Walking into Searching for Shakespeare, the exhibition that opens tomorrow at the National Portrait Gallery in London, I took a wrong turn. Someone was standing in front of the "exhibition this way" sign, so I forged straight ahead, and was puzzled to be confronted by a sword, a workmanlike rapier with just a hint of gentlemanly damascene decoration. The label explained: "On formal occasions and at court Shakespeare would have worn a sword, and in his will in 1616 he left it to a friend from Stratford-upon-Avon called Thomas Coombe. This example from the period ..." So, a hint, a flavour of his age, but not really Shakespeare.
Turning around, I went back to the beginning, and found another absence. On a perspex stand is a wonderful, fancy, and very warm-looking hat from the 16th-century, an astonishing survival and fascinating, but again, not Shakespeare's (what would it be worth if it were?), rather one like he "might have worn."
Yet next, in front of you, are some real signs that read, as though scrawled by some graffitist on the wall, "Shakespeare was here." There are the papers that he touched that recorded his life before he was "the Bard" and was just a young lad from Stratford-upon-Avon. There's the parish register from Holy Trinity Church, open at the entry for the baptism on May 26, 1583, of his first child, Susanna. It sits beside the bond recording his marriage just five months before. They are mute but eloquent witnesses to the reason why a lad of 18 would be marrying a woman of 26. By the standards of the time she was about the right age for marriage, but he was certainly not; you can just imagine the matrons of the town tutting, saying: "He's ruined his life."
The end of that life - the dead Shakespeare if you like - is also here, in the will that famously left most of his wealth to that oldest child, Susanna, and only his "second best bed" to his wife, Anne Hathaway. But, as Tarnya Cooper, the exhibition curator, explains, that can't be taken for the slight that it seems to be. Wives by law received a third of their husband's wealth for their use, and it was not uncommonly for them to be left out of the bequests in consequence. This will is nonetheless an oh-so-human document, lines are crossed out, words inserted - there was, on this death bed, no time to make a fair copy.