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Shakespeare's Face

by Stephanie Nolen

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european, history & criticism
list price: $24
category: Art
published: 2003
publisher: Knopf Canada
imprint: Vintage Canada
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On May 11, 2001, Globe and Mail reporter Stephanie Nolen announced a stunning discovery to the world: an attractive portrait held by an Ontario family for twelve generations, which may well be the only known portrait of Shakespeare painted during his lifetime. Shakespeare’s Face is the biography of a portrait -- a literary mystery story -- and the furious debate that has ensued since its discovery.

A slip of paper affixed to the back proclaims “Shakespere. This likeness taken 1603, Age at that time 39 ys.” But is it really Shakespeare who peers at us from the small oil on wood painting? The twinkling eyes, reddish hair, and green jacket are not in keeping with the duller, traditional images of the bard. But they are more suggestive of the humorous and humane man who wrote the greatest plays in the English language.

Shakespeare’s Face tells the riveting story of how the painting came to reside in the home of a retired engineer in a mid-sized Ontario town. The painting is reputed to be by John Sanders of Worcester, England. As a retirement project, the engineer, whose grandmother kept the family treasure under her bed, embarked on authenticating the portrait: the forensic analyses that followed have proven it without doubt to the period.

In a remarkable publishing coup, Knopf Canada has gathered around Stephanie Nolen’s story a group of the world’s leading Shakespeare scholars and art and cultural historians to delve into one of the most fascinating literary mysteries of our times: “Is this the face of genius?”

Excerpt from Chapter 1 of Shakespeare’s Face by Stephanie Nolen
By the late afternoon I was beginning to go a little cross-eyed. I had examined countless documents and read the test results from the painting’s painstaking forensic analysis. I now had everything I needed to write my story -- except for one crucial item. “Is he here?” I asked, almost in a whisper....
The owner laid the package carefully on the cluttered table. He gently pulled back the kraft paper wrapping, underneath which was a layer of bubble wrap. Then he peeled back this second layer to reveal his treasure.
I was caught off-guard by how small the portrait was -- and how vivid. The colours in the paint seemed too rich to be 400 years old. Except for the hairline cracks in the varnish, the face could have been painted yesterday. And there was nothing austere or haughty about it, nothing of the great man being painted for posterity. It was a rogue’s face, a charmer’s face that looked back at me with a tolerant, mischievous slightly world-weary air....
It was painted on two pieces of solid board so expertly joined that the seam was barely visible. A date, “Ano 1603”, was painted in small red letters in the top right hand corner. The right side had been nibbled by woodworms.... I stood and gazed, quelling an instinctive urge to pick the portrait up and hold it in my hands. And as my professional skepticism crumpled for a moment, I found myself wanting desperately to believe that this was indeed Shakespeare’s face.

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Like the painting that inspired it, this book can be read in different ways. One way is as a work of investigative journalism in which Stephanie Nolen goes behind the story she broke in May 2001 about a then-unknown portrait possibly of William Shakespeare. Her six chapters, which form the spine of the book, take us along on her voyage of discovery. As she notes, she is neither a Shakespeare scholar nor a trained art historian, but rather a curious layperson who attempts to unravel the mystery of the painting and to seek answers to the many questions it poses. From time to time, she calls on an expert to assist her in solving a particular puzzle or in separating fact from fiction.

Read another way, Shakespeare’s Face is a fascinating work of literary and art historical scholarship in which a distinguished group of experts from Canada, Great Britain and the United States bring all their wit and learning to bear on a very old picture. They look at the Sanders portrait as an artifact, as a work of art, as a cultural icon and as a fascinating window into Shakespeare’s world. I’ve met only two of these scholars in person, but I like to imagine them gathered around the painting as I saw it when it went on display at the Art Gallery of Ontario, in Toronto, in the summer of 2001.

The portrait sits on a pedestal in the middle of a small gallery. The scholars form a circle around this enigmatic object -- are some of them trying to catch its eye? -- each one with a different point of vantage. At first the room is quiet, as each of them looks for the clues that mean the most to her or him. One scholar moves up to look at the painting face to face. Another inspects the back of the panel under a magnifying glass. Still another seems to be as interested in his Collected Works of Shakespeare as in the picture. Finally one of them offers an opinion. Another chimes in. And soon the room is filled with animated discourse. (Involved in this conversation and yet separate from it is Stephanie Nolen, who is writing furiously in her notebook and missing not one crucial detail.) The conversation they might have had if they had met around the portrait is the one they now hold in the pages of this book.

But perhaps the most satisfying way of reading Shakespeare’s Face is as a historical detective story in which some of the evidence is four hundred years old, some is still warm and some may still turn up. In this version of the book the skills of all its writers -- ten scholars and one journalist -- are needed: investigative reporting; art historical analysis; paleography; literary deduction; genealogy; cultural anthropology; scientific analysis; painstaking archival research, to name a few. All their skills combine in an attempt to answer the question that all of us must ask of the slightly naughty-looking fellow in the Sanders portrait: Are you Shakespeare, or aren’t you? Is yours the face of genius?

