P I CTURES FROM A L I BRARY: 2
‘Art to Enchant’: Shakespearian Iconography
These images are well known within the iconography of Shakespeare. The first, referred to as the Grafton portrait, is by an unknown English artist and throughout the twentieth century was thought to be a true representation of William Shakespeare as a young man. Recent scholarship has been unable to substantiate this claim. The proof cited in its support is that an inscription on the portrait, dated to 1588, tells us that the age of its subject was twenty-four, thereby making him an exact contemporary of Shakespeare.
Between proof and painting, the person portrayed and the viewer of a portrait are caught in the same psychological force-field. Almost transformed, through the intensity of such an encounter, from an inert work of art into a living being, a portrait can become a magical space. Here a person looking at a picture can conduct what Richard Brilliant describes as ‘a peculiar sort of communication with the person painted’. Starved of facts of Shakespeare’s life and dazzled by the potent presence of a beautiful young man resplendent in crimson and curled tresses, is it surprising that some, despite lack of evidence, are willing to accept the Grafton portrait as a depiction of the bard?
In contrast, the engraved portrait by Droeshout from the title page of the First Folio is one of the few images of
A portrait of an unknown gentleman, known as the Grafton portrait, 1588, by an unknown English artist, oil painting on oak panel, 445 × 385mm. Reproduced by courtesy of the University Librarian and Director, The John Rylands Library, The University of Manchester.
Shakespeare that has always carried a stamp of authenticity, coming, as it does, with endorsements from Shakespeare’s friends. It therefore masks its fictions through the authority of likeness. Engravings, after all, were never worked from life but from the intermediary of a painting or drawing. Other clues, charged with symbolic power, reveal that portraits, like poems, function as systems that conform to and shape the expectations of their genre. Commentators have, for example, drawn attention to the way Droeshout has pictured his Shakespeare with a pronounced, bald brain-box that, bathed in an effulgence of light and almost preposterously detached from his puny body, emphasises his prodigious intellectual prowess and genius. So, like Leontes in The Winter’s Tale, even when faced with a true likeness ‘we are mocked by art’.
Engraved portrait of William Shakespeare by Martin Droeshout from the Rylands copy of the First Folio, 1623. Reproduced by courtesy of the University Librarian and Director, The John Rylands Library, The University of Manchester.