a Shakespearean portrait of bad public reason

Purported portraits of Shakespeare have attracted considerable public interest. A scholar recently explained:

If Shakespeare study today is a lively mix of wishfulness, mythology and scholarship, this may simply be because we don’t know what he looked like, and what we do know about him is unsatisfactory. … How did this money-worried little capitalist, who conducted his life in a flurry of land deeds and small business ventures, write Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet?

An authentic portrait of Shakespeare could not answer this question. It would provide only an easier way to understand what everyone already knows: irrespective of the facts of his biography and despite his inexhaustible creativity, Shakespeare could be recognized as a human being with a human face.

A separate motivation for interest in Shakespeare is the thrill of publicly recognized discovery. Just a few months ago:

ALEC COBBE was strolling around the Searching for Shakespeare exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery when he was stopped in his tracks by a painting that was the spitting image of one he had on his wall at home. … Scholars have confirmed that Mr Cobbe’s painting is the original of the famous portrait in the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington that was on loan at the National Portrait Gallery exhibition….[The Times]

This is a modern enchantment: the possibility of a true, material discovery, made solely by chance.

Discovery usually requires more time and effort. Over the past decade, Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel, a professor at the university of Marburg and Mainz, has been a scholarly leader in discovering more about Shakespeare. Professor Hammerschmidy-Hummel has extensively investigated primary sources, including continental pilgrims’ registries that have not previously been studied in relation to Shakespearean biography. Her biography, William Shakespeare: seine Zeit, sein Leben, sein Werk (2003) (forthcoming in an English edition entitled The Life and Times of William Shakespeare) extensively explored Shakespeare’s Catholic connections. This work includes considerable conjecture and interpretive construction. But much recent Shakespearean scholarship recognizes the importance of Catholic faith to Shakespeare and also richly employs conjecture and interpretive construction. Prof. Hammerschmidt-Hummel puts more emphasis on Catholicism in understanding Shakespeare than most current Shakespearean scholarship, but her standards of reasoning put her work well within the form of legitimate contemporary scholarship.

Thrilling discovery depends upon good public reason. Early in 2005, The Culture Show on the BBC broadcast an exclusive report on scientific investigations of the Flower Portrait. Some considered the Flower portrait to be a portrait of Shakespeare. The report declared: “it can be categorically stated that Flower portrait of Shakespeare is a nineteenth century painting.”

With respect to public reason, some aspects of the report on the Flower Portrait are not impressive:

  1. The report didn’t indicate the scientists making the claim. Using a passive voice for a new knowledge claim obscures agency and accountability. That’s particularly inappropriate for a new, categorical claim.
  2. The claim wasn’t made public in circumstances associated with scholarly scrutiny. Making findings public on “The Culture Show” is rather different than publishing them in a peer-reviewed journal.
  3. Details of supporting evidence that would make the claim subject to significant, independent review were not made readily available to the public. Such evidentiary details could be made available globally on the Internet at low cost. But they weren’t.

Modern scientific analysis can provide highly convincing evidence about the date of paintings. But the public support for the claim that the Flower Portrait of Shakespeare was painted in the nineteenth century seems to be not much more than the authority of the National Portrait Gallery. Francis Bacon, the English philosopher and statesman who made a great contribution to the development of science, would not be proud of this. Belief based solely on the authority of a well-established, well-respected institution isn’t thrilling.

More exciting, and bewildering, is Professor Hammerschmidt-Hummel’s beautifully illustrated new book, The True Face of William Shakespeare (2006). This book provides new information about four images that Professor Hammerschmidt-Hummel argues are contemporary images of Shakespeare: The Chandos Portrait, the Flower Portrait, the Davenant Bust, and the Darmstadt Death Mask. And what of the National Portrait Gallery’s claim that the Flower Portrait was painted in the nineteenth century? Professor Hammerschmidt-Hummel claims that the National Portrait Gallery tested a copy the Flower Portrait, not the original. She includes two photographs showing clear differences between what she describes as the original portrait and the copy. However, the National Portrait Gallery’s test of the Flower Portrait documents that the tested painting covered a sixteenth-century Italian painting of a Madonna and child. That underlying painting is a recognized aspect of the Flower Portrait. This gross conflict leads to at least one firm conclusion: good public reason is here out of joint.

Fay, is there any hope for better reason? The Searching for Shakespeare exhibition ignored Prof. Hammerschmidt-Hummel’s work, except for a short, dismissive footnote buried in the catalog. The final essay in that catalogue concluded:

We will never know what Shakespeare looked like. What is important for us is to recognize the extent and diversity of reproductive portraiture of the Bard and to acknowledge what lies behind the continuing desire for the authentic image, the Shakespeare grail…. As an emblem of national identity and cultural pride, it is without rival.

How dull. If scholars agree that what’s important in scholarship, including science, is high politics, then much of the personal thrill of discovery becomes impossible.

My love, even certainties cannot justify your acting as if you were dead.

I never saw that you did painting need,
And therefore to your fair no painting set.
I found, or thought I found, you did exceed
The barren tender of a poet’s debt.
And therefore have I slept in your report,
That you yourself, being extant, well might show
How far a modern quill doth come too short,
Speaking of worth, what worth in you doth grow.
This silence for my sin you did impute,
Which shall be most my glory, being dumb.
For I impair not beauty, being mute,
When others would give life, and bring a tomb.
There lives more life in one of your fair eyes
Than both your poets can in praise devise.
[Sonnet 83]

I think Shakespeare’s lover would have dismissed this kind of play, and insisted, “Try!”

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