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A new portrait of William Shakespeare

What did Shakespeare look like? I will come to how I created the above image in a moment. First we need to review the existing portraits that are claimed to be of Shakespeare.

All of the three or four likeliest images of him are problematic in one way or another. The three likeliest portraits are the Cobbe portrait, which portrays the forty-something Shakespeare as a gallant young courtier; the Chandos portrait, which presents him as a comfortably well-off bohemian; and the Droeshout portrait — the familiar one from the first folio — which is so inempt and cartoonish that it gives little sense of any real person. (A Scientific American article once put forth the bizarre theory that it actually depicts Queen Elizabeth). Brice Stratford has helpfully assembled the three portraits, along with some supporting text, on this page. As you can see from the details below, all of the portraits share points of similarity, notably the high forehead, deep-set eyes, and long nose.

3 portraits of shakespeare

The problem with the Droeshout portrait (right) is that its young and inexperienced artist never met Shakespeare. He may have worked from the Chandos portrait, although this is speculation. Still, Ben Jonson and others who knew Shakespeare seem to have approved the image.

The problem with the Chandos portrait (middle) is that its ultimate provenance is unknown, and the sitter is not identified as Shakespeare. Still, the National Portrait Gallery in London, which has researched the issue, believes that this is probably Shakespeare, though there is no proof of that. I like this candidate because it is from the right period — the first decade of the seventeenth century; the black robes suggest affluence, and we know Shakespeare was doing pretty well by this time; and the rakish earring suggests a bohemian or artistic lifestyle. Moreover, this image simply has more presence than the others.

The Cobbe portrait (left) only came to light recently. It had been in the possession of the Cobbe family for 300 years. They had thought it a portrait of Sir Walter Raleigh but it is now believed that it may be a portrait of Shakespeare. It too dates from the right period, and there is at least a tenuous provenance for it, as the Cobbe descent can be traced back to a patron of Shakespeare. Stanley Wells, chairman of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and co-editor of the Oxford Shakespeare, vouches for the authenticity of this one. The problem that I have with it is that it does not appear to depict a man in at least his mid-forties as Shakespeare would have been at the time the painting was made. In addition, the Cobbe family had good reason to think it a portrait of Raleigh, since it depicts its subject as a nobleman rather than a working playwright. (Although by the time this painting was made the status of playwrights had risen, and Shakespeare had even obtained a court of arms.) Nor does the hairline conform to the other images. But it’s conceivable that the artist simply went overboard in the direction of flattering the sitter.

A fourth image is a bust in Stratford-upon-Avon. This one was made by Gheerart Janssen, an artist who lived near the Globe theater during Shakespeare’s lifetime, and it was presumably approved by people who knew the playwright well. The problem with it is that the painted features had been removed and then reapplied in the eighteenth century, long after anyone who remembered him was alive. In addition, it is likely that the conservative Stratford community wished to make their native son look more like a respectable burgher than something as doubtful as a frequenter of London’s rowdy theater scene. The bust looks like this:

I reject the Droeshout image because it is more of a cartoon than a portrait, and the Statford bust because the loss of the original paint compromises the image too grossly. Despite serious doubts, I am inclined at least for now to entertain the idea that the portraits claimed as images of Shakespeare on the authority of the National Portrait Gallery and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust convey something of his appearance (these, if you have been paying attention, are the Chandos and Cobbe portraits).

For my Shakespeare, therefore, I computer morphed those two portraits into a new image of Shakespeare — splitting the difference if you will; the midpoint morph makes him a little less rough than the Chandos Shakespeare and a little less prettified than the Cobbe Shakespeare. If both of those portraits are indeed Shakespeare, then this intermediary version should probably be a fairly reasonable likeness. On the other hand, if the Cobbe portrait actually represents someone else — Sir Thomas Overbury has been suggested — well then we have something like an Overbury-Shakespeare morph. In any case, I think the result is an interesting image. Do you agree?


UPDATE: In response to Jim Hale-Sanders’s arguments in favor of the Sanders portrait (in the comments below), I have made new Shakespeare morphs incorporating the Sanders portrait.


