Philobiblon: Do you want to meet William Shakespeare? This is the closest you are ever going to get.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Do you want to meet William Shakespeare? This is the closest you are ever going to get.

Walking into Searching for Shakespeare, the exhibition that opens tomorrow at the National Portrait Gallery in London, I took a wrong turn. Someone was standing in front of the "exhibition this way" sign, so I forged straight ahead, and was puzzled to be confronted by a sword, a workmanlike rapier with just a hint of gentlemanly damascene decoration. The label explained: "On formal occasions and at court Shakespeare would have worn a sword, and in his will in 1616 he left it to a friend from Stratford-upon-Avon called Thomas Coombe. This example from the period ..." So, a hint, a flavour of his age, but not really Shakespeare.

Turning around, I went back to the beginning, and found another absence. On a perspex stand is a wonderful fancy, and very warm-looking hat, from the 16th-century, an astonishing survival and fascinating, but again, not Shakespeare's (what would it be worth if it were?), but one like he "might have worn".

Yet next, in front of you, are some real signs that, as though scrawled by some graffitist on the wall, "Shakespeare was here". There are the papers that he touched, that recorded his life before he was "the Bard" and was just a young lad from Stratford-upon-Avon . There's the parish register from Holy Trinity Church, open at the entry for the baptism on May 26, 1583, of his first child, Susanna. It sits beside the bond recording his marriage, just five months before. They are mute but eloquent witnesses to the reason why a lad of 18 would be marrying a woman of 26. By the standards of the time she was about the right age for marriage, but he was certainly not; you can just imagine the matrons of the town tutting, saying: "He's ruined his life."

The end of that life - the dead Shakespeare if you like - is also here, in the will that famously left most of his wealth to that oldest child, Susanna, and only his "second best bed" to his wife, Anne Hathaway. But, as Tarnya Cooper, the exhibition curator, explains, that can't be taken for the slight that it seems to be. Wives by law received a third of their husband's wealth for their use, and it is not uncommonly for them to be left out of the bequests in consequence. This will is nonetheless an oh-so-human document, Lines are crossed out, words inserted - there was, on this death bed, no time to make a fair copy.

So we've found the young son of a glove-maker, and the old man on his death-bed in Stratford-upon-Avon. But these are not The Bard - the star of London's great Tudor flowering ... READ MORE


Blogger clanger said...

Worth a look:

"Shakespeare and the Bibliophiles: From the Earliest Years to 1616" by Alan H. Nelson.
In: 'Owners, Annotators and the Signs of Reading', eds. Myers, Harris, Mandelbrote. British Library; Oak Knoll Press, 2005. pp.49-73. 'Publishing Pathways' series. A study of those known to have owned books by Shakespeare.

'Shakespeare's Reading' by Robert S. Miola. OUP, 2000.

Good Will Hunting.

3/01/2006 07:43:00 pm  
Blogger Lis Riba said...

I've heard unconfirmed rumors that the exhibit includes the Corpus Christi portrait (alleged to be) of Kit Marlowe.

Can you let me know one way or another whether that's on loan to the NPG for this exhibit?

3/02/2006 12:28:00 am  
Blogger Natalie Bennett said...

Thanks Clanger! (Turning this around the other way there's an interesting forged Shakespeare signature in a book on display - the fact that no books known to have been owned by Shakespeare have survived has obviously been a great frustration.)

Yes Lis, the "Marlowe" portrait is there. I didn't note the precise caption, but as I recall it the attribution was treated with some scepticism, and the portrait isn't given any special status in the display, is downplayed if anything.

3/02/2006 12:40:00 am  
Blogger clanger said...

Now there's a Possession-like quest. One of WS's own books. I'd be surprised if one doesn't turn up eventually.

3/02/2006 03:14:00 am  

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