1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear

Michael Neill writes:

Perhaps the first ever ‘lifestyle magazine’, Country Life was founded in 1897 to cater for the leisured interests of the upper class, and was devoted to articles on golf and racing, leavened with discreet advertisements for manorial estates. Now a subsidiary of Time Inc., it has become a lavishly ornamented real estate window for the 1 per cent, and for those who dream of joining that porcine elite, its readers thrilling at what a mere £18 million might buy them in Surrey, Tuscany, Florida or the Côte d’Azur. But Country Life also likes to flatter its patrons with a notion of their better selves, as connoisseurs, collectors, lovers of theatre and occasional readers of books. Thus on 20 May this year it offered them a Special Historic Edition, whose gilded cover proclaimed ‘The greatest discovery in 400 years’ – nothing less than ‘Shakespeare: His true likeness revealed at last’. The detective who had ‘cracked the Tudor code’ was the botanist, horticulturalist and historian of gardening Mark Griffiths: his elaborately illustrated essay, ‘Face to Face with Shakespeare’, focused on John Gerard’s well-known Elizabethan manual of botany, The Herball or, General Historie of Plantes, and purported to demonstrate that one of the four seemingly allegoric figures on its ornamental title-page – a figure clad in a Roman costume and crowned with triumphal laurels – was in fact the ‘only … demonstrably authentic portrait of Shakespeare drawn from life.’[*] Depending less on Griffiths’s ingenious tessellation of botanical and historical detail than on his decrypting of a printer’s mark as a cunning cipher for the dramatist’s name, the article maintained that the figure’s costume could be explained as a tribute to Shakespeare’s earliest tragedy, Titus Andronicus, while the cob of maize in its left hand was a witty reference to a political metaphor from the play’s final scene: ‘O let me teach you how to knit again/This scattered corn into one mutual sheaf.’

(LRB 17 December 2015)

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