World book news: 13 rules for writers

10 rules for writers

Today I initiate what I am hoping will become a more or less weekly feature here at — a report on book news from newspapers and journals around the world. (I say “more or less weekly” because I am currently working on a big project that is taking most of my time, and this has reduced my blogging, which had been steadily daily up for years until a few months ago; more on that project in time.)

I think I will eventually move this feature to Thursdays. My plan is to spotlight one interesting story selected from a variety of sources of world book news, include a screen shot linking to the original, and briefly recap or comment on the story. Please let me know if this would be of interest, and I would love to hear suggestions regarding international sources I should include when looking for stories (in my languages: English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian).

Today’s story may be a little different from most because it’s more of an entertaining feature than news about book publishing or authors and books. It’s a fun story from the Guardian (London), which surveys a number of writers — Elmore Leonard, Diana Athill, Margaret Atwood, Roddy Doyle, Helen Dunmore, Geoff Dyer, Anne Enright, Richard Ford, Jonathan Franzen, Esther Freud, Neil Gaiman, David Hare, PD James, AL Kennedy — and asks them to list 10 tips for writers.

Publish and perish

Having completed my scriptorium and tabularium and got my books somewhat organized, I found myself with a bunch of duplicates and some other books I no longer needed. So I gave some away and boxed a bunch more up to exchange at a used bookstore.

At the store the buyer rejected most of the books (as is to be expected). Then she “softened” her rejection with the condescending concession (and I quote) “It’s good stuff. It’s just stuff whose time has passed.” So there you have it, laid out as starkly as could be: books as a perishable commodity!

I was tempted to look pointedly around the store and then reply, “Oh, I know. That’s why I’m replacing them with a Kindle.”

But I wouldn’t do that.


Image from origamidon’s photostream


J. D. Salinger

Now that he’s passed away everybody who has ever read a book is writing about him. Enough! I call time out!

On the loss of vitality in writing

When the ancients wrote books they were trying to get at reality and transmit spirit. But all they could convey was a general idea, in order to help lead people to the truth. Much of their spirit, their energy, their words and laughter and actions, could not be captured.

When modern generations write books they ape the form of the ancients. To show how clever they are they add false analyses and additions. And so they get farther and father from the truth.

–Wang Yangming, 1471-1529

Extraordinary finds

I maintain my own daybook, where I have recorded events by date that are significant to me (there is a link near the top of the left sidebar). But my effort pales beside the project called Ordinary Finds, which, if I’m not mistaken, is produced by Bent Sorensen of Aalborg, Denmark (this is hard to determine from the site itself). Ordinary Finds collects remarkable photos and adds cogent remarks regarding cultural figures associated with the various dates of the calendar (mostly through their birthdays). For example, for December 9, this year the site includes the interesting photo of Lucian Freud above along with extended reflections on Wilfredo Lam and Diego Rivera, as well as Freud, and shorter entries (with intriguing photos) on Jean Sibelius, Jim Morrison, and Camille Claudel. Nice work!

DailyLit switches to free model

DailyLit is a service that sends excerpts from books that are said to be popular to subscribers via e-mail or RSS. Formerly the service required a paid subscription, but they have recently announced they are switching to a free model supported, they hope, through sponsorships and advertising. I haven’t tried the service; browsing their books in categories I am currently interested in I found the selection thin — but maybe they are in a building phase.

Mailbag: Bellemeade Books and Jonathan Williams

Mark Bromberg of Bellemeade Books writes on the subject of Jonathan Williams, author and publisher of the Jargon Society (we published his The Magpie’s Bagpipe at North Point Press) and generously includes the above scan of a Jargon Society publication, which I take the liberty of sharing.

… I have been a long-time reader and admirer of the late Jonathan Williams and his Jargon Society Press, the website here now run by his friend and collaborator, Thomas Meyer (A selection of 1960s correspondence between Davenport and Williams about publishing, art, and life can be found here).

I thought you might enjoy this cover image of “Elite/Elate Poems” (Jargon, 1975) — with authentic-era coffee stains! — and a BellemeadeBooks post about Mr. Williams from the archives. You will be able to access the entire blog with more timely posts once you are there.

Thanks, Mark!

I touch your mouth . . .

