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Shakespeare’s Face, A Dead Swan, and Dramatic Criticism

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Dry, serious scholarship, disapassionate criticism – that’s the theory of research and reviewing of the arts. But emotion it seems, is breaking out all over.

First, a German academic has claimed that not only does she know with certainty what Shakespeare looked like, she also knows how he died.

Prof Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel said she could prove that there were at least four surviving portraits of the playwright. … Startlingly, she said swellings close to Shakespeare’s left eye, which she says are clear in several of the contested portraits, are evidence that he had lymph cancer. By dating the portraits, she said, it was likely that he had suffered for around 15 years in increasing pain and died from it.

Now of course, what Shakespeare looked like on one level doesn’t matter one jot, but there is human curiosity – and an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery opening soon, which happens to claim that only one of the portraits is actually of the bard.

So distinctly unacademic language – “rubbish” is not usually an academic word, at least in reference to a scholar’s work.

Then in Germany, a critic has been punished for a nasty review by having a dead swan dumped in his lap. After this his notes were snatched and he was chased from the theatre in the middle of the performance, in fear at the least of his bodily integrity.

The unfortunate critic, Gerhard Stadelmaier, of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, became a target because of his old-fashioned ideas about how theatre should be staged.

“This rubbish theatre has gone too far,” he said yesterday. “It is robbing us of our imaginations. When blood is called for you do not have to squirt syrup. Sex and desire do not have to be made flesh. You don’t have to show everything, but you do have to act.”

The actor claimed that he was merely trying to involve the audience.

I hereby put it on notice that although I’m a theatre critic, I’ll pass on the swans, or even sparrows, thanks.

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About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.