On Monday, a new portrait of Shakespeare was unveiled to the world. The man portrayed could be a rake, a rascal, and a revolutionary; a poet, a painter, a clear-eyed critic of the human condition. This is not the iconic countenance of the studious shopkeeper, the bemused accountant of words that we've all grown up with.
This was the face that looked into the soul of love and came back with the words to express it. This was the best result to a blind date with literature, where we'd been told that we were meeting someone for drinks who was "smart, and had a great personality". In short, Will was a smokin' hottie, as we'd have suspected, if we'd never seen a picture of him, and had only read his words.
Didn't you always want Shakespeare to be the sword-wielding Joseph Fiennes of Shakespeare in Love, instead of the Mr. Whipple with a quill pen in former portraits? Didn't you know, upon reading or hearing Juliet's speech?
Give me my Romeo; and, when I shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.
Didn't you know, right then, that man or woman, gay or straight, this poet had done the muse to exhaustion, and harvested the very essence of soul-shattering love? Those words were born of a beautiful creature, whatever the face he wore in life? So if paltry paint on canvas now gives us a face to match the master's art, we should pay thanks.
What shallow, callow creatures are we that a curve of hip, a curl of lip, a sparkle, a glow, a finely drawn foot, will set our hearts to flutter. No. Not at all, for it's love's soft brush that paints the lover's faults to virtues. What ogre falls smitten into the warty arms, without they have been smoothed by love's sweet strokes? We are all beautiful in love. And Will deserves no less for the love of the world.
There is some doubt of the provenance of the new portrait, as there was of that older, single image from which all other images of Shakespeare are taken. But like speculation on the authorship of the plays, Will's sexuality, whether the sonnets were written to a dark lady or a man, it's all irrelevant. It's the work and the words that stand constant and immortal and unsullied by doubt. "The play's the thing."
Spend some time in Will's world, his work, and you come away not with images of the squalor and disease of 16th century London, but the spectrum of human emotion and behavior - love, rage, betrayal, ambition, lust, greed, revenge, whimsy, laughter - passion and poetry in every portrait. You come away with a sense of awe at the human experience, expressed as artfully as is possible. Is it accurate? Historically? Scientifically? No. But is it right? Oh yes. So right as to ascend the brightest heaven of invention.
This new portrait of Shakespeare fits the time and the place - our time, our place. It is the real face of Shakespeare because it is the face of an ideal. This is the face that we deserve to see in our mind's eye, speaking the language of our hearts.
Welcome home, Will.
Christopher Moore is the author of Fool, the comic retelling of Shakespeare's play King Lear. He lives in San Francisco.
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