A month ago, Professor Stanley Wells, chairman of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, announced the discovery of a new portrait of Shakespeare. Wells, described in the Trust’s press release as “one of the world’s leading experts on Shakespearian studies,” called this portrait “almost certainly the only authentic image of Shakespeare made from life.” The Cobbe portrait, as it is known, has been in the family of Alec Cobbe for centuries. It was for many years believed to be of Sir Walter Raleigh, and it bears a label on the reverse to this effect. “The evidence that it represents Shakespeare and that it was done from life, though it is circumstantial, is in my view overwhelming,” said Professor Wells. “I feel in little doubt that this is a portrait of Shakespeare, done from life and commissioned by the Earl of Southampton.”
In the same press release, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust attempted to discredit the most credible contender for a portrait-from-life, the Chandos, by quoting Park Honan, who notes that the portrait’s “authenticity has been debated.” This is, of course, true of all the portraits suggested as Shakespeare, and indicates nothing more than a responsible scholarly attitude. In an attempt to enhance the significance of Honan’s pronouncement, the press release dubs him “Shakespeare’s most authoritative biographer," a statement that many scholars familiar with Honan’s biographies might consider highly questionable.
Wells’s insistence that the Cobbe portrait is of Shakespeare is even more so, and the case against it was made eloquently by Katherine Duncan-Jones in the Times Literary Supplement. Wells’s belief that the Cobbe portrait “could be the basis for the [Droeshout] engraving” seems to be based on nothing more than wishful thinking, since it bears no resemblance to this or other generally accepted images of Shakespeare. This sitter is considerably younger than the 46 Shakespeare would have been in 1610 when the portrait was painted, and he lacks the high-domed forehead of the Droeshout and the Chandos, possessing instead an aquiline nose and a pointed chin. As Katherine Duncan-Jones and others have noted, the sitter bear a remarkably strong resemblance to an existing portrait of Sir Thomas Overbury.
Why then, would Wells wish to gamble his professional reputation on such an extraordinary claim? The answer may lie in the need to shore up the case for a Stratfordian Shakespeare in the face of what might be perceived as an increasing non-Stratfordian “threat." The sitter is obviously wealthy, and fits neatly with Wells’s orthodox conception of Shakespeare as a property and landowner who wrote chiefly to turn a profit. As non-Stratfordians recognize, the attribution of the Works to the Stratford Shakespeare rests entirely on a secondary source, the prefatory material of the First Folio, the majority of which – even the portion purportedly written by Shakespeare’s “fellows” - was penned by the age’s chief satirist, Ben Jonson. Wells links picture with text, not only through his unconvincing attempt to associate the Cobbe portrait with the First Folio by way of the Droeshout engraving, but by tracing the picture’s provenance back to the only man ever to receive a personal dedication from the author. As the press release describes, the portrait arrived with the Cobbes “through their cousin’s marriage to the great granddaughter of Shakespeare’s only literary patron, Henry Wriothesley, the 3rd Earl of Southampton” and this, indeed, is the chief attraction of the Cobbe portrait to Professor Wells. What we have been missing to this point, Wells might argue, is a portrait of the great author, painted in his lifetime, which can be linked biographically to a historical figure documented as being associated with him. Or have we?
There may have been more than one reason why Wells wished to cast doubts upon the Chandos portrait, which Dr. Tarnya Cooper’s three-and-a-half-year study concluded had “the strongest claim of any of the known contenders to be a true portrait of Shakespeare.” The Chandos portrait bears interesting comparison with the putative Corpus Christi portrait of Marlowe. Although I am making no grand Wellsian claim, it is not inconceivable to envisage the Chandos sitter as an older version of the Corpus Christi man, painted some 25 years later. The high forehead, the bouffant hair at the sides, the impassive gaze, the small mouth, and even the simple collar style are shared – similarities utilized to great effect by the designer of the original cover of Rodney Bolt’s History Play.
But what is more interesting to those prepared to entertain the Marlovian theory of Shakespeare authorship is that the Chandos portrait can be traced back to a family documented as being associated with Marlowe.
