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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?

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***

STRATFORD-UPON-AVON -- On the day that the Cobbe portrait officially went on view at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, tourists swirled around the old smoke-colored cottage and wandered sidewalks lined with stores selling kitsch. In the As You Like It tea shop, French schoolgirls ate ice cream and a boy in a Clash T-shirt read a book on Modernism. A Buddhist monk in a scarlet and saffron robe strolled Henley Street carrying a souvenir bag and exuding mental serenity. Indoors, Stanley Wells was enjoying anything but.

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Wells's decision to vouch for the portrait as Shakespeare was an epic statement by a master scholar, but it stirred bitter argument among experts in a field accustomed to cautious assertions. Wells expected scholarly dispute; what he got was an academic brawl. Roy Strong, former director of the Victoria and Albert Museum and the National Portrait Gallery, summarily called the claim "codswallop," without even viewing the picture. Duncan-Jones called Wells "irrational." But Wells was no patsy in the counterpunching department. Holding court in the exhibition hall, he struck back at skeptics with the best weapon at his defense, eminence. Wells is an elegant-voiced lecturer with a fine white beard, and he exudes authority as the ultimate arbiter on Shakespeare. He is editor of the Oxford Shakespeare series and governor emeritus of the Royal Shakespeare Company. He is not a man to make rash statements.

Strong's criticism, he said dismissively, was "a vulgarism." As for Duncan-Jones, she was a contrarian who wrote the only adversarial biography of Shakespeare. "We knew she would oppose it; she opposes everything," he said. Duncan-Jones once famously remarked that all Shakespeare biography was 20 percent fact and 80 percent padding. "She should know," Wells said.

The case for the Cobbe, Wells asserts, is complicated and not easy to trace, but after three years of research and evaluations from art historians at Cambridge and the Tate Museum, he was persuaded it deserved higher consideration than the other impostors parading around in wooden frames.

The proof for the Cobbe is not definitive, Wells acknowledges. "I've never declared myself absolutely finally certain." Still, the various strands of evidence add up to "a very strong circumstantial case."

The case for the portrait was developed by a team of researchers that included Wells, another Shakespeare Birthplace Trust scholar named Paul Edmondson, Cobbe Collection art curator Mark Broch, Alastair Laing and other consultants. It is as follows:

The first task was to establish the portrait's period authenticity. Tree-ring dating, X-rays and infrared reflectography showed the wood was felled between 1579 and 1593, and the oils were consistent with the era. Curator Rupert Featherstone, former art conservator to the queen, affirmed a dating of around 1610, when Shakespeare would have been 46.

Next, they examined the painting's provenance. Cobbe traced the probable genealogical path of the painting into his hands: Southampton's great-granddaughter Elizabeth had married a Cobbe cousin, and when the couple died childless, Charles Cobbe, the archbishop-builder of Newbridge House, inherited much of their artwork. The fact that the painting was stashed away in a country house along with the image of the young Southampton -- it wasn't peddled by art dealers -- is in its favor, according to Laing. "There's no evidence of pictures having been bought; they really do seem to have been passed down through the family," Laing says.

From there, the case became more tortuous. The Cobbe portrait, it developed, was just one of a cluster of five paintings of similar appearance, including the Janssen. They all depicted an enigmatic courtier in silver-blue doublet and close beard. None of them, however, had the Cobbe's liveliness of expression. This led the team to believe that the Cobbe was the original "prime" portrait, of which the others were copies.

One of those copies was called the Dorchester, another puzzling lookalike -- but the really interesting thing about it was that it was bald.

Follow closely: The Dorchester appears to be a work from the mid-1600s. If the bald Dorchester is a copy of the Folger's Janssen portrait -- which it certainly appears to be -- that means the Janssen was already bald when the painter copied it. Which means it was altered in the mid-1600s, a lot earlier than previously thought.

