Sixteenth century portraiture is our key to understanding how Elizabethans wished to be perceived by their peers, subjects and descendants. Prosperous individuals and families often used portraits as a way of communicating wealth, morality and education to the public. Hence every detail, such as clothing, jewels, ornaments and even pets, is significant in a portrait. In practical terms, portraits were ideal because they could be displayed easily or even sent overseas to foreign lands, particularly miniatures. Henry VIII famously dispatched his artist, Hans Holbein the Younger, to Germany to produce a miniature portrait of his future bride, Anne of Cleves, in order to determine whether or not she was attractive enough to marry. Portraits were essential to the monarchy as a way of displaying power, leadership and prosperity to their subjects.
Noble and middle-class families found portraits useful to communicate their stations and wealth to others. If you couldn’t afford to commission a portrait of yourself or family, it was considered respectable to own an image of a nobleman or woman, because it proved that you and your kin aspired to wealth and nobility.
Materials used in portraiture varied according to artist preference and, crucially, financial means. Pigments depended on the availability and cost of materials, and the canvas itself could range from wooden panels to vellum or calf skin.
This copy of the Cobbe portrait of William Shakespeare, supposedly the only one to have been painted during his lifetime, was made in 1615. It was previously known as the Ellenborough Portrait. Now, however, it is referred to as the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Portrait. While we do not know the name of the artist, painter anonymity is often the case for paintings at this time. Consider how carefully the artist has painted Shakespeare’s face and clothes. His skin looks clear and his eyes look bright and alive. The beautiful lace collar was very fashionable and expensive, and shows us that, at this time in his life, Shakespeare was successful and wealthy. This portrait was painted on oak panels. The wood was left to ‘season’ or dry so that it would be in good condition for painting. The paints were made from pigments, or coloured earths, mixed with linseed oil.
Since portraits reveal so much about their subject, Shakespeare referred to portraiture when characters struggle to explain or understand something vital about another person. In the tragedy of Hamlet (1600), for instance, Hamlet directs his mother to two portraits: one of his father, and the other of his uncle who is now his step-father. In this passage, Hamlet refers to his father’s appearance: his brow, hair, eyes and his stance in the portrait:
Look here, upon this picture, and on this,
The counterfeit presentment of two brothers.
See, what a grace was seated on this brow;
Hyperion’s curls; the front of Jove himself;
An eye like Mars, to threaten and command;
A station like the herald Mercury
New-lighted on a heaven-kissing hill;
A combination and a form indeed,
Where every god did seem to set his seal,
To give the world assurance of a man:
This was your husband. Look you now, what follows:
Here is your husband; like a mildew’d ear,
Blasting his wholesome brother. Have you eyes?
Could you on this fair mountain leave to feed,
And batten on this moor? Ha! have you eyes?
You cannot call it love; for at your age
The hey-day in the blood is tame, it’s humble,
And waits upon the judgment: and what judgment
Would step from this to this?
(Hamlet, 3.4, 2445-63).
Hyperion = A Greek god relating to the sun
Jove = Jupiter, the king of gods
Herald Mercury = Mercury was the Greek messenger who had wings
Heaven-kissing hill = high reaching
The chrismatory was an object used to hold special oils required for sacramental rituals such as baptism. Shakespeare often references the act of anointment, particularly in the context of kings and divine ordination.
The anointment of a king or queen was considered eternal and incontestable, which is why the scene in the history play Richard II – when the king is deposed or stripped of his crown – would have been considered shocking and even impossible. In this extract, Richard makes a show of deposing himself and handing over his crown to his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, who becomes Henry IV. Richard refers to his ‘balm’ or the oil that was used to anoint him during baptism and, eventually, his coronation:
I give this heavy weight from off my head
And this unwieldy sceptre from my hand,
The pride of kingly sway from out my heart;
With mine own tears I wash away my balm,
With mine own hands I give away my crown,
With mine own tongue deny my sacred state,
With mine own breath release all duty’s rites:
All pomp and majesty I do forswear;
My manors, rents, revenues I forego;
My acts, decrees, and statutes I deny:
God pardon all oaths that are broke to me!
God keep all vows unbroke that swear to thee!
(Richard II, Act 4, Scene 1)
In a more literal sense, Shakespeare refers to the act of confirmation at the close of the history play Henry VIII, when the new-born Elizabeth receives her baptism at the hands of the new Protestant Archbishop Cranmer:
[…] My Lord of Canterbury,
I have a suit which you must not deny me;
That is, a fair young maid that yet wants baptism,
You must be godfather, and answer for her.
(Henry VIII, Act 5, Scene 3).
Can you think of other references to the object on display?
Cartography was a complex and shifting science in the 16th and early 17th centuries, because as new lands were being explored, new maps had to keep-up-to-date. For everyday usage, people could purchase printed maps on single sheets of paper. For serious geographers, collections of maps could be purchased which ranged from individual counties to countries. The map of Warwickshire on display was produced by John Speed, and published in a collection called Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine.
Kings, noblemen, politicians and soldiers are amongst Shakespeare’s map-wielding characters. Consulting maps allows for battle decisions, the division of kingdoms, and journey planning. Warwickshire itself is mentioned by Falstaff in Henry IV, Part I as he meets Prince Hal on the way to the battle at Shrewsbury with his troops. Falstaff and his company march from London to the Midlands, through Sutton Coldfield, to get to Shropshire. Can you trace their journey on the map?
What, Hal! how now, mad wag! what a devil dost thou
in Warwickshire? My good Lord of Westmoreland, I
cry you mercy: I thought your honour had already been
(Henry IV, Part I, (Act 4, Scene 2).
Shakespeare also employed the idea of maps or mapping to describe the reading of facial features. In the Tragedy of Coriolanus, the noble Agrippa discusses his own honesty and openness by referring to the ‘map of my microcosm’. in this passage Agrippa is mocking and berating the dishonesty of two tribunes or Roman officials:
I am known to be a humorous patrician, and one that
loves a cup of hot wine with not a drop of allaying
Tiber in’t; said to be something imperfect in
favouring the first complaint; hasty and tinder-like
upon too trivial motion; one that converses more
with the buttock of the night than with the forehead
of the morning: what I think I utter, and spend my
malice in my breath. Meeting two such wealsmen as
you are—I cannot call you Lycurguses—if the drink
you give me touch my palate adversely, I make a
crooked face at it. I can’t say your worships have
delivered the matter well, when I find the ass in
compound with the major part of your syllables: and
though I must be content to bear with those that say
you are reverend grave men, yet they lie deadly that
tell you you have good faces. If you see this in
the map of my microcosm, follows it that I am known
well enough too? what harm can your bisson
conspectuities glean out of this character, if I be
known well enough too?
(Coriolanus, Act 2, Scene 1)