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Correction to This Article
The article misstated the age of William Shakespeare at his death. Shakespeare died at age 52, not 53.
Waiting for William
After four centuries, we may finally be seeing history's greatest writer for the first time

By Sally Jenkins
Sunday, August 30, 2009

If it's him, we're going to have to rethink the hair. The styled courtier who gazes out of the portrait is undeniably a seducer, and that much was true of William Shakespeare: He was an arch-persuader with language. But we didn't reckon he was such a looker. Frankly, we always thought he was a bald pudge. Whereas this man is bouffant and handsome, complicatedly so, with his doily of a collar and come-hither expression.

The fellow is clearly no earl -- he lacks the arrogant jaw -- but he's someone. Maybe too much of a someone to be a mere playwright. Then again, there's a touch of Shakespearean mischief in his face. He wears a barely checked smile and a blush. He's ardent, and Shakespeare was nothing if not a lover. He loved roses, mirrors, doomed lords and, of course, a good psychological mystery.

The story of the Cobbe portrait would delight him. It's got everything from denouements to sex, and at its heart is the questionable identity of Shakespeare himself. The Cobbe, oil-on-panel circa 1610, is the centerpiece of a controversial exhibit through the first week of October in Stratford-upon-Avon titled "Shakespeare Found." The claim, backed by renowned scholar Stanley Wells, is based partly on the strange coincidence by which it was discovered: It is a dead ringer for a portrait held by the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, a picture that from 1770 to the 1940s was considered legitimately Shakespeare, until it was declared a forgery. Now it's possible that the Folger may not own a sham at all, but a scholarly grail, a true likeness of the bard painted during his lifetime.

For more than 250 years, the Cobbe portrait was a nameless head hanging obscurely in an Anglo-Irish country house outside of Dublin. Alec Cobbe glanced at it a thousand times as a boy and never thought much of it. "It wasn't the most interesting picture in the room, because it was just a man who was supposed to be Sir Walter Raleigh," says Cobbe, a 64-year-old with antic eyebrows who peppers his speech with cricket expressions.

Cobbe was reared in a Georgian manor called Newbridge House amid dim marvels and with no electricity. "It was a lamplit childhood," Cobbe says. The house was crammed with art collected over centuries by the Cobbes, who can trace their genealogy to the Third Earl of Southampton, Shakespeare's known literary patron. A descendant named Charles Cobbe left Hampshire to become the archbishop of Dublin, and he built Newbridge House in 1737. Among the treasures piled in the home were Tudor manuscripts in Latin and memorabilia from Captain Cook's sea voyages left behind by Cook's surgeon, a tenant. And there were paintings, hundreds of them, in glorious hues.

Each night, Cobbe carried a flickering oil lamp up the stairs to bed, past pictures of bearded men glaring from old frames. At the top of the stairs, Cobbe would pause before a Tudor woman with rouged lips, a jeweled earring and a plait of hair falling over one shoulder. She was the last face he saw before bed. "I was fond of her," he says.

At Oxford University, Cobbe decided on a career as an art restorer and met an equally art-obsessed schoolmate, Alastair Laing, who papered his rooms with copies of masterpieces. Laing became a curator of the National Trust, the largest collection of art in England, and it was he who in 2006 invited Cobbe to an exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery in London, titled "Searching for Shakespeare."

A few years earlier, the two men had made an important Shakespeare discovery in the Cobbe collection. Laing was cataloguing the family artwork when he paused to study the rouged lady to whom Cobbe had always bid goodnight atop the stairs. "That's no woman," Laing exclaimed. The portrait was actually of a longhaired man, and not just any man. He was identified as Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton and the "lovely boy" scholars suspect Shakespeare of obsessing on in some of his sonnets.

