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What demi-god hath come so near creation?

How would people in Shakespeare's day have reacted to his portrait this is now owned by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust?

Sheila McVey

This week, I caught up with Yolana Wassersug, a PhD student at the Shakespeare Institute, to discuss Shakespeare and portraiture: the new theme for this blog series highlighting portraits in the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s collection.

We looked at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust portrait of Shakespeare (which is a copy of the Cobbe portrait and was formerly known as the Ellenborough portrait). Using passages from Shakespeare’s plays, we thought about how this portrait would have been received in the 17th century when it was painted.

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Portrait of William Shakespeare, c.1610 - 1615
The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Portrait of William Shakespeare, c.1610 - 1615

Yolana pointed me toward two particularly insightful passages (from Timon of Athens and The Merchant of Venice) in which characters react to seeing portraits.

In Timon of Athens, an artist paints a portrait of the wealthy Timon hoping to curry favour and win patronage. Impressed with the likeness, Timon muses that

“The painting is almost the natural man
For since dishonour traffics with man’s nature,
He is but outside
these pencill’d figures are even such as they give out.”

(Timon of Athens Act I, Scene I)

A portrait like the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust portrait would have impressed and pleased a 17th century audience for the reasons that the portrait pleased Timon. It is so life-like, “almost the natural man,” from the touchable fleshiness of the skin to the painstaking detail of the lace and embroidery of the clothing. The painting invites you to suspend your disbelief that the sitter is there before you.

But it is not the natural man because the painting does not have ‘man’s nature’ which ‘traffics with dishonour.’ These moralising reminders were integral to the way that people looked at paintings at this time. Shakespeare might have seen his portrait and been delighted to see the beauty of nature captured so faithfully, while simultaneously reminded of the reality of his flaws.

The realistic quality of portraits that people were beginning to see in Shakespeare’s day evoked emotional reactions from viewers. Reactions may have been similar to Bassanio’s response when he lifts Portia's portrait from the lead casket in The Merchant of Venice:

“What find I here?
Fair Portia’s counterfeit! What demi-god
Hath come so near creation? Move these eyes?
Or whether riding on the balls of mine
Seem they in motion? Here are sever’d lips,
Parted with sugar breath; so sweet a bar
Should sunder such sweet friends. Here in her hairs
The painter plays the spider, and hath woven
A golden mesh t’ entrap the hearts of men
Faster than gnats in cobwebs. But her eyes-
How could he see to do them? Having made one,
Methnks it should have power to steal both his,
And leave itself unfurnish’d. Yet look how far
The substance of my praise doth wrong this shadow
In underprizing it, so far this shadow
Doth limp behind the substance.”

(The Merchant of Venice Act III, Scene II)

The artist was so skilled in capturing every last detail of Portia that Bassanio feels he can smell her breath, reach out and touch her hair, feel her eyes following him around the room. Having a portrait of someone was to feel their presence in a very real way.

Evidence indicates that the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust portrait’s source, the Cobbe portrait, might have been owned by Shakespeare's patron, the Earl of Southampton.

Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton and Shakespeare's patron (from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Collections)
Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton and Shakespeare's patron (from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Collections)

If Southampton had Shakespeare's portrait hanging in his home, this would have made a public statement about the bond between artist and patron. Wall space for full size portraits was usually reserved for images of people above you in status, like kings and queens.

When considering ideas about portraiture like those that Timon and Bassanio express, it becomes more poignant that Southampton would want Shakespeare’s face in his domestic space, his presence keenly felt.