Seeing Shakespeare

August 28, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


ROGER ROSENBLATT: Who knows if it’s authentic? Who knows if one wants it to be authentic? I’m referring to the portrait of William Shakespeare, recently unearthed in Canada, which is thought to be the only portrait of the remarkable poet- playwright done when he was alive. The face does look like the representations made after Shakespeare’s death. A nice face– part serene, part contemplative, part sardonic, with a little smirk and a soupcon of insolence, a dash of dash. Of course, if one were told that it was a portrait of a 17th century fool or a murderer, one would most likely discover a different set of traits. But we are told that it’s Shakespeare, and so we see Shakespeare.

That leads one to wonder if one really wants to know if the portrait is authentic. For 400 years, people have been content to know Shakespeare by his work. Never has there been a great public clamor to look upon the man. The clamor has centered on the question of whether or not he in fact wrote what he wrote.

ACTOR: Is this a dagger which I see before me?

ACTRESS: O Romeo, Romeo.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: In some ways, he has been like radio to his admirers over the centuries. The beauty of radio is that the words are unencumbered by images, and so one’s imagination can cooperate with the imagination of the speaker of words in a tandem flight. My guess is that Orson Welles’ famous broadcast of “War of the Worlds” would have thrown no one into a panic if people could have seen the reality of the fantasy. Not to know what Shakespeare looked like has been a liberating ignorance. Instead of being this or that, here or there, he has been everything, everywhere– all things to all people. And since he can do everything in writing, he has become the size of the universe.

Keats defined Shakespeare’s power of negative capability, the capacity to translate himself with equal effect into Hamlet, Lear, Macbeth and his lady, Romeo and his, Iago and Othello, both. A painting, of course, is a work of positive capability; it shows what is. But it’s also oddly restrictive. If this painting of Shakespeare is what he looked like, it means that he looked like no one else. And while nothing is lost by that knowledge, it’s also disappointing. “You mean to say he looked like that? He looked only like that?” The immortal bard becomes, well, mortal.

People wonder about the sort of man Shakespeare was a lot more than what he looked like. And one is pleased to conclude that he was who he was in his writing. This is no less true of those whose faces are very well recognized: Mark Twain, Hemingway, Marianne Moore and her tri-corner hat, Virginia Woolf, Faulkner, Frost, Shaw. Great faces, all. But as each writer would readily concede, none of them could hold a brief candle to the fellow who determined that “life was not a picture, but a tale.” “Your face is as a book where men nay read strange matters,” wrote the author of Macbeth — to which one replies, “faces are fine, give us the book.”

I’m Roger Rosenblatt.