Shakespeare’s Face

Publisher: Vintage Canada
On May 11, 2001, Globe and Mail reporter Stephanie Nolen announced a stunning discovery to the world: an attractive portrait held by an Ontario family for twelve generations, which may well be the only known portrait of Shakespeare painted during his lifetime. Shakespeare’s Face is the biography of a portrait -- a literary mystery story -- and the furious debate that has ensued since its discovery.

A slip of paper affixed to the back proclaims “Shakespere. This likeness taken 1603, Age at that time 39 ys.” But is it really Shakespeare who peers at us from the small oil on wood painting? The twinkling eyes, reddish hair, and green jacket are not in keeping with the duller, traditional images of the bard. But they are more suggestive of the humorous and humane man who wrote the greatest plays in the English language.

Shakespeare’s Face tells the riveting story of how the painting came to reside in the home of a retired engineer in a mid-sized Ontario town. The painting is reputed to be by John Sanders of Worcester, England. As a retirement project, the engineer, whose grandmother kept the family treasure under her bed, embarked on authenticating the portrait: the forensic analyses that followed have proven it without doubt to the period.

In a remarkable publishing coup, Knopf Canada has gathered around Stephanie Nolen’s story a group of the world’s leading Shakespeare scholars and art and cultural historians to delve into one of the most fascinating literary mysteries of our times: “Is this the face of genius?”

Excerpt from Chapter 1 of Shakespeare’s Face by Stephanie Nolen
By the late afternoon I was beginning to go a little cross-eyed. I had examined countless documents and read the test results from the painting’s painstaking forensic analysis. I now had everything I needed to write my story -- except for one crucial item. “Is he here?” I asked, almost in a whisper....

The owner laid the package carefully on the cluttered table. He gently pulled back the kraft paper wrapping, underneath which was a layer of bubble wrap. Then he peeled back this second layer to reveal his treasure.

I was caught off-guard by how small the portrait was -- and how vivid. The colours in the paint seemed too rich to be 400 years old. Except for the hairline cracks in the varnish, the face could have been painted yesterday. And there was nothing austere or haughty about it, nothing of the great man being painted for posterity. It was a rogue’s face, a charmer’s face that looked back at me with a tolerant, mischievous slightly world-weary air....

It was painted on two pieces of solid board so expertly joined that the seam was barely visible. A date, “Ano 1603”, was painted in small red letters in the top right hand corner. The right side had been nibbled by woodworms.... I stood and gazed, quelling an instinctive urge to pick the portrait up and hold it in my hands. And as my professional skepticism crumpled for a moment, I found myself wanting desperately to believe that this was indeed Shakespeare’s face.



Like the painting that inspired it, this book can be read in different ways. One way is as a work of investigative journalism in which Stephanie Nolen goes behind the story she broke in May 2001 about a then-unknown portrait possibly of William Shakespeare. Her six chapters, which form the spine of...
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“Nolen…deserves a lot of credit for restricting herself to her part of the story and leaving the rest to the experts, who weave in and out of her tale with separate essays as lively as they are illuminating….So is Shakespeare’s Face really much ado about nothing? Not on your life. For one thing, nothing’s settled, and the story of the forensic evidence is utterly fascinating. For another, what really makes the book are all the experts circling round and round the identity of Shakespeare and bringing us closer and closer to the man. Even if the fuss over the portrait turns out to be ephemeral, Shakespeare’s Face will still be worth looking at long after.” -- The Toronto Star

“A truly compelling detective story….Shakespeare’s Face makes fascinating reading on many levels. It is readable, and successfully resists becoming an arcane treatise on the most written about playwright in history. For the scientist, there are details of the tests, which proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that the picture was painted around the cusp of the 16th and 17th centuries. For the art lover, there is a glimpse into the world of those who can “read” paintings. For the Shakespeare lover, just attending a performance at the Globe Theatre is to see Shakespeare’s plays in a totally new light, this book goes a long way in revealing the elusive Bard.” -- Kate Barlow, Hamilton Spectator

“The Sanders portrait is really only the starting point for a series of fascinating journeys…. Entirely lucid and entertaining…. The book boasts only the best Shakespeare scholars, who have long exhibited in their work a rare combination of erudition, readability and common sense… Nolen herself writes with vivacity and candour…. The general reader will learn many fascinating things that are usually reserved for experts…. Each expert and enthusiast quoted in the book is passionately engaged in the pursuit of truth.” -- The Globe and Mail

“Fascinating…. The most engaging sections are Nolen’s. Her writing is accessible and animated and her story of the whole quest -- with such typical journalistic frustrations as Globe editor Richard Addis often moving her filing deadlines up two hours -- is intelligently told and amusing.” -- Quill & Quire

“Art history reads like a thriller….The assembled experts in Shakespeare's Face write with insight and integrity….Nolen’s lively introductory and interlinking chapters make for great reading.” --

“Nolen explores the genealogy of the Sanders family and deals painstakingly with the forensic testing…. We share the suspense as the painting passes each test, proving itself to be a genuine, unaltered example of early 17th Century art….Nolen and company have come up with an accessible, concisely informative book that every Shakespeare admirer will want to own.” -- Montreal Gazette

“Behold that special face. Is it Shakespeare’s?” -- The New York Times, May 24, 2001

“He is mischievous, keen-eyed, almost flirtatious. Half twinkle, half smirk, he looks out from his portrait with a tolerant, world-weary air. This is Shakespeare. Perhaps you thought you knew him: bald pate, thin brows, stiff white ruff. You thought wrong.” -- The Globe and Mail