SHAKESPEARE’S FACE by Stephanie Nolen


Unraveling the Legend and History of Shakespeare’s Mysterious Portrait
Email this review


Canadian journalist Nolen recounts the gripping story of the portrait many believe shows the face of the Immortal Bard.

The author’s mother first told her of a neighbor near Ottawa who claimed to have an authentic painting of Shakespeare. Lloyd Sullivan said that the 16½-by-13-inch artifact was painted in 1603 by an ancestor named John Sanders, supposedly a member of the playwright’s theater company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. The painting had been in his family for 400 years, Sullivan declared, and he had tried from time to time to authenticate it. Enter Nolen with her reporter’s curiosity and the resources of the Toronto Globe and Mail. In an unusual but effective strategy, she interrupts her narrative periodically to insert essays on related subjects by various scholars, artists, and forensic specialists. For example, the author discusses other portraits that may show the Bard, then we hear from Andrew Gurr discoursing on the likelihood of such a portrait even existing (he thinks it very likely), from Jonathan Bate summarizing the issues surrounding Shakespeare’s identity, from Robert Tittler expatiating on portraits from the era, from Tarnya Cooper examining the artistry of the picture, and so on. The following facts emerge: the portrait is definitely from the Shakespearean period (pigments, technique, and oak surface all conform to 1603 norms); the man is wearing clothing consistent with Shakespeare’s social status at the time; an X-ray confirmed that there is no underpainting; both the paper and the writing on the back, which identifies the subject as Shakespeare, date from the proper period. Q.E.D.? Not quite. As Nolen notes, there are gaps in the story, years when the painting cannot be accounted for, and there is no contemporaneous documentary evidence that Shakespeare ever sat for a portrait.

A fascinating piece of detective work, but once again the elusive Swan of Avon slips into the shadows. (16 pp. color plates, not seen)

Pub Date: April 7th, 2004
ISBN: 0-7432-4932-1
Page count: 384pp
Publisher: Free Press
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1st, 2004