Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Cobbe Portrait Inscription: Was Shakespeare Murdered By King James?

Two words of Latin: “Principum amicitia!”  Translated literally, they mean, “The friendship of princes!”  (We should understand the word prince to mean king or queen.)  This motto, as Stanley Wells explains it, is an allusion to a passage in Horace in which a writer with the unfortunate name of Asinius Pollio is warned to stop using political references in his plays.  The motto should therefore be understood to read as a warning, "Beware the friendship of Princes!"  

If Wells is correct about this reading then the Cobbe inscription would seem to be presenting Shakespeare to us as a cautionary tale.  Here we have a writer, the inscription warns, who thought he could get away with political satire because he was pals with the king.  But the playwright was dead wrong.

But is the motto an allusion to Horace or to Psalm 146, which warns us, “O put not your trust in Princes, nor in any child of man; for there is no help in them.”  Tom Wentworth, a former court favorite of King James, when sentenced to the chop block, had famously cried out in protest, “O put not your faith in princes!”  Wentworth was alluding to the psalm, not to Horace.  

Many scholars are convinced the sitter is not Will Shakespeare, as advertised by Wells, but Sir Thomas Overbury, a Jacobean court favorite who later found himself imprisoned in the Tower, where he was poisoned with raspberry tarts by the wife of his homosexual lover.  James was complicit, it was widely believed, in Overbury's murder.  If the inscription alludes to the psalm and not to Horace's playwright, then the inscription would obviously support the argument the sitter is Overbury.  Is Wells perhaps reading too much into two words and an exclamation point? 

Did the motto fit Shakespeare?  Well, let’s hope not, since the warning would seem to imply dire consequences not excluding banishment and/or murder.  Yet scholars seems to have no interest in these implications.  The most fascinating detail about the new portrait, which Wells claims he is 90% sure is Shakespeare ad vivum,
has gone ignored.  Shakespeare is a babe.  Nothing else seems to matters.

The cautionary nature of the inscription got me thinking about a poem written in 1610 by Sir John Davies of Hereford that alluded to Shakespeare falling out with King James.

To our English Terence, Mr. Will. Shake-speare.

Some say (good Will) which I, in sport, do sing,

Had’st thou not played some Kingly parts in sport,

Thou hadst bin a companion for a King;

And, been a King among the meaner sort.
Could the “Kingly parts” of Macbeth have triggered a scandal that resulted in Shakespeare’s banishment or death?  Are we missing a censored chapter from Shakespeare's life? 

Who cares, right?  All that matters is that Shakespeare is gigolo handsome.  It has taken over 400 years of hard work, but it is undeniably true.  Stick a staple in his belly.  Centerfold Shakespeare has won the day.

One final observation.  Both words of the inscription appear to painted onto beds of overpaint.  (See top jpeg.)  This would indicate the inscription was added later--quite likely after the death of the sitter.  (Wells believes tree-ring tests date the portrait to the very end of Shakespeare's life).  If the inscription was added after Shakespeare's death that would certainly emphasize the direness of the inscriptionThe warning would therefore refer to an event so traumatic that it ended Shakespeare's career or perhaps his life.  Banishment, murder, suicide . . . we don't know what it refers to, and, again, for some reason we don't care.    

What might lurk underneath the beds of overpaint that support these two enigmatic words?  We won't know that until Wells, Alec Cobbe, and the Stratford Birthplace Trust agree to release all the results of the spectral tests performed on the Cobbe portrait to the public.   Until they do, we are correct to assume, after 400 years of frauds regarding Shakespeare ad vivum, that the caretakers of this portrait are hiding something from us.  Quite literally they are.

Link to the Janssen portrait in the Folger Shakespeare Library's spectacular online gallery.

Link: Is This Portrait of England's King John Actually William Shakespeare?


  1. Thats an attention grabbing headline!


  2. Yes it is. Guilty as charged. That is what headlines are for.

  3. I see that Dr Bendor Grosvenor of "art history news" blog, has once again "told off" the press for using the Cobbe as an illustration of Shakespeare; This time its the Sunday Times in trouble, for showing the Cobbe as Shakespeare last Sunday.

    He for one, is convinced that the Cobbe is Thomas Overbury and he knows his stuff... That said, not sure how open minded he is, he appears to be a "chandos" only man!


  4. Yes, it's hard to imagine the Chandos and Cobbe are the same poet. I wonder if Wells regrets his enthusiasm for the Cobbe? It's brought him nothing but grief and ridicule. I'm not convinced it's Overbury though. There's too many copies and Overbury was a despised person. Plus owning his portrait would have been a political liability, since he fell from favor and James I was believed complicit in his murder. I'm with Dr. Grosvenor. I hate seeing the Cobbe advertised as Shakespeare. It bear almost no resemblance to the Droeshout. Still, Wells is no fool and he claims to be 90% certain it's Shakespeare ad vivum.

  5. I can't believe how much the Cobbe portrait resembles the authenticated portrait of Overbury. Comparing the Cobbe to the authenticated Overbury or Shakespeare (Droeshout), my eye immediately equates it with the Overbury. I fear Wells is stretching it, his hope being greater than his conviction.