If your experience of reading Shakespeare’s Face is anything like mine has been as its editor, charged with bringing all these pieces together into what I hope makes for a coherent whole, then as you turn these pages, and move from one point of view to another, you will change your opinion time and again on its central question. In the process you will learn a great deal about a great many things, ranging from the forensic analysis of old works of art to the hidden messages in obscure Elizabethan poems. But most of all you will gain a new and more intimate sense of William Shakespeare.

However you read this book, you will always come back to Shakespeare and the extraordinary staying power of his genius. He is omnipresent in our world even if he comes from a place and time quite alien to our own. He is where we least expect him, including, some would argue, in a painted face on an old and somewhat battered oak panel that has gone unnoticed for most of its life since perhaps a fledgling player in Shakespeare’s company applied the paint, layer on layer on layer, until it formed a face -- a face of which one thing can be said for sure: it looked upon the same England that Shakespeare saw four centuries ago.

Rick Archbold
Toronto, Spring 2002

From the Hardcover edition.

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Contributor notes

Stephanie Nolen is a writer for The Globe and Mail, whose recent work includes coverage of Afghanistan and the Middle East. Her book Promised the Moon will be published in October 2002. She lives in Toronto.

Jonathan Bate, King Alfred Professor of English Literature and Leverhulme Research Professor at the University of Liverpool; his most recent book is The Oxford Illustrated History of Shakespeare on Stage. Tarnya Cooper is an authority in Elizabethan portraiture, and Assistant Curator of Art at University College, London. Marjorie Garber is William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of English and Director of the Humanities Center, and Director of the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts at Harvard University; her most recent book is Academic Instincts. Andrew Gurr, Professor of English at the University of Reading, has been a director of the Globe Theatre project since 1983, and is the editor of several Shakespeare plays; his most recent book is Staging in Shakespeare's Theatres. Alexandra F. Johnston is Professor of English at the University of Toronto and Director of the Records of Early English Drama project (REED). Arleane Ralph is Research Associate at REED; and Abigail Anne Young is also Research Associate at REED. Alexander Leggatt is Professor of English at the University of Toronto, the author of many books and editor, most recently, of The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare Comedy. Robert Tittler has taught British and European History at Loyola College in Montreal and its successor Concordia University since 1969, taking time out to serve as Visiting Professor of History at Yale University. His most recent book is Townspeople and Nation, English Urban Experiences, 1500-1640. Stanley Wells is Emeritus Professor of Literature at University College, London; an Honorary Fellow of the Shakespeare Institute and Chairman of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon; and a Trustee of both the Rose and Globe Theatres. He served as General Editor of the multi-volume Oxford Shakespeare, and is most recently co-editor of the Oxford Companion to Shakespeare.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Editorial Review

“Nolen…deserves a lot of credit for restricting herself to her part of the story and leaving the rest to the experts, who weave in and out of her tale with separate essays as lively as they are illuminating….So is Shakespeare’s Face really much ado about nothing? Not on your life. For one thing, nothing’s settled, and the story of the forensic evidence is utterly fascinating. For another, what really makes the book are all the experts circling round and round the identity of Shakespeare and bringing us closer and closer to the man. Even if the fuss over the portrait turns out to be ephemeral, Shakespeare’s Face will still be worth looking at long after.” -- The Toronto Star

“A truly compelling detective story….Shakespeare’s Face makes fascinating reading on many levels. It is readable, and successfully resists becoming an arcane treatise on the most written about playwright in history. For the scientist, there are details of the tests, which proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that the picture was painted around the cusp of the 16th and 17th centuries. For the art lover, there is a glimpse into the world of those who can “read” paintings. For the Shakespeare lover, just attending a performance at the Globe Theatre is to see Shakespeare’s plays in a totally new light, this book goes a long way in revealing the elusive Bard.” -- Kate Barlow, Hamilton Spectator

“The Sanders portrait is really only the starting point for a series of fascinating journeys…. Entirely lucid and entertaining…. The book boasts only the best Shakespeare scholars, who have long exhibited in their work a rare combination of erudition, readability and common sense… Nolen herself writes with vivacity and candour…. The general reader will learn many fascinating things that are usually reserved for experts…. Each expert and enthusiast quoted in the book is passionately engaged in the pursuit of truth.” -- The Globe and Mail
“Fascinating…. The most engaging sections are Nolen’s. Her writing is accessible and animated and her story of the whole quest -- with such typical journalistic frustrations as Globe editor Richard Addis often moving her filing deadlines up two hours -- is intelligently told and amusing.” -- Quill & Quire
“Art history reads like a thriller….The assembled experts in Shakespeare's Face write with insight and integrity….Nolen’s lively introductory and interlinking chapters make for great reading.” -- amazon.ca
“Nolen explores the genealogy of the Sanders family and deals painstakingly with the forensic testing…. We share the suspense as the painting passes each test, proving itself to be a genuine, unaltered example of early 17th Century art….Nolen and company have come up with an accessible, concisely informative book that every Shakespeare admirer will want to own.” -- Montreal Gazette
“Behold that special face. Is it Shakespeare’s?” -- The New York Times, May 24, 2001

“He is mischievous, keen-eyed, almost flirtatious. Half twinkle, half smirk, he looks out from his portrait with a tolerant, world-weary air. This is Shakespeare. Perhaps you thought you knew him: bald pate, thin brows, stiff white ruff. You thought wrong.” -- The Globe and Mail

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