Correction to This Article
The article misstated the age of William Shakespeare at his death. Shakespeare died at age 52, not 53.
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Waiting for William: Is the Cobbe Portrait the True Image of Shakespeare?

Both depictions are so unintelligent-looking that scholars blame them for instigating the Author Controversy, which is not really a controversy so much as a campaign by conspiracy-minded amateurs to prove that someone more visually appealing wrote the plays. The thinking goes that the "peculiar dough-faced man" in the Droeshout, as Stephen Greenblatt of Harvard University calls him, is too stolid to have written such soaring words. Someone else must have, preferably someone good-looking. As scholar Marjorie Garber writes, "We'd rather he not look like an egghead."

The Author Controversy persists despite considerable documentary evidence. We have the man from Stratford's pay stubs for performing at court, his certificate of occupancy for the Globe Theatre, and his will, in which he left memorial rings to some London actors. Funny he would do that if he was just a country burgher who didn't write the plays.

Still, it would help to have a decent picture of the man in his prime to keep the conspiracy theorists at bay.

To some Shakespeareans, a portrait is an irrelevance: Why do we need a picture of him when we have his art, 37 timelessly riveting plays and 154 sonnets with his heart in every line?

But to others, a portrait is "the face of genius," says Jonathan Bate, author of an acclaimed new biography "Soul of the Age: A Biography of the Mind of William Shakespeare." And we damned well want to look into it. "The problem with Shakespeare is that here is this work of phenomenal beauty and intelligence, endlessly rewarding, and yet there is this awful picture of this bald bloke," says Bate. "People are desperate to find an image that answers to more our idea of the sort of glamour of genius, the glamour of creativity."

One thing scholars agree on is that Shakespeare probably sat for a portrait in his early to mid-40s, when he was the most popular dramatist in England. Trouble is, no one can find the portrait. It has disappeared.

Or ... has it?

The hunt for a likeness of the bard in his heyday has turned up various candidates over the centuries, almost all of them illegitimate. Up to now, the painting with the most credible claim as a life image is the Chandos portrait, the star of London's National Portrait Gallery. It shows a dusky, writerly-seeming man with receding hair and an earring. But its provenance is unclear. The search is complicated by the fact that a 1770s mania for Shakespeare souvenirs resulted in a spate of good forgeries. The Janssen portrait held by the Folger was thought to be one of those. The "Searching for Shakespeare" exhibit was therefore really a show about likely and, mostly, unlikely contenders. Cobbe and Laing wandered through the viewing, looking at bogus bards, until they arrived at a far wall, on which the Janssen portrait hung, on loan from the Folger. The oil-on-wood is legitimately dated to 1610, but it was discredited in 1937 when new X-ray technology showed the brow had been over-painted to make the sitter bald. It fell from grace under the supposition that it was altered to look more like the Droeshout. In 1988, the Folger restored the original hairline and exhibited it as an interesting mistake.

The Janssen showed a close-bearded man in a scallop-edged lace collar -- in almost every detail, a replica of the unnamed courtier on the Cobbe family's wall. The one who was not Sir Walter Raleigh.

After a moment, Laing said, "Don't you have one of those?"

"Yes," Cobbe said, nonplussed. "Rather a better one, actually."

Cobbe decided to call Stanley Wells. But Wells, who at 79 is arguably the world's preeminent Shakespeare scholar, hears from all kinds of kooks. As he listened to Cobbe's convoluted account, he withheld a sigh.


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