An historian, working with a team of digital artists, has spent three months updating a series of classic portraits to reflect how historical figures might look today. A fourteen part television series is underway on the UK television channel, Yesterday.
Shakespeare is one of the subjects. They’ve used the Cobbe portrait of 1610, in which Shakespeare, is splendidly dressed in aristocratic clothes, like the wealthy man he was by 1610. They have left him pretty much as he is in the portrait, but changed his hairstyle and dressed him in a striped tee-shirt and a casual but traditional style of jacket. In that portrait he comes across as lean and hungry, although other portraits of Shakespeare show him to be more full-faced.
It’s an interesting idea and it’s set me on my own course, thinking about what Shakespeare might have looked like today. I like the Chandos portrait, in which Shakespeare has quite wild hair and facial growth. He’s wearing an earring, too, a feature of the portrait that I’ve always liked. I prefer the earring to the crucifix that the digital artists have hung around his neck. In the Chandos portrait he’s wearing very plain clothes – a black suit and a white collar, like a Puritan.
We have to consider what he might have been like if he were living today. We must also assume that he would be a great writer whose work will be read and studied for the next half millennia. Much has changed in the last half millennia and the only thing that hasn’t is human nature. Shakespeare lived before the Industrial Revolution, so even the most primitive of steam driven machines couldn’t have been imagined by him, not to mention the wonders of the digital age.
Given all that, though, what would he be like today? Alright then, he’s a writer – a successful one, making a lot of money. He was also a theatre director so let’s transpose him to a man who makes a lot of money writing and directing scripts. That would make him a Hollywood film man. Given his talent he would also be going round the circuit picking up awards for his films. I place him as a cross between Stephen Spielberg and Quentin Tarantino.
Both those movie men are more hard working film makers than celebrities. Whenever we see them they appear as men who aren’t very concerned about their appearance and the image they create. They’re fanatical about film making. That’s Shakespeare, too – a very hard working play maker. Spielberg and Tarantino are both rich men, but like Shakespeare, they don’t take the money and run, they keep on working. As Shakespeare did, even after his retirement from the theatre.
I think the Chandos portrait shows Shakespeare more or less as he would be today. The unruly hair and beard indicate a man more interested in working than in creating an image. The simple clothes show a lack of interest in social graces. I’m going to keep the earring, which is every bit as modern today as it was in his time. It suggests a man who rejects conformity.
This is a spurious exercise, however, because Shakespeare was a product of the Elizabethan age, a very different age from ours and there’s no way one can make comparisons between people living in such different cultural contexts. To drape him in modern clothes and give him a contemporary hairstyle the digital team has done is the best anyone could do.
If you have any ideas about what Shakespeare might have been like if he’d been born in our time let us know.