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We know him not at all, and yet completely. That has always been the paradox of William Shakespeare. The characters he created in his plays have worked their way into the collective DNA of the English-speaking world, of Western culture broadly considered, and of world culture through Western culture. The language of Shakespeare — that unique and startling way he had of phrasing things–has become the common currency of thinking, acting, being. But we don’t know much about his life. We know the basic details: born in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564, married Anne Hathaway in 1582, died in 1616. Beyond that, he is a mystery. We don’t have any information that explains how he could have had such an immense and lasting influence, an influence that only seems to grow, century after century. When you reflect on it for a moment, it doesn’t seem possible that one person could have created Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth, the Sonnets, etc. (to even attempt to make a list of Shakespeare’s greatness is absurd). Is there any other literary figure, any non-religious figure of nay kind so utterly essential to the world as we know it? Maybe Shakespeare is the only one.

“The Changing Face of William Shakespeare” Through May 1.
The Morgan Library & Museum, New York.

This explains, I think, the suspicions regarding Shakespeare’s true identity that have percolated ever since the man died. We’ve been told that Shakespeare was actually Christopher Marlowe or Francis Bacon. We’ve been told that he was Edward de Vere, or some other English nobleman in disguise. The details of these various theories don’t matter so much. The point is the disbelief, the sense that Shakespeare can’t just be Shakespeare.

I, for one, find myself both angry at Shakespeare and frightened by Shakespeare. The anger is perhaps easier to explain. He took too much. He took too much literature for himself and that’s not fair. He broke some sort of unwritten rule about how much literature goes to each man. I couldn’t tell you exactly how much that is, but I can say that Shakespeare took too much, and that it angers me sometimes.

The fear comes from a hazier place. I suppose I simply fear a person who was able to view the human beast so truly. Is there something infernal about the wisdom of Shakespeare, something uncanny that has the taint of the dark arts upon it? Strangely, I am much less afraid of the genius of the scientists, partly because their abstract insights into the nature of reality often go hand-in-hand with an intense befuddlement in the face of human-sized things. That seems a fair trade. To glimpse truths about the nature of the material world, it is required that you renounce any great understanding of the creatures who live within it. But to have the huge insights of Shakespeare, to look so deeply into the human soul, to know its every nook and hidden corner, seems, somehow, to contravene the limits that are given to all men.

Adding to the mystery of Shakespeare is that we’ve never known what he looks like. There are a few paintings and prints and drawings that could be him. But we could never look into Shakespeare’s face and know it was Shakespeare. About two years ago, a portrait that had long been owned by the Cobbe family was firmly identified as the original portrait of Shakespeare, made around 1610, upon which many of the later and less-reliable paintings and prints were based. With reasonable assurance, then, we can say that this is him, the man, William Shakespeare. You can go to the Morgan Library and Museum on 36th Street in New York City right now and stare into the face of William Shakespeare.

I just did so. But I must warn you. It doesn’t help. It only increased my unease. Shakespeare seems more uncanny, more terrifying to me now than he ever did, more impossible. He looks young in the portrait, fresh-faced and with sharp features. His facial hairs are brushed carefully into blond wisps and his long forehead shines. There is a little smile pecking at his mouth. You don’t notice it at first. You have to look up to his eyes to see the smile taking shape on the lower part of his face. But it is there. The smile says, “Yes, I know … and I know that you know.” Doesn’t it? Am I seeing things, imagining smiles from across the ages? It is possible, of course, that the portrait is not, actually, Shakespeare. I bet it is though. I, for one, bet that it is Bill Shakespeare in that portrait, smiling, with nice eyebrows, as impenetrable as if we had never known his face at all.
8 March 2011