The assumption was that the Janssen was made bald as a forgery at the height of Shakespeare mania in 1770. But if the revision dates to around 1660 or earlier, that means the portrait was altered within living memory of Shakespeare, when people who knew him were still alive. It was not uncommon for portraits to be modified to reflect changes in age or appearance. It's possible the picture was innocently updated to reflect the sitter -- Shakespeare? -- at the end of his life.

Which suddenly made the Janssen look a lot more interesting.

***

WASHINGTON -- The headachy, circuitous argument presented by Wells was greeted with polite if uncomfortable neutrality by the Folger's staff. The library is in a funny position: For years, it viewed the Janssen portrait as discredited and displayed it in a far corner of the ornate, gothic reading room in a row with other impostors and curios, under a small brass plaque that read "Sir Thomas Overbury?" In 1964, an art historian had tentatively identified the portrait as Overbury, a minor poet poisoned in the Tower of London under James I.

While Folger curator Erin Blake has met with Cobbe and directed him to useful historical sources, she stands by the provisional Overbury identification until she sees more evidence.

"I think it's wonderful that people are interested in portraits of Shakespeare," she says. "But I'm not convinced that painting is a portrait of Shakespeare."

Nevertheless, the Folger's curators are reexamining the portrait as a result of the questions raised by the Cobbe-Wells team. This fall, it will be removed to the Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute in an attempt to date the paint that made the sitter appear bald. In the meantime, it has been hung in a more prominent spot, a wall in the Founders' Room, so the public can view it.

The tests are unlikely to put the matter to rest. "It is a big if," Blake says. "Certainly as a curator in charge of portraits purporting to be Shakespeare, it doesn't actually change anything, because they're all Shakespeare. ... What people have in their head as the image of Shakespeare, well, in a way it's a very personal thing."

Which brings the seeker of Shakespeare back to the starting point. Faced with myriad images, the question becomes, "Which one do I think is him?" For that answer, the seeker has to employ something other than science or provenance, something described by a playwright with his own obsession with Shakespeare, who has arguably captured him better than any biographer.

"Gut instinct," Tom Stoppard writes in his play "Arcadia." "The part of you which doesn't reason. The certainty for which there is no back reference. Because time is reversed. Tock, tick goes the universe and then recovers itself, but it was enough, you were in there and you bloody know."

***

The first time the Earl of Southampton laid eyes on Shakespeare he was probably stalking around a stage, wearing sham jewels and a robe hung with tiny mirrors to make it glitter, shouting hoarse rhymes in the air and generally making himself, as Shakespeare wrote, "motley to the view."

But no actor in blustering finery could touch Southampton for theatrical exhibitionism. There was hardly a more stagy or histrionic personality in England than Henry Wriothesley, whose entrance into any room was sure to produce the ageless remark, "What on earth has he got on?"

Southampton swanned through royal palaces in narrow-waisted doublets, purple garters and lilting feathers, his plait of hair draped over one shoulder. When he was just 20, he was already such a luminary that he attended Elizabeth I, "though his mouth yet blooms with tender down." He was a blue-eyed narcissist who chased renown and had his portrait painted so frequently that more images of him survive than of the queen. If Sonnet 20 is about him, as scholars suspect, he was an alluring chameleon who shifted sexual colors.

A man in hue, all hues in his controlling,

Which steals men's eyes and women's souls amazeth.

His portraits show a face full of will, with languorous lids and a thrusting chin. He was as ungovernable as he was beguiling, and he continually disrupted court with fistfights. On one occasion, he and Walter Raleigh played a loud game of cards when an esquire named Willoughby ordered the men to quit, because the queen was retiring. Southampton struck Willoughby in the face, and the two went to the palace garden, where Willoughby yanked out some of that rampant hair. The queen thanked him for it.

