Thomas Sutcliffe: Much ado about the Bard

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How delightful that it should be a Dr Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel who announ- ced, the other day, that she had produced scientific proof that the Davenant bust of William Shakespeare owned by the Garrick Club matched up precisely with the Kesselstadt death mask, a facial cast long rumoured to be that of the playwright. What's in a name?

Well, in Dr Hammerschmidt-Hummel's case, quite a lot - but above all a pleasing addition to the established connection between nomenclatural eccentricity and Bardolatrous delusion - first inaugurated by the Gateshead teacher J Thomas Looney,when he unveiled his theory that Shakespeare was a pen name for the 17th Earl of Oxford. Looney's prospective publisher tactfully suggested that he might like to adopt an alias himself, given the contentious nature of his book, but Looney, rather heroically, declined.

This is childish, it's true. It is not Dr Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel's fault that she sounds as if she has been invented by a humorist, and that really shouldn't affect one's reactions to the CSI: Shakespeare Studies nature of her work, which used a police forensic technique to overlap the shape of one disputed portrait over another disputed portrait and declare that the match was evidence of their shared authenticity. Somehow it does - and a similar incorrigibility in human nature quickly becomes apparent when you consider the comic history of Shakespearean portraiture itself.

"There's no art to find the mind's construction in the face," Duncan says in Macbeth. Quite right, too, we murmur... and then immediately behave as if there really is, if we only concentrate hard enough.

The National Portrait Gallery in London has just opened an exhibition, Searching for Shakespeare, about precisely this subject - and in the course of researching it several distinguished portraits bit the dust.

First it was proved that the RSC's Flower portrait was a 19th-century fake - putting a spoke in the wheels of those who have argued that it is the original for the well-known Droeshout engraving. Then the NPG knocked its Grafton portrait out of contention - a disappointment for those who like to think of the poet as a young Elizabethan hottie.

The best candidate left, the NPG suggests, is its own Chandos portrait - the very first portrait in the collection and an image that has always caused problems for those who want a white-bread Shakespeare. Dismissing its authenticity the 18th-century Shakespearean commentator George Steevens described it as exhibiting the complexion of "a chimney sweeper in the jaundice".

That's the problem with Shakespeare portraits. It isn't a face they have to be true to, but a literary fantasy. As S Schoenbaum puts it in Shakespeare's Lives, everyone is "avid for a veritable image flattering to their own preconceptions". And given that there is no artistic genre as open to false interpretation as portraiture and few fields of scholarship so prone to wishful speculation as Shakespearian biography, the combination of the two produces a fiesta of physiognomic imaginings.

Dryden had a Shakespeare portrait in his study which, he wrote, allowed him to "With reverence look on his majestic face,/ Proud to be less, but of his godlike race". Majestic? Well, if you feel that way... though I doubt it would have looked so majestic if he'd been told it was a Stratford-upon-Avon butcher.

And even if we knew that a particular picture was a perfect likeness of playwright it seems likely there would be disagreement about what it told us. The mouth on the Chandos portrait has been described as "Jewish", "lubricious" and expressive of "slight melancholy and delicate irony". Some people revise their reactions until they match the reverence they bring to the subject; those who can't declare that "their" Shakespeare couldn't possibly look like that, so the picture must be suspect.

The high-minded thing to think about all this is that it is utterly trivial. All that matters is the poetry: the portraits are a distraction. The high-minded approach - regrettably - is right. The shape of Shakespeare's cheekbones will make not a jot of difference to how we understand Macbeth or respond to Romeo and Juliet.

As we know, though, most of us want to know what celebrities look like, even intellectual ones. Wouldn't it be a cold fish who, on being told that a painting was, beyond all doubt, Shakespeare to the life - declined to turn and look, and reflect in wonder at how much a face can conceal?