In Verona – the setting for Romeo and Juliet – there is a striking bust of William Shakespeare. Set on the inside of the Ancient Roman city wall on what is now the Piazza Bra, it accompanies a marble plaque inscribed with the words that Romeo utters when he discovers that he is to be banished from his birthplace for killing Tybalt in a duel:
“There is no world without Verona walls,
But Purgatory, torture, hell itself.
Hence banished is banish’d from the world,
And world’s exile is death …”
Romeo’s desperation at the prospect of being driven from his native city, which might be overwhelming in any circumstances, is cataclysmic at the thought of being separated from Juliet, the young girl from the rival Capulet family whom he has only just met and with whom he has fallen passionately in love.
Romeo’s words – written by a 16th-century Englishman who may or may not have ever visited Italy – have been adopted by the Veronese as an expression of their love for their home town. There is civic pride as well as fraternal affection in the use of the Shakespeare quotation: one feels that the Veronese have adopted the Warwickshire runaway, giving him a home in their midst.
This is moving; but what is most thought-provoking about the monument is the manner in which Shakespeare is represented. He has the high forehead, wide collar and earrings with which we are familiar from the woodcut by Martin Droeshout used to illustrate the First Folio edition of his plays, published in London on 1623, seven years after the playwright’s death. The same attributes are almost equally familiar from the Chandos portrait, an oil painting by an artist whose identity is unknown but which is thought by scholars to have been painted from life at some point between 1600 and 1610.
The aspect of the Verona bust is entirely different from these two well-known depictions, however. Shakespeare is shown looking up and away from the quoted lines, as though staring at the walls and towers of the adored city which he is just about to leave – as if, that is to say, he himself is the same person as his character Romeo.
In the bust, we see a passionately moved Shakespeare entirely different from the English representations that have come down to use. The Droeshout woodcut and the Chandos oil depict Shakespeare head-on, staring the viewer in the face, boldly presenting himself for examination. This is the face of the bourgeois bohemian who left Stratford-upon-Avon to live by his wits in London; the face of a man who knows about farming and land speculation, glove-making and horse-riding, along with the part-seedy, part-glamorous world of Southwark on the south bank of the Thames, with its brothels, bear-pits and theatres, its whores and gamblers and gorgeously dressed aristocrats.
It is the physiognomy of a talented and ambitious but firmly grounded individual, someone who can draft a contract as easily as he can pen a monologue.
The stiff and rather clownishly high-coloured bust that presides over Shakespeare’s tomb in Stratford’s Holy Trinity church shows an older and much more staid figure – the image of the son of a Catholic recusant who has turned his God-given talents to such effective use that he has not just returned from London to purchase the biggest house in his native town but also gained permission to have his corpse interred just below the altar of what has become a solidly Protestant place of worship.
And the full-sized Gower Memorial, which was presented to the town of Stratford by Lord Ronald Sutherland-Gower in 1888, depicts Shakespeare much as Dickens was often depicted by the Victorians – the thoughtful, somewhat whimsical master from whose brain incomparable characters and unforgettable scenes flowed with a facility that can only be called genius.
The representation of Shakespeare in Verona is strikingly different from any of these. It has the etiolation of a Roman Catholic saint of the Counter-Reformation, a mixture of ecstasy, passion and resolve which one encounters in the religious visionary and the devoted lover alike. This is the Passionate Pilgrim; this is the face of the man who wrote the Sonnets, detailing every facet of his love and his lust, his elation and his despair, with an accuracy and virtuosity never witnessed in the English language before or since.
Is it truer than the portraits by Shakespeare’s actual or near contemporaries? Does it have a different claim to verisimilitude or no claim at all? The German Czech poet Rainer Maria Rilke said that fame is finally only the sum total of all the misunderstanding that can gather around a new name. Perhaps the bust of Shakespeare in Verona belongs to this category, and is a projection by the sculptor of his or her own hopes and fears onto an Elizabethan Englishman who appropriated a story about the 13th-century Montecchi and Capuleti and gave it global fame.
Perhaps. But I doubt it. I suspect that it shows us the author of the Sonnets, the writer who is so conspicuously absent from the 36 plays collected in the First Folio edition. And I suspect that this is the man whom Shakespeare portrayed with such pitiless accuracy in the Sonnets – and who took care that his true face, revealed so potently by his own quill, would never be shown again, whether in his own writings or in the portraits of his contemporaries.
Jonathan Steffen is a writer and musician. Born in London, he read English at Cambridge, where he won the King’s College James Prize and the Cambridge University T.R. Henn Prize, both for creative writing. On graduating, he received a Harper-Wood Travelling Studentship for English Poetry and Literature, awarded by St. John’s College, Cambridge.
His work encompasses poetry, short stories, novels, literary translations, songs and instrumental music.