That Shakespeare and Southampton became acquainted is clear, though how well is an enduring question. In 1593, Shakespeare was unemployed -- London theaters were shut down by a plague epidemic. Unable to make a living on stage, he made a bid for aristocratic patronage. Southampton was an obvious choice, known for his love of linguistic arts and extravagance, and the result was "Venus and Adonis," the poem of a boy who refuses to be seduced by an older woman, dedicated to Southampton in servile tone. "Right honorable," Shakespeare wrote, "I know not how I shall offend in dedicating my unpolished lines to your Lordship." "Venus and Adonis" was an Elizabethan best-seller.

The flattered Southampton rewarded Shakespeare, and a year later, they were on unmistakably different terms. When Shakespeare dedicated a second epic poem to him, "The Rape of Lucrece," this time his language was breathtakingly personal. "The love I dedicate to your Lordship is without end," Shakespeare wrote. "... What I have done is yours, what I have to do is yours, being part in all I have, devoted yours." Wells says it's the warmest dedication to a peer he has come across.

According to one story, Southampton held Shakespeare in such affection that he made him a gift of unimaginable largesse. Shakespeare's first biographer, Nicholas Rowe, citing a claim by the playwright's godson Davenant, said Southampton gave Shakespeare 1,000 pounds for a "purchase." Most scholars discount the story; patronage was usually a matter 10 pounds or so. But Wells thinks there's something to it. The earl was a staggering spender, and there's no doubt he rewarded Shakespeare, perhaps even showered bounty on him.

Shakespeare somehow found the means to make two huge purchases. In 1597, he was able to afford the second-largest house in Stratford, called New Place. It was a five-gabled, three-storied manor with 10 chimneys, a courtyard and servant quarters, two barns, orchards and immense gardens. Next, he became a stockholder in the Lord Chamberlain's acting troupe. The buy-in was reflected in a document that listed the tenants of the Globe Theatre as "William Shakespeare and others."

No other author became as wealthy. "All the others were dying in poverty," says Bate, who calls Shakespeare "the first professional writer." Above the entrance to his showplace manor, Shakespeare displayed his coat of arms, which he had obtained in 1596 after years of effort and at still more considerable expense. His emblem was high-flown, a gold-tipped spear with a falcon. Under it was a motto that sounded more than a tad defensive, "Non Sans Droict," or "Not Without Right."

Shakespeare's social aspirations were so far above those of his fellow writers that they mocked him for it mercilessly. Jonson skewered him by writing the part of a comically affected rube who purchases a coat of arms and takes the crest of a boar without a head, to which Jonson assigns the uproarious motto, "Not Without Mustard."

In short, Shakespeare had become a gentleman who chased refinement, with a mansion, a coat of arms and high connections -- and so pretentious that his friends made fun of him.

***

It was one thing for Shakespeare to put on airs with his acting fellows, and another thing -- a risky thing -- to put them on at court. It was for the fractious, egotistical peers who loitered around Elizabeth I's palaces that he created the double- edged phrase uttered by Falstaff, "honor pricks them on." It meant exactly what it sounded like.

In 1601, Shakespeare was drawn into a court intrigue by the only man in his acquaintance who could have led him there -- Southampton -- and it almost cost him his life. The silky-maned peer had become a political adventurer and allied himself with a prideful and rebellious courtier, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex. Southampton tagged along as Essex embarked on a campaign of self-aggrandizement that offended and threatened the queen.

Inevitably, she exploded and placed Essex under house arrest, where he and his acolyte Southampton sullenly plotted ways to free him and restore their honor. In February 1601, the pair attempted a coup. On the night before a planned storming of the palace, an Essex loyalist named Sir Gelly Meyrick hired Shakespeare's company to stage "Richard II," an incendiary topical work that dramatized the overthrow and execution of an inept ruler. The staging was meant to incite Londoners, and the next morning Essex, Southampton and their men rode into the streets, calling on citizens to join them in seizing the capital. Londoners stared at them as if they were stupid, and the revolt failed in just a few minutes.

