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Hunting for the real Shakespeare

Durkee frames Stalking Shakespeare (his first book of nonfiction after two novels) in the guise of a whacked-out misery memoir


STALKING SHAKESPEARE: A Memoir of Madness, Murder, and My Search for the Poet Beneath the Paint
Author: Lee Durkee
Publisher: Scribner
Pages: 260
Price: $28

In 2010, I was in Beijing, persuading the National Theatre of China to join a worldwide festival of Shakespeare at London’s Globe, where I was artistic director. Sixteen enormous armchairs were arranged in a perfect square around an empty space; 15 of the Chinese theatre’s representatives sat with blank faces, hands hanging slackly from the ends of armrests with chilled gangster styling. Our one representative, myself, sat contorted trying to answer questions and eat a noodle breakfast with clumsily held chopsticks. It was intimidating.

Miraculously, things were proceeding toward closure. Then they posed a deal breaker. With a palpable sense they were in possession of a mould-breaking, world-renewing revelation, they claimed to have uncovered a new definitive portrait of Shakespeare. They wanted to bring it to our festival. “Could I see it?” I asked timidly.

An easel with the painting was brought into the centre of the square. There in the frame was an image of an attractive young Italian prince from the mid-17th century: Hair, face and styling little or nothing like the Bard. Or indeed anyone from the right period or place. I had a fight or flight moment — everyone was staring at me with expectation. “That is no more Shakespeare than I am,” I said.

This story came to mind when reading Lee Durkee’s wickedly entertaining trawl through several centuries of discovered, and discredited, portraits of our greatest poet. Every half-century since Shakespeare’s death, a new contender emerges, claimed to be the one true likeness, which is then picked apart by scholars, historians, radiologists and dendrochronologists as a forgery or fake. 

Durkee frames Stalking Shakespeare (his first book of nonfiction after two novels) in the guise of a whacked-out misery memoir. Freshly divorced and needing to stay close to his student son, Durkee — a native Mississippian — finds himself enduring long winters in freezing Vermont.

To determine the images’ authenticity, Durkee pins them up around him, studying noses and collars and scars with forensic detail, while obsessing over Elizabethan and Jacobean history. He becomes a gonzo detective, uncovering the murky goings-on of early-17th-century life. Writing with a blend of punk wit and adrenaline, he captures the turbulence and unnerving verve of that age better than many.

As the long Vermont winters continue, Durkee finds himself strung out on alcohol and drugs, stumbling out into ice storms that reframe nature into a gallery of looming misshapen animal faces. This generalised paranoia, presented disarmingly straight, is eventually localised into an almost psychotic animus toward various Shakespeare institutions, which refuse to respond to his research requests expressed in letters, calls, emails and eventually in-person trips.

The Folger Shakespeare Library and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust become his principal dragons to slay. His feeling for the occasional highhandedness and secrecy of these institutions is acute and true; his exaggeration of their perfidy and CIA-like reach is richly comical.

Up until this point, Durkee’s insights have seemed piercing and judicious, so it is strange that when diving into the idea of authorship, he dances past fact after fact not to his liking, sidestepping the copious evidence that Shakespeare was Shakespeare with a Trumpian-Johnsonian shimmy. That his path toward confusion is given supposed historical validity by Edward de Vere’s propensity to pop up at séances, sometimes expressing himself in dazzling sonnets, doesn’t seem to worry him. Soon after, we are chuting down conspiracy wormholes, which include theorizing about possible assassinations carried out by the Shakespeare Industry on paedophile picture restorers. Yes, it gets that crazy.

At one moment Durkee tells us, “One of the Buddha’s earliest teachings warned us that we view our world incorrectly because of the human tendency to wrap everything we perceive inside cultural concepts,” urging us to resist enshrouding Shakespeare thus. Conspiracy, with all its tentacles, must be one of the most enticing and overpowering cultural concepts of the present age, and it would be sweet if Durkee, and many others, swerved its distortions with the same enthusiasm they swerve others.

Somehow, one forgives the madder moments for the sheer brio of the writing, the sting of the jokes and the razor-edge of the historical insights. When it is good, it is really that good.

The reviewer is a director and producer and the author, most recently, of Hamlet Globe to Globe: Two Years, 193,000 Miles, 197 Countries, One Play
©2023 The New York Times News Service

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First Published: Apr 23 2023 | 10:31 PM IST

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