Facing Shakespeare

What men and women are on your list of five notable people from the past whom you’d like to meet–okay, more than meet, let’s say sit with for a while over a hot beverage or a dry martini?  I don’t know how many of you will fess up to that routine, but I still love doing it. And although my list is always evolving, Shakespeare is often lurking in the group, in spite of my attempts to shoo him away and come up with a more surprising visitor.

So I jumped on the news of Stanley Wells, of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, calling a press conference on Monday to unveil a 1610 portrait of a gentleman, Wells claiming that it has now been clearly established that the portrait is of Shakespeare. That’s it on the right.

Well, it doesn’t look like the guy I’ve been planning to meet for some time. The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. has long displayed a later version of the same portrait, which, needless to say, doesn’t look like Shakespeare either, if we take the first folio portrait and the memorial bust as our two touchstones, as we must. 

I’m glad to see that people who know more about this ( here you can read up on their opinion) seem to agree with me!

In 2006, the National Portrait Gallery, London, and then the Yale Center for British Art, presented a wonderful exhibit, Searching for Shakespeare. You can still visit the exhibit via the companion volume, above, published in this country by Yale University Press.  It has an excellent summary of the Folger’s ersatz portrait of Shakespeare, along with discussion and display of other portraits, authentic and otherwise.

As for me, I’ll stick with the Chandos portrait on the cover, left, above. We’ll never really know if that’s of Shakespeare either, but for that mysterious man from Stratford the element of mystery seems entirely right!  

Which five notable people of the past would you like to meet? Go ahead! Share!

Margaret Heilbrun About Margaret Heilbrun

Margaret Heilbrun is a former Senior Editor, Library Journal Book Review.


  1. Stewart says:

    What a hard question. So many people I admire would not necessarily make very good company. It would be interesting to see Walt Whitman in the flesh. Then there’s EAP. Less high-toned: Joel Mcrea, Billy Holliday and Mary McCarthy, all for different reasons.

  2. Margaret Heilbrun says:

    Wow! Thanks! Poe has never been on my list, but Hawthorne is there often, more often than Melville. And if we’re going to get into Hollywood actors, well that may need to be a whole nother blog! Can’t think which of several tempting buddies of Joel Mcrea I’d pick. So I’ll say Myrna Loy! Eternally wonderful.

  3. Megan Fraser says:

    My list is all over the map, but I’m going to go with: William Butler Yeats (first and always), Queen Elizabeth I, Caravaggio, Thomas Jefferson and Joe Strummer. If I could add a sixth, maybe Effie Ruskin Millais.

  4. Richard Fraser says:

    Shakespeare and a few other people make the list for a time and find themselves displaced by someone else. The one person who never loses his place is Pontius Pilate. He’s got a story I’d like to hear.

  5. Margaret Heilbrun says:

    I kind of forgot about picking someone who could do something other than write text! We’ll have to do “Desert Island Disc”! Isn’t that still on in the UK?

  6. Richard Fraser says:

    Actually,I think I’d rather have a movie night (or a couple of movie nights) with Shakespeare. His critiques would be at least as interesting as the movies themselves.

  7. Tann200 says:

    Yes, Hawthorne and also Emily Bronte but would they speak with me? Perhaps Ada Leverson and Barbara Pym for wry observations, and (irresistably) Anna Magnani.

  8. Dave Keymer says:

    The first names are a slam dunk for me: Socrates and Denis Diderot, my favorite 18th century philosophe and, I think, the most subtle and playful. Nobody reads Thomas Love Peacock any more but his ramshackle 19th-century comic novels of ideas are a kick, so add him. Lucien Febvre, the co-founder of the groundbreaking historical journal, Annales. I picked Febvre over Marc Bloch because my interests lie more in intellectual history and Febvre wrote an astonishing book on Rabelais and the problem of disbelief at the dawn of the modern age. Noel Coward.

  9. Dave Keymer says:

    Oops. I forgot Laurence Sterne (sp.?), author of Tristram Shandy, than which there in no other book that is wilder or as funny.

  10. Mary Bisbee-Beek says:

    None too high nor mighty, well maybe mighty: Eleanor Roosevelt; R. Buckminster Fuller; Frederick Law Olmstead; Beatrix Potter; and Louisa May Alcott

  11. Kelly McNees says:

    Louisa May Alcott for me too!

    Also Abigail Adams, Jane Austen, Billie Holiday…maybe Shel Silverstein?

  12. Zachary says:

    Mark Twain, Samuel Johnson, Dylan Thomas, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Jack London.

  13. Margaret Heilbrun says:

    The responses are great! Thanks! Diderot is on my list too, except for the times I switch to Rousseau — or maybe I should have a sort of salon in which I compell them to patch up their differences! Laurence Sterne — a true original, and I can’t wait to see his letters, to be published this spring (more on that in a blog perhaps!). I haven’t though of meeting Pontius Pilate, but I do think of meeting Jesus.

  14. Dave Keymer says:

    How could I have missed Jane Austen? If she were busy that night, perhaps Ivy Compton-Burnett could come, or punk rocker Nina Hagen.

  15. Ed Burgess says:

    How about Nicola Tesla, the famously contentious inventor? And, I think David Hume, my favorite ethics writer.

  16. Flip says:

    Christopher Marlowe, a literary man of action who could answer a lot of questions about those Elizabethans! Sir Richard Burton, Poe, Sabatini and Simenon would all be fascinating to drink with!

  17. mccabe says:

    I was reading today that Shakespeare is the second highest selling writer of all time behind Agatha Christie (on bookarmy.com)…is that right? He shoulda been no. 1!