The controversy over a sexy portrait of Shakespeare.

Scrutinizing culture.
April 2 2009 6:47 AM

Should We Care What Shakespeare Did in Bed?

The controversy over a sexy new portrait.

At left, a known representation of Shakespeare by Martin Droeshout; at right, a portrait thought by some to represent the bard and by others to depict Sir Thomas Overbury. Click image to expand.
At left, a known representation of Shakespeare by Martin Droeshout; at right, a portrait thought by some to represent the bard and by others to depict Sir Thomas Overbury

Was Shakespeare a hottie? Was Homer a hunk? John Milton: six-pack abs? Dante: hot or not?

You would think, from recent coverage of the portrait newly claimed to be of Shakespeare (a claim front-paged by the New York Times early last month) that these are valid literary questions rather than evidence that the culture of celebrity has irretrievably corrupted literature.

Fortunately, the Times story was written by the redoubtable John Burns, who included a good dose of skepticism.

Nonetheless, the piece did quote the promotional brochure that is to accompany an exhibition of the "newly discovered" Shakespeare portrait that opens at the Stratford-on-Avon Shakespeare Center on April 23, the bard's birthday. The quotation tells us everything that is wrong with Shakespearean biography—indeed, with most literary biography—and reminded me of the recent profoundly clueless sexsational controversy over the singularity of Hitler's testicle.

Here is the brochure's heavy-breathing, lubricious description of the so-called "Cobbe portrait" (which belongs to an Irish family named Cobbe):

This Shakespeare is handsome and glamorous, so how does this change the way we think about him? And do the painting and provenance tell us more about his sexuality, and possibly about the person to whom the sonnets are addressed?

In a word: No. There's nothing wrong with speculating about what Shakespeare looked like nor about what he might have gotten up to in bed. In fact, I'll touch on the latter question a little later in this essay. The problems begin when baseless speculation about the life is used to interpret—and, more often than not, misinterpret—the work.

It has been odd to watch the media all aflutter when our supreme literary genius is revealed to be movie-star handsome and red-carpet ready. He's no longer the pudgy, balding figure we see in the so-called "Droeshout engraving" that appears on the cover of the First Folio, the engraving that most experts, drawing on quotations from those (like fellow poet Ben Jonson) who knew Shakespeare in the flesh, testify is his likeness.

What is remarkable about the fight over this "new" portrait—and it is, indeed, developing into a scholarly shootout—is that one of the leading eminences of British academic Shakespeare, Stanley Wells, general editor of the Oxford Shakespeare series, has lent his name to the venture. It was Wells who spearheaded a press conference unveiling the "Cobbe portrait" as the centerpiece of the upcoming exhibition, which is somewhat grandly called "Shakespeare Found." His support is especially surprising given how quickly and credibly other scholars, such as Oxford's Katherine Duncan-Jones, have presented evidence that the portrait isn't of Shakespeare at all but rather of a Jacobean contemporary, Sir Thomas Overbury. (Duncan-Jones' piece on this subject in the Times Literary Supplement is worth clicking on because it presents a portrait that is indubitably Overbury and it looks exactly like the one Wells claims to be of Shakespeare.)

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And yet there was Wells putting his imprimatur on the alleged "Shakespeare" portrait at a press conference. And there was Wells, along with two other Shakespeareans, firing back at Duncan-Jones in the letters pages of the TLS, dubiously claiming that "independent scientific investigation" supports his claim that the Cobbe portrait depicts Shakespeare. The "science" involved a "tree-ring" study of the wooden frame of the portrait; it hardly needs to be said that no "science" can establish whom a portrait depicts, barring some studio mishap that leaves the subject's DNA all over it.

Wells' unequivocal advocacy is surprising, but it's also easily explained: There is something about the trifecta of fame, sex, and Shakespeare that seems irresistible to scholars, even to someone of Stanley Wells' gravitas.

The whole contretemps reminds me of the recent debate about whether Shakespeare wrote the "Funeral Elegy," a wretched, mind-numbingly sententious, and witless 600-line poem found in a manuscript that had long been gathering dust in an Oxford library. As I recounted in my book The Shakespeare Wars, the false (and eventually discredited) claim about the ludicrous elegy was nonetheless a serious matter: If that dreadful work had survived persistent jeers from outsiders such as myself, and definitive debunking by scholars such as Gilles Monsarrat and Brian Vickers, and been taken for authentic, it might have forced us to re-evaluate, through the prism of its rebarbative verse, everything we thought we knew about Shakespeare's attitudes toward life, death, and mortality. We would have had to take the text especially seriously, in fact, because the claim was that it had been written by Shakespeare in 1612, four years before his death, and that he was writing in his own voice—eulogizing a friend—and thus not speaking through a character whose clumsy words could be excused or explained by dramatic irony or some other literary device.

It is perhaps not surprising that the promoters of the wretched elegy initially tried to "sex up" their "discovery" by insinuating that the poem revealed something scandalous about Shakespeare's sex life—perhaps even the identity of the homosexual lover to whom many of the sonnets were supposedly addressed.

The "Shakespeare portrait" brochure makes similar claims, asking whether the new, "hotter" Shakespeare tells us anything about the bard's "sexuality" or "the person to whom the sonnets are addressed," although it's unclear how a portrait could do any such thing. (Are all bisexual men handsome? All heteros ugly?)

There is so little established certainty about Shakespeare's personal traits that it is almost always a reductive and foolish thing to try to read his work through urban legends about his life, or his life through his work. Recently, I tried to make this point in a seminar moderated by Robert Brustein, a great Shakespearean director and author of the just-published Tainted Muse. I argued that Homer's works are still considered the greatest in all of literature, and our lack of any certain knowledge about him (or her, for all we know) doesn't change that. If we were to learn Homer had a happy or unhappy marriage, or favored hermaphrodites, it would change—add or subtract—nothing, zero, from our understanding, our awe, at the grandeur of the Iliad or The Odyssey.

But the beat goes on, especially when there's some snippet of sex. In fact, Stanley Wells, before he became a promoter of sexy portraits, wrote intelligently on our obsession with Shakespeare's sexual language; he's the author of a thought-provoking book (well, a collection of three lectures) called Looking for Sex in Shakespeare that has many judicious things to say on the subject. His first essay is an examination of the way modern, post-Shakespearean sexual connotations are often read into his verse retroactively when the sexual usage of the word or phrase in question was unknown at the time.

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