light through yonder window breaks? Tis — allegedly — the only portrait
to have been taken of William
while he was alive, unveiled like the morning sun last Friday somewhere
in Ontario. (The Toronto Globe & Mail, which broke the
has chosen not to publish the owner's name or city of residence
for security reasons). Handed down from one generation to the next,
the portrait has survived the centuries since it was painted, ostensibly,
in 1603 by one John Sanders, an elusive figure. Sanders is said
to have belonged to the same stage company as the great bard and
to have painted the likeness in anticipation of his friend one day
becoming famous — what prophetic vision!
appears to be authentic. Radiocarbon dating reveals it to be 340
years old, give or take 50 years. It shows a ruddy-haired, hazel-eyed
young man sporting a short beard, sideburns, a hint of a mustache,
and a bilateral receding hairline of fluffy sprouts. Shakespeare
would have been 39 years old in 1603, four years after the opening
of the Globe theatre. The eyes in this portrait seem somewhat unaligned,
pensive. And there was much to be pensive about. The ink was still
wet on the tragedies: Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Othello,
and Macbeth. And it was the age of those harrowing sonnets:
deeply personal expressions of love's labors lost and unrequited.
Could this serene portrait reflect the same person who asks: "Why
should false painting imitate his cheek"? (Sonnet #67) Who
self-flagellates: "I never saw that you did painting need"?
(Sonnet #83) It seems not. This visage, oddly, is of a well-kempt,
confident young man, a far cry from the self-confessed "I,
sick withal, the help of bath desired"(#153).
Did the painter
on purpose make his subject appear younger than the bard's own self-appraisal?
"In me thou seest the twilight of such day as after sunset
fadeth in the west" (73). There is no indication of the "hours
that drained his blood and filled his brow with lines and wrinkles"
(63). No sign of "vulgar scandal stamped upon my brow"
(112) from "wretched errors" (119) of the heart. Can this
carefree visage be the true likeness of one who describes himself
as "day by night and night by day oppress'd" (28); "weary
with toil" (27); and straining to "keep my drooping eyelids
open wide"? There's nary a whiff of the "wink" that
"do my eyes best see" (43). No inkling of the "deep-sunken
eyes" (2) of "forty winters" besieging the brow and
digging "deep trenches in the beauty's field" (2).
And what of
the shocks of auburn hair? We see no "sable curls all silver'd
o'er with white" (12), but there, perhaps, Shakespeare was
not speaking of himself. Nor does the easel reveal a man "made
lame by Fortune's dearest spite" (37); nor his solitary grief
when "I all alone beweep my outcast state, and trouble deaf
heaven with my bootless cries" (29). Was such sorrow born of
fakery? Or the mannered sadness that Elizabethans so much savored?
Perhaps the painting was drawn in a rare moment of respite, when
"my sun one early morn did shine with all triumphant splendour
on my brow" (33) and before "my glass showed me myself
indeed, beated and chapt with tann'd antiquity" (62).
or not, no portrait can show the artist for who he truly is. No
one knew this more than Shakespeare. "Much liker than your
painted counterfeit, so should the lines of life that life repair
which this, Time's pencil or my pupil pen, neither in inward worth,
nor outward fair, can make you live your self in lives of men"
(#16). Nor can men in love, especially men in love, be relied upon
to indite their true appearance — since poetry, by definition, is
allegorical, a reflection of a higher state not easily captured
on canvas or, in this case, on oak. Shakespeare owed much to Petrarch.
Both reveled in longing and the bittersweet taste of romantic self-indulgence.
When the artist sees himself in love, he speaks in dreams; the text,
however brilliant, is a fun-house mirror.