Ready for his close-up

As various media outlets reported yesterday, a new portrait of Shakespeare, discovered in the collection of the aristocratic Cobbe family who owned it for nearly 300 years, is the only known likeness of the Bard produced during his lifetime. According to the Associated Press, Paul Edmondson, director of learning at the Shakespeare Learning Trust, offered good odds that the unidentified sitter in the painting is indeed the great playwright. “We’re 90 percent sure that it’s Shakespeare. You’ll never be entirely certain. There will always be voices of dissent.”
But there is no argument on this matter—this Shakespeare (with youthful skin, rugged stubble, and beckoning eyes) is a fox. As the Guardian notes, Will was likely 46-years-old when the portrait was made. So why does he look like a strapping young lad in his mid-twenties? As Mark Broch, curator of the Cobbe family’s collection, suggested, “polish[ing] out the wrinkles and increas[ing] the size of the pearls” may indeed be the Elizabethan equivalent of modern airbrushing techniques.
All of this excitement reminds us that whether in portraiture or scholarship, the question of identity is central to modern Shakespeare studies. The Press has published several books in recent years that grapple with this issue. In Shylock is Shakespeare, Kenneth Gross argues, as the title suggests, that Shylock is such an enduring character because he is the voice of Shakespeare himself. In the classic Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare, Stephen Greenblatt examines the structure of selfhood as evidenced in major literary figures of the English Renaissance and finds that in the early modern period new questions surrounding the nature of identity heavily influenced the literature of the era. And this fall, the Press will publish Jeffrey Knapp’s critical examination of contested authorship, Shakespeare Only.
The dispute about Shakespearean identity and authorship will continue to define the field for years to come, and the authenticity of the portrait and its subject will likely become a potent symbol of the debate. For more from the Press on the Bard, check out our complete list of titles in Shakespeare Studies.