Essex was beheaded -- it took three blows to separate his ego-swollen head from his body -- while Meyrick was hanged for paying Shakespeare's players. Southampton was thrown into the tower, his life spared because Elizabeth believed he was misled by hero worship of Essex. Shakespeare and his actors only escaped prosecution thanks to the measured testimony of one of their senior members, Augustine Phillips, who claimed they were ignorant of Essex's purpose and only played because they were offered 40 shillings extra.

The Essex affair came at a low point for Shakespeare, who had suffered a series of personal losses. In the summer of 1596, his son, Hamnet, died at the age of 11, and in September of 1601, his father died. Shakespeare had lost his son, his father and his patron all in the space of five years.

Now entertain conjecture of a time

When creeping murmur and the poring dark

Fills the wide vessel of this universe

-- "Henry V"

There was a marked slowdown in his work, and when he did write again, it was with a new bleak intensity. In 1603-04 there came a spree, "Othello," "King Lear" and "Macbeth" all in a row. As Shakespearean Alexander Leggatt notes, sweet Master Shakespeare suddenly began "giving his audience nightmares."

In March of 1603, the queen died. Her successor was her peculiar, showy and possibly bisexual cousin James I, who immediately freed Southampton and restored his place at court. Sonnet 107 has been read as Shakespeare's expression of relief on Southampton's release, "my true love ... supposed as forfeit to a confined doom."

Shakespeare also emerged from his darkness to reach a professional and social apex. The new monarch, just two years younger than Shakespeare, was a credulous sort who loved visual magnificence, and his wife, Anne, was a theater fanatic. James renamed Shakespeare and his players the King's Men, awarding them 10 pounds for each performance and also declared them Grooms of the Chamber, which meant that they achieved the official status of courtiers.

Shakespeare had reached his social high watermark. It was an extraordinary promotion for an actor, previously considered among the lowest of society. In 1610, the year the Cobbe was painted, a man named John Davies of Hereford wrote admiringly of Shakespeare, "Hadst thou not played some Kingly parts in sport, thou hadst been companion for a King."

***

STRATFORD-UPON-AVON -- Whatever the state of Shakespeare's face in 1610, his painter probably ignored its flaws. Among the things you don't see in portraits of the era are bad teeth, pockmarks, crow's feet, graying hair, warts or moles. Nor do you see the furrows left by personal travails, such as a bad marriage or creeping illness.

But when my glass shows me myself indeed,

Beated and chopp'd with tann'd antiquity,

Mine own self-love quite contrary I read;

Self so self-loving were iniquity

'Tis thee, myself, that for myself I praise,

Painting my age with beauty of thy days.

-- Sonnet 62

As Shakespeare aged, he stopped acting and went into semi-retirement in Stratford. Theories for his removal range from the innocent to the iniquitous. Possibly he wanted to reunite with his family and enjoy his gardens, or possibly he retired because of scandal or venereal disease. After 1606, his plays show a preoccupation with sexual contamination.

Shakespeare may have planned to return to the London stage. In 1613, he bought a gatehouse near the Globe for 140 pounds, apparently intending to live and work there, but less than four months later the Globe burned to the ground. The disaster sent Shakespeare into his final retirement. When the King's Men rebuilt, Shakespeare was no longer a sharer in the company.

In the spring of 1616, he got sick. He made his last will in late March, suggesting he knew that he was dying. Of all the riddles of Shakespeare's life, the will is the most puzzling. It contains only a couple of small clues to his personality: He had a ceremonial sword and liked to collect valuable silver chalices and bowls. He scattered a few possessions among friends and relatives, and everything else he left to his elder daughter, Susanna: his acreage, barns, orchards and pastures. He cut out his wife altogether except for one baffling sentence.

"Item. I give unto my wife my second best bed with the furniture."

He signed it in a quaking hand, "By me William Shakespeare."

He died at New Place April 23, 1616, supposedly of a fever.

Golden lads and girls all must

As chimney-sweepers come to dust.

