Travel: UK: Trails of the unexpected: Images of Shakespeare
Saturday 13 March 1999
If you want the Bard hard at work, make for the lobby of the British Library and the 1757 sculpture by Louis-Francois Roubiliac. This Shakespeare holds a quill in his hand and leans on a manuscript looking out into space for his Muse. It was commissioned by David Garrick, owner of the Drury Lane Theatre and self-styled protector of Shakespeare's legacy.
In the 383 years since Shakespeare's death people have been out to enjoy honour-by-association with his image. The Chandos Portrait hanging in the National Portrait Gallery is supposed to have passed like a kind of theatrical talisman between Sir William Davenant, Thomas Betterton and Mrs Barry - the leading lights of 17th-century theatre.
The Southwark Cathedral monument (above) gives us London's most uncomfortable Shakespeare. He is lying on the ground, his face a study in melancholy. It may be the philosophic look of a poet genius, or is it his response to the dampness of the ground? Southwark was famous for its marshes and Henry McCarthy's 1912 sculpture brilliantly evokes the fixed stare of one whose hose is suffering seepage.
For the most inquisitive portrayal of the Bard glance up at the exterior wall of The Shakespeare's Head pub on the corner of Soho's Foubert's Place and Carnaby Street. This 18th-century representation peers down at London's teeming multitude - the many-headed monster. His missing hand is not a sign of neglect but the result of a bomb dropped during the Blitz.
In St Andrew-By-The-Wardrobe in the City (a restored Wren church) you can find him on his knees at a "faldstool" - a kind of freestanding pew, his reading matter the Bible, his gaze heavenward. The solemnity is relieved somewhat by two hovering, fleshy putti that part rich curtains to reveal the playwright at his devotions.
Giovanni Fontana's 1874 Shakespeare in Leicester Square stares icily in the direction of the north side Empire "disco inferno". Contempt for such frivolities is revealed in his pointed gesture to the words from Twelfth Night: "There is no Darkness But Ignorance."
Inscriptions on these sculptures are like dosage instructions on pill bottles - they tell us how to take our Shakespeares. Particularly popular are lines from Prospero's speech in The Tempest. They pop up on the plinth Shakespeare leans on in Westminster Abbey's Poets' Corner and above Southwark's monument. In such places the words admonish the vain spectator, reminding us that we are "such stuff as dreams are made on".
Of course all these images may be part of the Shakespeare conspiracy, distracting us from the real author of the plays. If this is your view, head for Room 2 in the National Portrait Gallery where Sir Francis Bacon hangs dressed in splendid robes.
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