Shakespeare in underwear

A Dutch lingerie chain store called Hunkemöller has decided to promote their new women’s underwear with a Shakespeare sonnet:

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Shakespeare's 445th!


An early modern baptism

No one knows for certain on which day Shakespeare was born, but we do know that four hundred and forty-five years ago today, on 26 April 1564, Shakespeare was baptised in the Holy Trinity church in Stratford-upon-Avon.

We know this because the entry for that day in the baptismal registry survives. It reads:


Guliemus filius Johannes Shakspere” – William son of John Shakespeare. Because babies were customarily baptised three days after birth, Shakespeare’s birthday is celebrated on the 23rd of April. That this day is also St. George’s day (patron saint of England) is a nice coincidence, as is the fact that Shakespeare, and many other poets with him, died on the same day.

I spent the evening of Shakespeare’s birthday in the media park in Hilversum for my second radio experience. I was invited by the same show as last time – BNN Today, and the presenters made my day when they told me they had all been to see Romeo and Juliet together after my first interview. This time, they wanted to know all about Shakespeare’s life – in 10 minutes. The result is below, in Quicktime format.


Cobbe portrait (3)

More portrait news: Rupert Featherstone, the director of the Hamilton Kerr Institute in Cambridge, and a supporter of the claim that the Cobbe portrait is Shakespeare, claims that the restorers who removed a layer of paint in 2002 may have destroyed a representation of the aging Shakespeare painted during his lifetime.

The Janssen portrait in the Folger similarly had a layer of paint removed during a restoration in 1988. In the Janssen portrait, the restoration revealed a full head of hair underneath Shakespeare’s baldness. In the Cobbe portrait, The Telegraph reports, “the sitter was given a bouffant hairstyle. It is possible the Earl may have wanted a more flattering image.” Featherstone thinks that the portrait may have been altered as soon as a few months after it was painted.

See The Guardian, UPI, and The Telegraph.

Cobbe Shakespeare portrait (2)

eyesThis blog’s speculations on the phrase “Principum Amicitias”, no doubt together with expert comments from classicists below the post, have made it into a footnote in the Wikipedia article on the Cobbe portrait! This is a first for me.

The Wikipedia article reports on the controversy over the identification of the portrait that had already started at the time of my last post on the portrait. This post is a summary of the controversy as I have been following it online, in chronological order, followed by my own inexpert opinion.

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Cobbe Shakespeare portrait

This YouTube video from the Channel 4 News on the Cobbe Shakespeare portrait does what I’ve been doing in my mind’s eye since its discovery: it lets the Droeshout engraving mutate into the Cobbe painting. It also contains interviews with Stanley Wells and with Alex Cobbe in his ancestral home, which is also the home of the portrait of the Earl of Southampton. The video concludes by saying that Shakespeare scholars are “famously quarrelsome” and there will be a debate.

The blogosphere is preparing for the debate already: the Heresy Corner does not believe the portrait is authentic, nor does Charlotte Higgins who writes a blog in the culture section of The Guardian. Meanwhile, this blog welcomes a host of visitors who googled the words “Principum amicitias” and hit upon my first post on the portrait.

A blushing bard

cobbeportraitThis rosy-cheeked fellow is almost certainly an authentic image of Shakespeare made during his life, Stanley Wells announced today. The portrait has been in the collection of the Cobbe family for years, but it was not until Alec Cobbe visited the Searching for Shakespeare exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in 2006 that he realised he might have Shakespeare on his wall.

In London, he saw the Folger portrait of Shakespeare and recognised the face. He contacted Stanley Wells, and in the past three years the painting was subjected to all kinds of tests, from tree-ring-dating to infrared reflectography. It appears to date from around 1610, and could well be the original of the portrait that is now in the Folger library. Interestingly, since the Cobbe collection belonged to the Earl of Southampton it may have been Henry Wriothesly, the dedicatee of Shakespeare’s sonnets, who commissioned the painting.

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust quotes its chairman Stanley Wells:

The evidence that it represents Shakespeare and that is was done from life, though it is circumstantial, is in my view overwhelming, I feel in little doubt that this is a portrait of Shakespeare, done from life and commissioned by the Earl of Southampton and believe it could certainly be the basis for the engraving seen in the First Folio.

None of the English newspapers I have read so far explain the words “Principum amicitias!” written in gold above the bard’s head. I googled and discovered they derive from Horace’s Carmen Saeculare Odes, book 2, ode 1 (here’s the Latin, and here an English translation). Then I found this passage in the German Frankfürter Allgemeine:

Besonders reizvoll erscheint ihm [Wells] die Aufschrift „Principum amicitias!“ aus einer Ode des Horaz, die den römischen Dichter und Geschichtsschreiber Gaius Asinius Pollio warnt, sich bei der Darstellung politischer Intrigen seiner Zeit ja vorzusehen – eine Ermahnung, die auch auf Shakespeare gemünzt sein könne, zumal der katholische Graf von Southampton wegen seiner Verwicklung in den geplanten Umsturz der Protestantin Elisabeth I. im Tower einsaß.

