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Skip to 0 minutes and 6 seconds So how do we get from Shakespeare dying in relative obscurity in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1616 to him becoming the most famous writer in the history of the world? It’s a long story. And in the first 50 or 60 years of it, there is fairly slow movement. The theatres are closed in 1642 when the Puritans take charge of the country. They’d always disapproved of play-acting and now they had the chance to show it. In 1660, the monarchy is restored, King Charles II returns to France, and the theatres reopen. Now they are indoor playhouses, very different from the outdoor Globe.

Skip to 0 minutes and 53 seconds But Shakespeare is a central part of the repertoire, not however, a unique genius from the point of view of people in his time. His plays were put on but those of Beaumont and Fletcher were put on more frequently. And those of Ben Jonson were perhaps more seriously admired. However, in those restoration years, admiration for Shakespeare did begin to grow. John Dryden, who became poet-laureate, wrote a number of influential essays praising Shakespeare for his great truth to nature. And there began to be an interest in Shakespeare’s life and Shakespeare’s appearance. Various biographers and memoirists collected details of his life, though it wasn’t until 1709 that a biography was published for the first time.

Skip to 1 minute and 48 seconds As for his image, at least two very interesting portraits were painted during the restoration era. And here at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, I’m standing in front of one of them. It’s become known as the Chesterfield portrait, named for a later owner of it. And it’s particularly interesting because it’s based on the only portrait that we know was painted in Shakespeare’s lifetime but it’s been elaborated, aggrandised - it begins to make Shakespeare into a kind of superhuman figure. The painting in Shakespeare’s lifetime, which was probably done by an artist called John Taylor, now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. It’s that familiar image of a rather swarthy-headed Shakespeare with an earring and a very simple tunic with a simple white collar.

Skip to 2 minutes and 48 seconds The painter of the Chesterfield portrait, Zuccaro, has obviously seen the original Taylor portrait but he’s elaborated upon it. The earring is still there, the plain collar, but the position of Shakespeare’s hands has altered. The original portrait was only bust-length. Here however, Shakespeare has been put in holding a copy of the first folio, his collected works, and with the other hand, he points as if to say to the audience, wisdom and greatness, genius are contained within my pages. A little bit of drapery behind gives him the dignity of a figure out of classical antiquity. This is a very grand image, an image of a writer who people are beginning to say is very special indeed.

Skip to 3 minutes and 45 seconds Still though, it’s the case that Beaumont and Fletcher’s plays are staged as often as his. And that even when his plays are staged, they’re very frequently adapted. People in the late 17th and early 18th century thought that their language was more sophisticated, less rough and ready than the language of Shakespeare’s time. And they accordingly smoothed out Shakespeare’s language. Equally, there was a feeling, perhaps influenced by the time the court of King Charles had spent on the continent, a feeling that tragedy and comedy should be kept apart, that tragedy should be dignified, only comedy should be funny.

Skip to 4 minutes and 28 seconds See, in the French drama at the time, there was a very strong sense that tragedy and comedy should not be mixed in a single play. And so it was that writers adapted Shakespeare, took some of the funny bits out of the tragedies - for example, the role of the fool is written out from King Lear. Gradually though, Shakespeare became increasingly respected in his own right and, before long, his plays were being given scholarly treatment by literary editors.

The Chesterfield Portrait

Featured SBT item: Chesterfield Portrait of William Shakespeare

  • Reference no: SBT 1967-3

Find more online: The Chesterfield

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