-- "Cymbeline"

Jonathan Bate sits in an outdoor cafe near the Avon with a view of the lush river-bank. A lanky 50-year-old in cargo shorts and wraparound shades, Bate is Wells's heir in terms of mastery of Shakespeare, and his verdict on the portrait means as much to Wells as anyone's.

Bate's specialty is Shakespeare's mind, and in "The Soul of the Age" he depicts a cool professional who viewed everything as material and who used the court to enhance his career while remaining personally apart. His Shakespeare was consumed with craft and wished to disappear inside of his art, that endlessly mirroring enigma, real and unreal, pretense yet utter truth. The inability to assign a specific face to Shakespeare has therefore always struck Bate as perfectly appropriate.

"To me, a lot of the interesting discoveries about Shakespeare are discoveries of his absence," Bate says. "It comes back to this sense that what he was good at was withholding himself and leaving things open to the audience. ... The plays are not sort of shackled to the particular moment in which they were written, which means they can continue to speak to people. It's that kind of disappearing act that he was so good at, that's what keeps him alive."

The man in the Cobbe-Folger image is flashier than the Shakespeare envisioned by Bate. To subscribe to that aristocratic image, Bate would have to surrender his view that Shakespeare was too astute to get caught up in social matters. "I see Shakespeare as this figure who was always semidetached from the court, from the high life," he says. "If that portrait were to be him, that image would look very different, because that's undoubtedly the portrait of someone making a bid for patronage."

Still, Bate refuses to rule out the possibility the portraits are authentic because of the intriguing nature of the Folger-Dorchester argument. If it could be proved that the Folger was altered to look like Shakespeare in the mid-1600s, he says, "that would be really interesting and surprising."

***

Ending No. 1: It's him. Someone discovers proof. A letter in a clear hand would be nice, something that says, "Here is a picture of my very favorite poet, Shakespeare, signed, the Earl of Southampton." In which case our view of Shakespeare must shift. He is no bourgeois pudge but rather neck-deep in romantic and political intrigue, until he is forced back to the humdrum of Stratford only grudgingly, by some disgrace. He deteriorates rapidly, his elegant head growing bald -- was it mercury treatments that made his hair fall out so suddenly? He becomes limping, portly, with traces of neuralgia in his face. By the time he makes his will, he is so quarrelsome that he slights his wife, perhaps as a salute to the possessor of the first best bed.

Ending No.2: It isn't him at all. The Cobbe-Folger portraits and their copies are of an unknown gentleman. Shakespeare, as he ages, becomes nondescript. He grows more sober, perhaps because of his harrowing experience with Southampton, and rejects courtly hauteur. He concentrates instead on his writerly ambitions, recognizing that greatness for him lies in the capaciousness of his head. He eases into retirement at New Place, and becomes heavy and ill and dies prematurely of one of the many diseases that so often closed his theaters, a quiet country death. He is buried in the chancel at Trinity church, close to the altar and by the Avon River forever. Eventually his family installs a small monument in the wall above. It's of a mild-eyed gentleman with a pen and paper in hand, ever at his work.

His devotees will be frustrated by the absence of personal papers and forced to search his work for his inner life, without success. But possibly this is what he intended. His plays are peopled with such a multiplicity of refracted human characters, so limitlessly familiar and sympathetic, that hundreds of years later the ovations continue, and audiences catch the breath in their throats at the suspense of it all, of who we will turn out to be in the end.

"Sometimes people say, 'Well, does it matter what people looked like?'" Wells says. "Well, of course it matters. It's why we have portrait galleries. It's why we want to know what Shelley and Keats looked like -- and sometimes they look as we would like them to look."

Or not.

God has given you one face, and you make yourselves another.

-- "Hamlet"

***

Sally Jenkins is a staff writer for The Post's Sports section. She can be reached at jenkinss@washpost.com. She'll be taking questions about this story Monday at 12 noon ET.


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