James Joyce, first among modernist equals, found his influence so all-encompassing that he habitually referred to him as "Shakesphere."
Ralph Waldo Emerson, philosopher and man of letters, assessed him as "inconceivably wise," while all other writers--whatever their genius--were merely "conceivably so."
But to Sir Frank Kermode, perhaps this era's preeminent Shakespeare reader, the poet and playwright was "always, indeed, a writer and to be considered as such."
It is that fact of individual humanity freighted with genius that renders so fascinating the recent emergence in Canada of a small, apparently authentic Elizabethan painting whose owner believes it to be the only existing contemporaneous portrait of the Bard of Avon.
In literary terms, the search for the historical Shakespeare occupies territory rather like that where the quest for the historic Jesus occurs--an area of nearly addictive interest, strewn with contested facts and riven by theological differences. In such a place, the possibility that there may exist an actual portrait of Shakespeare at the height of his powers is fraught with the sort of implications usually associated with the Shroud of Turin.
Naturally enough, the alleged portrait has set the Internet's virtually innumerable Shakespeare-related sites into a cyber-spatial quiver. Professor Alan H. Nelson, a UC Berkley Shakespeare scholar, even has posted a copy of the portrait on his influential Web site, though he is quick to point out that he "has no opinion on its authenticity. . . . But it's fun to speculate."
Others are less measured. British playwright Tom Stoppard is insistently indifferent to the picture's possibilities; his American colleague Amy Freed is passionately enthusiastic. To Freed, the portrait's physical impact "is so thrilling that we should stop all attempts to authenticate it and just embrace it now." Part of what attracts her is the picture's pure sexiness. Director Jonathan Miller, however, diagnoses decadence in our fascination with the whole affair.
The picture's existence and unusual history first came to light in a recent edition of Toronto's Globe and Mail. The painting's owner, who insists on anonymity for what he says are security reasons, is a retired engineer living in a mid-sized city in the province of Ontario. The portrait is part of a collection the man's father brought with him when he emigrated from England to Canada early in the last century.
The painting, rendered in tempera on an oak panel, bears the likeness of an informally dressed young man with a high forehead, auburn hair and blue-green eyes--the latter two being physical characteristics ascribed to Shakespeare in a description attributed to his contemporary, Christopher Marlowe. The sitter's mouth is set in a half smile--perhaps a smirk?--and his glance is sidelong, as if fixed on an offstage audience.
The portrait bears the date 1603--Shakespeare's 40th year--in its upper left-hand corner. A linen label is affixed to the back and, though badly faded, reportedly bears the inscription "Shakspere. Born April 23 1564, Died April 23 1616, Aged 52, This Likeness taken 1603, Age at that time 39 ys." The spelling of the Bard's name is the one he employed, though some scholars say the phraseology is atypical of the 17th century.
What does not appear to be in dispute is the painting's antiquity. Over the past seven years, the owner has had the portrait analyzed by the Canadian Conservation Institute in Ottawa, a governmental scientific agency charged with authenticating art and artifacts in Canadian museums. In a written report, the scientists there say carbon dating has established that the panel is late 16th or early 17th century Baltic oak and that the painting's "materials and techniques" are consistent with the date of 1603.
According to the Canadian scientists, "it is highly improbable that the painting is a later forgery or copy." The linen label, though problematic, nevertheless has been carbon-dated to the early 17th century.
Beyond that, competent scholars agree, certainty fades. The owner, who hopes to interest an American auction house in selling the portrait, says that the painting has been in his family for 400 years. According to familial tradition, it was executed by an ancestor 12 generations removed named John Sanders, who was a minor player and scene painter in Shakespeare's company, the King's Men. The owner has produced family wills containing the bequest, "To my eldest son, the portrait reputed to be Shakespeare."