A woman's face with Nature's own hand painted

Hast thou, the master-mistress of my passion

-- Sonnet 20

"Searching for Shakespeare" was a quixotic title for a show, given that it's hard to go searching for someone when you don't have much of an idea who he was. What Shakespeare looked like in his prime is just one of the many things disputed about him, along with how many plays he wrote and in what order, whether he was a nice guy or a jerk, how he treated his wife, if he was a bisexual, or a secret Catholic, and what killed him at age 53. Just two images of Shakespeare are considered authentic by scholars, and both were done after the playwright died. A clumsy funerary bust over his tomb in the chancel of Church of the Holy Trinity in Stratford depicts a portly man in robes with a quill in his hand. It must have looked like him at his death because his family approved it. The other is the cartoonlike engraving on the cover of the First Folio, the authorized collection of his plays published in 1623, seven years after he died. The engraving, by a Flemish artisan named Martin Droeshout, shows a neckless man with an absurdly domed forehead, pouches under his eyes and a hint of flab around his chin.

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.

"I was highly skeptical," Wells says.

But he was intrigued; the Southampton connection was impressive. He agreed to consult.

Which is how Alec Cobbe wandered off into the deep morass of "Shakespeareland," as he calls it, a three-year journey employing a team of researchers to prove that he had found the poet's true face. It included forays into genealogy, provenance and dendrochronology (tree-ring dating). But the most difficult field of all, Cobbe discovered, was history.

Scores of documents relating to Shakespeare survive. According to Bate, the London Public Record Office contains at least 50 curling pieces of paper bearing Shakespeare's name. But they are of a dry transactional nature -- tax records, real estate purchases, lawsuits. "What we don't have," Wells says, "are the personal documents we'd most like to have."

The evidence of who Shakespeare was can be broken down into categories: what you can verify with records (his marriage was a shotgun affair), what you can be pretty certain of based on the contextual evidence (he was exposed to great theater as a boy) and what you can make an educated guess at based on the experiences of his contemporaries (dramatists were a jealous lot, but Shakespeare avoided duels, so he must have been sweet-tempered). The temptation is to fill in the gaps with overeager supposition.

Ultimately, all his biographers can do is build their personal versions of Shakespeare, some of which are sharply contradictory. Park Honan in "Shakespeare: A Life" fashions a moderate, fastidious Shakespeare wedded to the social order. Katherine Duncan-Jones in "Ungentle Shakespeare" styles him as an adventuring misogynist who caroused and got syphilis. In "Shakespeare's Wife," Germaine Greer makes the case that he was loyal to his bride, while Greenblatt in "Will in the World" hazards that the groom was entrapped and insulted his wife with the last stroke of his pen.

To believe in the Cobbe portrait therefore means subscribing to a version of the man. If it's him, it would mean he had courtly pretensions. It would also suggest he was intimate with Southampton. Could Shakespeare have risen so far -- and presumed so much? Duncan-Jones says no; Wells says yes. Wells acknowledges the patchwork nature of his reasoning. "You have to do a lot of stitching," he says. "Where you've only got a limited number of pieces, you've got to create the links."

To create those links, the inquirer must use the imagination. Let it travel a little. And when you're on the trail of Shakespeare, where do you go?

Why, England, of course.

***

STRATFORD-UPON-AVON -- He was born in April 1564 and grew up in a large market town, the son of the mayor. His parents were social climbers. His mother, Mary Arden, claimed kinship with an illustrious old Warwickshire family, and his father, John, was a glove-maker who yearned to rise above his trade. He dabbled in entrepreneurial wool dealing, money lending and land speculation, and he also served the town council as everything from ale taster to constable, and finally mayor. He spent years pursuing a coat of arms, the coveted but closely guarded stamp of aristocracy, a case his son took up, too.

The home on Henley Street was low-ceilinged, with exposed timbers and stone hearths, and it had an animal reek from John Shakespeare's workshop, stacked with softened skins ready for stitching. Will helped with the chores, to which he may have applied a grandiose imagination, according to notes for a biographical sketch taken by 17th-century antiquary John Aubrey, drawing on sources who had known Will. When a calf had to be killed, Will would do it "in a high style and make a speech."

Stratford was a village of broad, flower-decked lanes graced by mullioned windows, alongside which meandered the bends of the Avon River, moving like syrup. Shakespeare would incorporate the landscape into his language; he found "tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones and good in every thing" ("As You Like It").