In the ode, Horace warns the Roman poet and historian Gaius Asinius Pollio to be careful in his depiction of political intrigue, and apparently — according to this newspaper — Wells suggested that this might be a warning that could also be directed at Shakespeare, especially since the Catholic Earl of Southampton was involved in Essex’s rebellion. I haven’t been able to find any other sources that report this remark, and I don’t know what to think of it. Why would Southampton include secret messages about the Essex rebellion in a portrait seven years after his release from prison and his restoration to the court of James I? And does Wells agree with Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel that Southampton was a Catholic? Perhaps my German has let me down — or perhaps the reporter’s own imagination takes over after the dash in that quotation.

Radio (2)

I did my very first radio interview last night, and enjoyed it. The show was aired live from the studios of the NOS in the Media Park in Hilversum, where the Dutch news is also made. The small radio studio that I was in is the one that also produces the Radio 1 Journaal, the news programme that I listen to religiously every morning (the images below are from their website). I felt a bit like a tourist, wandering around in a world that seems so familiar but is not.

BNN is a broadcasting organization that targets young people, so the first thing the presenter did was snort at our Shakespeare Society of the Low Countries and our supposedly boring activities – conferences, pfffft! — but I think I managed to trigger some enthusiasm for Shakespeare and Romeo and Juliet in him, and perhaps in some of the listeners. I had a good time, even if it was only six minutes that felt like six seconds. The excerpt from their podcast is below – it’s in Dutch.

BNN Today – Quicktime Streaming

By the way, I am glad that this did not happen to me – a Dutch news presenter this week was accidentally on air while she was preparing herself for the coming broadcast, and wondered aloud whether she should ‘flaunt what she has’. It’s funny to see (though not for poor Eva Jinek) that presenters are just as nervous as amateurs before going on air.


renj_ntBNN Today, a programme on the news channel on Dutch radio, has asked me to appear in their show tomorrow evening to talk about Shakespeare. This theatre season offers no less than 5 productions of Romeo and Juliet, which is unusual. One of them, by Het Nationale Toneel, opens tomorrow in The Hague. BNN wants to know all about the play and why it is still so popular.

I think I will first talk about the play itself, about the conflict between love and the pressures of family and society, and about the wonderful ways in which Shakespeare’s language expresses that conflict. Then I think I cannot resist to  point out that although the play is often called timeless, Shakespeare’s version of the story is very much a product of sixteenth-century English culture, its gender norms, its ideas about marriage and revenge. Even if the love story seems universal, each production does situate the play in a different cultural context, whether it is 1950s New York, twentieth-century Verona Beach or a post 9/11 Amsterdam where a Turkish pizza-delivery boy falls in love with a Dutch hockey girl, as in Theo van Gogh’s television series Najib en Julia. If I have not been cut off by then, I could also point out that the notion of romantic love is also a product of early modern culture, as Catherine Belsey emphasizes in Shakespeare & the Loss of Eden.

The interesting thing about Dutch productions in the current season is that some of them explicitly set the play in a modern context: ZEP theatre with Rome en Juli’s Posse situated it amongst street slang and hip hop, turning Romeo into a player (review on 8Weekly); RO Theater presented an urban version that sought to unite the love story with the raw side of Rotterdam as a city. Other productions, such as that by REP Theater based on Joe Calarco’s adaptation and played by five men, shied away from street language and requested a translation that was “real Shakespeare.” Frank Albers’ translation for Nationaal Toneel also does not “go ethnic” as he puts it, but aims to be more poetic and literary than other contemporary Dutch translations (translators interviewed by Karin Veraart in the Volkskrant). Het Nationale Toneel’s website also does not provide any hints of a contemporary context — its text focuses on the mystery of unconditional love. Their poster mainly triggered my interest in the mystery of the black shoe – is this a family member barging in, the way the nurse interrupts Romeo and Juliet’s first romantic sonnets-in-dialogue in Shakespeare’s text?

This is my very first time on the radio, so apart from focusing on the play I also surfed the web today to find some helpful sites on doing radio interviews. Here’s are some of the things I found:

More tips are welcome!

The return of aesthetics

In an earlier post, I noted that Catherine Belsey’s keynote speech at the International Society for Cultural History conference in Ghent this August advocated a renewed attention to literary form and the utopian aspects of fictional worlds. This autumn’s issue of the Shakespeare Quarterly (59:3, Fall 2008) contains an article that thinks along similar lines.

Hugh Grady’s “Shakespeare and Impure Aesthetics: The Case of A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (subscription required) acknowledges that the idea of the aesthetic is often regarded as precisely the opposite of a political reading of a literary text. Aestheticism tends to be associated with formalist approaches that discussed literature as isolated from its cultural context – as a self-contained work of art. Grady, however, proposes a revaluation of aesthetics. He introduces the notion of “impure aesthetics” as a way to avoid a return to formalism. Impure aesthetics, he writes, is “aesthetics conceived as creative of an imagined realm separate from empirical reality, but one that draws its materials from that reality.” (275). This approach does not view a work of art as unified, but takes from current theory the idea that a literary text is disunified and contains internal conflicts.

