One of the most purely enjoyable books on my shelves is a volume by the late Samuel Schoenbaum called Shakespeare's Lives (revised edition, 1993). It's a study of how writers in different ages have reshaped Shakespeare to accord with their own preconceptions.
Some of these writers have been great literary figures in their own right (Johnson, Keats and Joyce). Some have been serious biographers and literary scholars (Sidney Lee and Leslie Hotson). Some have been hoaxers (William Henry Ireland and John Payne Collier). Some have been outright cranks (those who maintain the peculiarly Victorian notion, born of snobbery, that the actor from Stratford could not have possessed the literary and educational attainment to be the true author of plays, which must therefore have been written by a nobleman).
I was reminded of this last and vast category by a story in The Times today:
A portrait of Shakespeare that has been in the collection of the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon since 1892 has secretly been replaced by a 19th-century fake during the past decade, a German scholar claims.
Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel said that the famous portrait, The Flower, was not the original that she examined between 1995 and 2005 and which was among the very few reliable likenesses of the playwright.
Professor Hammerschmidt-Hummel said yesterday that the original had been substituted by a copy. In 2005 it was sent to the laboratories of the National Portrait Gallery and dismissed as a 19th century forgery after it was found to contain chrome yellow, a colour that was commercially available only from 1814 onwards.
“Where is the priceless 400-year-old original Flower portrait?” asked the professor, who lectures in English literature at the University of Mainz.
First, a minor point: the author of this article is mistaken in believing that the title of the portrait is The Flower. The reason the picture is known as the Flower portrait of Shakespeare is that it was formerly owned by a Mrs Charles Flower, who donated it to the Shakespeare Memorial Gallery in Stratford - not that it was a picture of a flower. More important, do not be impressed with any conspiracy theories that make too much of the provenance of the portrait. While some scholars have been impressed with the possibility that it is a depiction of Shakespeare from life, it is in reality a picture painted from the famous Droeshout engraving of Shakespeare, which adorns the frontispiece of the 1623 First Folio of Shakespeare's plays. As Schoenbaum states (p. 334): "It improves upon the engraving, correcting the lighting and reducing exaggerations: surely Droeshout would not have deliberately introduced infelicities into his copy."
But note in particular Professor Hammerschmidt-Hummel's immediate resort to insinuations of malpractice sooner than examine her preconceptions about the painting. There are simpler and more prosaic explanations, as the article makes clear:
Both the RSC and the portrait gallery rejected the claims. A spokes-woman for the RSC said that the only time the painting had not been on display under CCTV coverage in the RSC Collection Gallery was when it was in a secure store room. Dr Tarnya Cooper, the portrait gallery’s 16th century curator, said: “The idea that this picture has been substituted for a different portrait between 1996 and 2005 is plainly nonsensical . . . Any perceived differences between photographs are likely to be caused by differences in lighting conditions.”
Stanley Wells, Britain’s foremost Shakespeare scholar, condemned Professor Hammerschmidt-Hummel’s claims as “disgraceful”. He claimed that she was trying to counter the evidence against the painting’s authenticity, following the NPG’s research, and added that many books written on Shakespeare contained “lunatic theories”. He said of Professor Ham-merschmidt-Hummel: “She knows her way round the archives, but she barks continually up the wrong tree. At least she’s not saying Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare.”
Chaucer Press will be publishing Professor Hammerschmidt-Hummel’s findings in The Life and Times of William Shakespeare on November 5.
No doubt; and the publisher will be glad of the publicity generated by the extravagant claims that its author has made. All credit goes to Professor Wells for calling a crank when he sees one; the field of Shakespeare studies is full of them.
Incidentally, I'm a little concerned by this remark underneath the article, surveying other fantastic claims about Shakespeare: "Academics have argued for centuries over the authorship of Shakespeare’s works; the philosopher Francis Bacon, the nobleman Edward de Vere and the playwright Christopher Marlowe are among suggested candidates."
This is true only in a literal and thereby misleading sense. There have been numerous proponents in the last 150 years of the crank belief that Francis Bacon or Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, or numerous others might have been the true author of Shakespeare. Some of these conspiracy theorists have been academics - but almost none has been a scholar in a relevant field of inquiry. There have been chemists, lawyers (particularly lawyers, for some reason), classicists and many other types. But the number of scholars of Elizabethan and Jacobean literature seriously entertaining these notions is, to my knowledge, fewer than half a dozen. There is no more genuine academic debate on the authorship of Shakespeare than there is genuine academic debate among biologists about the fact of evolution.
There is a reason for this unanimity. If you're steeped in the literature and social history of the period, you will not be susceptible to the notion that the author of the plays possessed an unusual knowledge of classical literature, or royal protocol, or Italy, or soldiering, or the law. You will be familiar with the interest in these and other subjects shown by the principal authors of that period, and know how much that is esoteric to us was a standard part of a grammar school education such as Shakespeare probably received.
The Shakespeare authorship craze may seem a benign if bizarre fantasy. I take the view that conspiracy theories are essentially similar and pernicious, because they disregard the disciplines of historical inquiry. The literary scholar Jonathan Bate (author of one of the best popular books about Shakespeare of recent years, The Genius of Shakespeare, 1997) has stated well why the question - or rather non-question - of Shakespearean authorship matters: "Partly it's to do with honouring truth, honouring fact. And, you know, without being melodramatic about it, you deny the reality of Shakespeare one moment, you can deny the reality of the Holocaust the next."