I touch your mouth, I touch the edge of your mouth with my finger, I am drawing it as if it were something my hand was sketching, as if for the first time your mouth opened a little, and all I have to do is close my eyes to erase it and start all over again, every time I can make the mouth I want appear, the mouth which my hand chooses and sketches on your face, and which by some chance that I do not seek to understand coincides exactly with your mouth which smiles beneath the one my hand is sketching on you….

This is Julio Cortazar, enormisimo supercronopio, reading chapter 7 of his novel Rayuela.

The Constipation Party

I am reading and enjoying Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. It is my misfortune, I realize, to be so sensitized to colonialist attitudes as to imagine I detect in the book a faint taint of colonialist condescension.

But I am not here today to rant about colonialism but rather to share the following amusing passage from the book. The detective, Mma Ramotswe, muses about her feelings about hospitals and doctors. After reflecting that she is not ashamed of her weight or her corns she continues:

Now constipation was quite a different matter. It would be dreadful for the whole world to know about troubles of that nature. She felt terribly sorry for people who suffered from constipation, and she knew that there were many who did. There were probably enough of them to form a political party — with a chance of government perhaps — but what would such a party do if it was in power? Nothing, she imagined. It would try to pass legislation, but would fail.

Here in California the Constipation Party — with its two warring wings — is already in power. Will it also dominate our national politics, currently focused on the struggle to pass health insurance legislation?


Image from the blog of the LA Times


10 most awful library books

Pophangover thinks it has the list. But I’m pretty sure we can do much worse. Click the image to check out their bottom ten.

First library building

Readers of this blog are probably tired of this topic, but I have been spending a lot of time on this project, so it occupies my attention. I’ll try to restrain myself in the future, I promise (sure I will). This is the first building nearly complete, though still wanting siding. The second building is now almost as far along, though as yet without books since I haven’t installed doors.


Topicality in literary writing, and its implications for web search optimization

Many years ago, as a graduate student in comparative literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a focus in part on the linguistic model in literary criticism, I turned my attention to beyond-the-sentence topicality. Scholars have parsed the sentence since ancient time, but they have paid less attention to the way sentences connect to each other.

One of the applications of this line of research is for machine translation. How does the translation engine determine, for example, whether the word lead in a text refers to the heavy metal or to the concept of leadership?

Library expansion

I’m back from my short vacation, which was spent not being a tourist somewhere but rather working on my second library building. Even though I didn’t go away I found the computer did not call to me. I enjoyed working outdoors and not sitting in front of a screen.

Below you can see progress on the second building, looking through eastward to the first, which is mostly completed except for the siding and finishing up the roof fascia.

What do these books have in common?

  • Maurice Bendrix, The Ambitious Host
  • D. B. Caulfield, The Secret Goldfish
  • Vivian Darkbloom, My Cue
  • Nicholas de Selby, Country AlbumGwendolen Erme, Deep Down, Overmastered
  • Andrew Hibbard, The Chasm of the Mind
  • Robin Penrose, Domestic Angels and Unfortunate Females: Woman as Sign and Commodity in Victorian Fiction
  • Boris Alekseyevich Trigorin, Days and Nights
  • Harriet Vane, Murder By Degrees

Answer after the break . . .

The dangerous world of butterflies

Here’s Peter Laufer, three or four of whose books I published at Mercury House, on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart.


Barcode scanning a personal library

Want to store your library information on the web? Want to be able to computer search some of the content? Entering ISBN numbers too much trouble? Try this tip from Google employee Matt Cutts.


100 best novels quiz

How many of Modern Library’s hundred best novels of the 20th century can you name if you’re given the names of the authors? Fine out here.

I was doing okay until I got to Samuel Butler.


Copper Canyon to publish Chinese anthology

Copper Canyon has been selected by the NEA be the U.S. publisher for its International Literary Exchange with China. According to Publishers Weekly, “Copper Canyon will receive $117,000 to support the translation, publication and promotion of a bilingual anthology of work by about 35 Chinese poets born after 1945.”

This is an excellent choice. Copper Canyon has been a reliable publisher of international poetry for decades, and all of their books are prepared with care and attention to detail. Bravo!


President Obama reads Where the Wild Things Are

Gotta love it.


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