Although Grady thereby pays tribute to new historicism and especially cultural materialism, like Belsey, he is also critical of their tendency to read literary texts and aesthetic themes purely as vehicles for ideology. The elision of the boundary between artwork and the society that produced it, in his view has led to the loss of possibilities to think about art’s utopian potential – “its ability to create visions of the nonexisting, to embody desire and not just received ideas” (276). The article analyses A Midsummer Night’s Dream – not to attempt to find a unity in the play’s various materials and styles – but to argue that in its representation of the differences between the aesthetics and spaces of the fairy world and the world of Athens, the play offers a theoretical model of the relation between the aesthetic and the larger social world.

I am not entirely sure how the argument that one of the chief characteristics of the play is that it “starkly contrasts an aestheticized, utopian vision of potential harmony with a familiar world of law and ideology” or that “a counterfactual and comic realm can help clarify our unmet needs by conceptualizing their fulfillment in an artifactual, unreal form” adds to traditional interpretations of the forest as a magical world in which the laws and logic of Athens do not apply. What I do find interesting, is that Hugh Grady, like Catherine Belsey, sees in the creation of fictional worlds a possibility for rethinking existing ideologies – both, I think, see fiction as able to step outside of existing ideologies, to create new perspectives. Grady writes, for example, about the way that A Midsummer Night’s Dream can make us (early modern or present spectators/readers?) aware of our own ideologies by offering alternatives:

Shakespeare makes a distinction between a utopian or aesthetic sexuality unrestrained by marriage and a social, “human” world where marriage is the only solution to desire in unconstrained circulation. The result is one of the fundamental possibilities of aesthetic representation: to distantiate us from the familiar human world, to lead us to imagining other modes of living and loving, to look critically into the received ideologies of love and marriage.

I think that both Belsey and Grady would say that the potential of art (Grady’s term), fiction or literature (Belsey used these almost interchangeably) to step outside of a culture’s ideological framework and to offer new concepts and perspectives is enabled by complexity, by the mixing of genres and styles within a work of art, but also by what Grady calls “the internal clashes and the insubordination of repressed materials” (276). This return of aesthetics, then, is based in notions of friction, conflict and disunity, rather than in well-wrought works of art that can be read as unified wholes.

Grady and Belsey are not the only critics to advocate a return to aesthetics in literary theory. Grady’s notes includes references to such works  as James Soderholm, ed., Beauty and the Critic: Aesthetics in an Age of Cultural Studies (Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 1997); Michael Clark, ed., Revenge of the Aesthetic: The Place of Literature in Theory Today (Berkeley: U of California P, 2000); Isobel Armstrong, The Radical Aesthetic (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000); and John J. Joughin and Simon Malpas, ed., The New Aestheticism (Manchester: Manchester UP, 2003).

Shakespeare biography

I am off to the new International Society for Cultural History’s inaugural conference in Ghent today. I will be chairing a session on culture and value by the PhD students of the Dutch Huizinga Institute, and presenting a paper called “Living Theory: Shakespeare Biography and Cultural History.” It is a topic rather unrelated to my current research, inspired by the call for papers that (among other things) asked after the relation between biography and cultural history. I post the working version of my paper below – if you have comments, I would love to hear them, because I am due to present it on Friday afternoon.

[I have updated this paper to include editing changes I made on the train to Ghent. The paper stands here as I delivered it at the conference. I would of course still love to hear your comments.]


Paper for Orientations. Inaugural Conference of the International Society for Cultural History, Ghent University, Belgium, 29 August, 2008.

William Shakespeare is a notoriously elusive character. Biographers can rely on a collection of legal documents and the plays he wrote, but Shakespeare’s life, his feelings and his personality are not well documented. This has not kept biographers from attempting to capture Shakespeare’s life in writing. Quite the contrary – the Shake­speare biography is booming. Here are a handful of publications from the last four years .

In this paper, my focus will be on Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World (2004). Stephen Greenblatt, of course, is a  pivotal scholar in the new historicism. The purpose of this paper is not to unearth the small factual errors in Greenblatt’s biography, or to scrutinize his speculations about Shake­speare’s Catholic sympathies, but to find out how Will in the World relates to Greenblatt’s earlier work; what the new historicism brings to the genre of biography, but also, and most pressingly, what the genre of biography tells us about the new historicism. In this light, I will then compare Greenblatt’s biography to James Shapiro’s 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare (2005).

The new historicism is a critical movement that examines literary texts in their historical context, and uses literary methods of analysis to scrutinize the rhetorical construction of history. In the words of Louis Montrose, it aims to grasp the historicity of texts and the textuality of history. Especially in its early stages, the new historicism was criticized for its all too monolithic view of the operations of power, in which it left too little room for individual agency. In this paper, I will focus on this problematics, since the biography, which – intrinsically – needs to give shape to the relation between the individual on the one hand, and discursive structures on the other, provides an interesting case study to re-examine these issues in Greenblatt’s latest work.

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