative genre, as an exhibition opening at the National Portrait Gallery in March will acknowledge. Called “Searching for Shakespeare,” it will present the various contender portraits as possibilities rather than likenesses. “Having a photograph of Shakespeare,” wrote Susan Sontag, “would be like having a nail from the True Cross.”
If Shakespeare study today is a lively mix of wishfulness, mythology and scholarship, this may simply be because we don’t know what he looked like, and what we do know about him is unsatisfactory. It is often claimed that we know little about Shakespeare’s life, but this is untrue. We have many life records. The picture they paint, however, is of a man we are unwilling to recognize. He was baptized and buried; he bought malt, houses and land; he sued people who owed him money, and he failed to pay his taxes; he gave legal testimony in a lawsuit over the financial settlement of a marriage, and his will is formulaic and businesslike. According to one seventeenth-century account, he was “not a company keeper,” and when asked to a party, he excused himself with a headache. How did this money-worried little capitalist, who conducted his life in a flurry of land deeds and small business ventures, write Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet? As Prospero tells Miranda in The Tempest, “My tale provokes that question.”
The records force us back to the portraits; but the portraits only look back at us, or apart from their potential inaccuracy, the three images of the artist commonly held to be the greatest writer who ever lived share one central trace. All are watchful; in each, the eyes follow us across the room. We’re in the grip of Shakespeare’s gaze, mesmerized by the enigma. But inside the works–inside the head, so to speak–are a series of warnings to those who would imagine the man. Othello, for one, is the tale of a man whose life is ruined by the stories that others tell about him, and in his desperate final lines the hero pleads to all would-be biographers. “I pray you, in your letters,/When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,” he begs, “Speak of me as I am. Nothing extenuate.”
The academic study of Shakespeare is a discipline made up of strategies carefully wrought to avoid these matters. Published last fall, Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World is a speculative biography that imagines what Shakespeare may have seen and where he may have been; the stylistic tic that most aggravated reviewers was Greenblatt’s insistent use of the conditional “perhaps,” which carefully signaled that this was, in fact, no more than intellectual fantasy. More recently, Greenblatt’s Harvard colleague Marjorie Garber released a 1,000-page bench press of a critical study, Shakespeare After All, which studiously avoids any mention of his life and instead finds the plays to refer exclusively to other plays, or to themselves. This past fall saw the publication of 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare by James Shapiro, a professor of English literature at Columbia University, which skirts the larger story of the life in favor of a microscopic archeology of the day-to-day of a single year.
But this cautious academic approach to Shakespeare is only one face of the modern cult of the playwright. Like the slasher-movie serial killer, Shakespeare has escaped the grounds of the academic institutions and is now at large in the community. In this alternate universe, the most influential Shakespearean alive today is not Stephen Greenblatt but Julia Stiles, who has played the female lead in three Hollywood updates of Shakespeare plays in the past six years. This worldly Shakespeare is as pinup beautiful as Joseph Fiennes, and his words sit easily in the curled mouth of Leonardo DiCaprio. Such a man demands a flesh-and-blood biography, and three new books, each of which anchor the plays to the man, give it to him.