As a middle-class elite, he was educated at the local grammar school, where from age 7 to 15, six days a week, Stratford boys memorized Ovid, Terence and Plautus. It was an exquisite education taught by a succession of young Oxford scholars and would strain today's college student. Later, Shakespeare's rivals would slur him as poorly read. His pedantic friend Ben Jonson remarked that he had "small Latin and less Greek," but that was because he hadn't gone to Oxford or Cambridge. His Latin was good enough to toy with phrases in his plays.

Whatever hopes Shakespeare had of attending a university were dashed when his father's speculations ruined the family financially. By age 16, Will had to go to work. He probably became a teacher, according to Aubrey, whose sources were Shakespeare's godson, William Davenant, and the son of an actor in his company named Christopher Beeston. "He understood Latine pretty well for he had been in his younger yeares a schoolmaster in the Countrey," Aubrey wrote.

The cramped, debt-ridden household on Henley Street soon became even more crowded. In the late summer of 1582, when Shakespeare was 18, he impregnated the daughter of a local farmer, Anne Hathaway. They married hastily, and she moved in. Daughter Susanna was born in May of 1583, and twins Judith and Hamnet arrived in February 1585. Whether Shakespeare was an enthusiastic husband or a reluctant one has been debated for 300 years. There were no more children, and he shortly decamped for the London theater, suggesting married life was unhappy. On the other hand, he made the three-day, 94-mile horseback ride to Stratford annually.

He arrived in London in 1586 or 1587, perhaps after joining one of the theatrical companies that regularly toured Stratford. It would have been a stunning sight on first arrival, a jumble of turrets, ecclesiastical spires, waterfront palaces, battlements and chimneys. Huge-masted ships on the Thames jockeyed with barges, and church bells tonged over the jangle-cries of merchants. It was a teeming, steaming, bawling, stenchy town with a population of about 200,000.

Londoners frequented two public spaces more than any others: bordellos and theaters. Crowds of 2,000 to 3,000 packed the playhouses every afternoon but Sundays and during Lent. James Shapiro, author of "A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599," estimates that one-third of Londoners attended a play a month, and some went to far more than that. In any given week, 15,000 spectators heard actors such as the trumpet-voiced Edward Alleyn.

The theater was a profession for driven young men who could stand the pace. Acting companies staged a different play every day, which put crushing pressures on writers to turn out fresh material. But for the stage-struck and the word-struck, it was a world of opportunity. All of the greatest new dramatists were young men in their 20s, and all were the upwardly mobile sons of craftsmen. Christopher Marlowe, son of a shoemaker. Thomas Kyd, son of a scrivener. Ben Jonson, son of a bricklayer. And William Shakespeare, son of a glover.

They were men who jousted with their egos and sometimes with weapons. Jonson killed another actor in a sword duel, and Shakespeare's theatrical partner John Heminges married a widow whose first husband was slain by a rival player. Shakespeare seems to have kept out of trouble, however. According to Aubrey's notes, "He was not a company keeper," or carouser, he "wouldn't be debauched." When friends invited him out, he used the excuse of a headache. It's fair to say that while his colleagues were out drinking, he was writing.

"One of the biographical inferences you can make is that he took his craft seriously," says Folger director Gail Kern Paster. "The plays aren't good by accident. Someone is learning how to create stories and characters that will live in memory, how to create stories of human conflict that will resonate. He's trying really hard to do a really good job."

By 1592 at the age of 28, Shakespeare was a successful actor and the author of a hit, "Henry VI," which played to at least 10,000 Londoners. With his success, people began to talk about him, and the first sketch of him emerges. He was "a handsome, well shap't man," according to Aubrey's sources. In about 1598, a series of satirical plays by an unknown author were performed for the entertainment of students at St. John's College, Cambridge (among them was the lovely young Southampton). In them, a ridiculous character called Gullio (gull or fool) hero-worships Shakespeare.

"O, sweet Master Shakespeare!" he says, "I'll have his picture in my study at court."

Portraits of Shakespeare, Wells believes, would have been in demand. By the mid- to late-1590s, he was so hugely popular that his name began appearing on quartos of his plays, the Tudor version of paperbacks -- the first time audiences ever cared who wrote their entertainments. In the early 17th century, portraits of actors were coming in vogue, and Shakespeare "was kind of a pinup, shall we say," Wells observes.

***

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.

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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