The Chandos portrait is so-called because its first documented owner was James Brydges, the 3rd Duke of Chandos. The 3rd Duke’s great grandfather, Sir James Brydges, 8th Baron Chandos of Sudeley, inherited the title, plus Sudeley castle and its contents, when the 6th and 7th Barons, both sons of the 5th Baron, Sir Grey Brydges, died without male issue. If the Chandos portrait is a portrait of Shakespeare, and if it has remained in the Brydges family since its commission in 1610, then it is presumably the 5th Baron Grey Brydges (1581 – 1621), or someone close to him, whom literary historians would hope to find had some connection with the author.
What is interesting from a Marlovian authorship perspective is that the Baron’s wife, Lady Chandos, was none other than Lady Anne Stanley, eldest daughter of Ferdinando Stanley, Lord Strange. Marlowe is documented as saying he was “very well known” to Lord Strange when arrested at Flushing in 1592. Marlowe’s friend Thomas Nashe is also connected with Strange, having apparently dedicated to him the erotic poem "The Choise of Valentines," and Edward Alleyne, who was famous for playing Marlowe’s protagonists, was associated with Strange’s Men for a time. Thomas Kyd, the former roommate whose arrest appears to have led directly to Marlowe’s, is also believed to have written for Strange, and Strange is considered to be one of the strongest candidates for the Lord whom Kyd is attempting to distance from Marlowe in his letters to Sir John Puckering after Marlowe’s apparent death.
Lord Strange died in suspicious circumstances in April 1594, less than a year after becoming the 5th Earl of Derby, and it was widely believed at the time that he was poisoned for refusing to take part in a Catholic plot. Marlowe’s probable involvement in countering Catholic plots is suggested by three independent accusations that he intended to “go to the other side” (1587, 1592, 1593). David Riggs has raised the interesting possibility that Marlowe was “coining” in Flushing in an attempt to infiltrate the conspirators associated with Lord Strange’s Catholic cousin, Sir William Stanley, who had announced his intentions to assassinate the Queen. The documented association of Marlowe, his close friend, his chief actor, and his former roommate with Lord Strange, and the possibility that Marlowe was attempting to infiltrate and expose the Catholic conspiracies that eventually led to the future Earl of Derby’s death, make it all the more interesting that the portrait declared by the National Gallery to be the most likely contender for a portrait of Shakespeare painted from life was painted not long after Strange’s daughter became Lady Chandos in 1608.
If one is willing to consider the possibility that Marlowe was forced into hiding in May 1593 as a result of his intelligence work exposing Catholic plots – plots which led not only to his downfall but to the death of Ferdinando Stanley - the possibility that the Chandos portrait is Marlowe appears considerably more plausible than that the Cobbe portrait is Shakespeare.
Scholars in the humanities would do well to consider
the observations of physicists that the human observer necessarily changes the nature of his or her reality. We may draw numerous conclusions, but perhaps it is unwise to adopt a stance - of which Professor Wells is as guilty as A.D.Wraight - of total conviction. For it is probably a function of our neurological wiring and the quantum universe that in scholarship, whether orthodox or exploratory, we very often find exactly what we are looking for.
© Ros Barber, April 2009
Ros Barber is the first person in the world to complete a PhD in Marlovian authorship theory. Her PhD was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (UK). Her first degree was in Biological Sciences. A founding member of the International Marlowe-Shakespeare Society, she has published articles challenging the orthodox biography of Marlowe in academic books and journals, including the peer-reviewed Routledge journal Rethinking History. Her essay "Was Marlowe a Violent Man?," which was presented at the Marlowe Society of America conference in 2008, is featured in Christopher Marlowe the Craftsman (Ashgate 2010). A published poet, her latest poetry collection, Material (Anvil 2008), was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation and was funded by Arts Council England.
Click here for our December 2008 Q and A with Ros Barber.
Click here for Dr. Barber's video interview on the Marlowe-Shakespeare theory.
(original History Play cover design by Rodney Bolt and Allan Grotjohann)
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"It’s enough to strike despair into the heart of James Shapiro, author of Contested Will, as well as the hearts of all the other Shakespeare experts who refute the so-called 'authorship controversy'." (Financial Times)
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