Genius, Hair & Shakespeare

To the right is the image of Shakespeare from Shakespeare in Love. The astute observer will notice, first of all, that he’s rakishly handsome, wears his shirts like all poets do—exuding sexuality—and most importantly, has a full head of hair.

I’ve noticed over the years, even going back to 19th century forgeries, that bardolators just can’t get past the possibility that the greatest genius of the English language was—

bald.

The hairline is always creeping forward as the centuries progress. Not only is Shakespeare’s hairline restored but he gets thinner and ever more rakish until you end up with Joseph Fiennes. And isn’t this how we really want Shakespeare? Young. Beautiful. Dashing. Dangerous.

Consider the hair of Beethoven, Mozart, and Einstein. These were not bald men. They had the hair of genius. Bach is a question mark. He wore a wig, but I’ve always been partial to Mohlman’s modern portrait of Bach. Note though, that Mohlman can’t bare to make Bach bald. Bach’s gray hair is cropped short but he’s not bald. And it’s fair to note that men didn’t wear wigs back in the day because they were bald but because that was the fashion. So Mohlman’s portrait may indeed be what Bach looked like when he was composing music rather than directing the church choir.

Beethoven and Einstein’s hair are the very synecdoches of genius. I had a lover once who ruined my evening by saying: “Have you ever noticed how all the great geniuses have great hair?”

So what’s the news about Shakespeare? As it turns out, the effigy at the Holy Trinity church was not sculpted by Gerard Johnson, after Shakespeare’s death, but by Nicholas Johnson while Shakespeare was very much alive. Not only that, but Nicholas Johnson was probably commissioned by Shakespeare himself. Just today, The Guardian writes:

“The evidence is that this man’s monument – he died in 1615 – was created by a London sculptor whose practice was to travel with the sculptures to see their installation,” Orlin said. “If this sculptor followed his usual practice, he would have been in Stratford some time in the year before Shakespeare’s death. Even if not, his workshop was round the corner from the Globe. It’s highly likely that he would then have seen Shakespeare’s face.”

What this means is that this:

Is very likely a spitting image of Shakespeare in the last year of his life. Not only that, but Shakespeare must have seen and approved of the bust. The 20th century critic, John Dover Wilson, famously described the bust as looking like a “self-satisfied pork butcher”. And as the author of the Guardian article ruefully writes:

“They say you should never meet your heroes, which has been just as well for literature fans who for centuries have been told they would never see an accurate likeness of William Shakespeare.”

So much disappointment. But for every man or woman who looks like a self-satisfied pork butcher, rejoice. You stand in the company of Shakespeare, one of the greatest geniuses of all time—more than a little overweight, bald and wearing an Oxford gown (with no rakish hempen shirt or Gwyneth Paltrow hanging from his lips). But if Shakespeare was an anomaly as far as the hair of genius goes, there’s always Christopher Marlowe to set matters right.