The Mystery of the Borrowed Bard; Or, All’s Well That Ends Well
The Mystery of the Borrowed Bard; Or, All’s Well That Ends Well The talk this past spring in Bennett Hall, home of the English department, was all about Shakespeare — the bard’s portrait, that is.
The approximately five-feet-by-seven-feet image, an enlargement of the engraving from the frontispiece of the 1623 Folio by Martin Droeshout, has stared down at students, faculty, staff, and visitors from its post on Bennett’s main stairway for the better part of two decades. It disappeared sometime in the pre-dawn hours of April 29 and remained missing until Commencement morning, May 20, when it was paraded — “triumphantly,” by all accounts — by graduating English majors before being dropped off at Bennett Hall. How it was removed without being seen and where it was stored in the meantime — not to mention the identities of the triumphant paraders — remains a mystery.
Truth to tell, nobody in the English department seems to care much about that part of the story (at least, no one on campus in late July, when the Gazette belatedly got on the case). An e-mail message sent seeking information on those particulars was met with silence or the electronic equivalent of a shrug of the shoulders. We got an earful (a queue-full?) about the incident as metaphor, though. As might be expected in a building full of folks who make a living teasing the utmost of meaning from texts, the story swiftly moved from a simple cops-and-robbers tale to something more, well, layered. The Shakespeare-napping exposed — literally — a simmering debate within the department over the traditional literary canon, a hidden skirmish in the Culture Wars.
First, though, the facts of the case: According to Miriam Mann, the department’s business administrator and the building administrator of Bennett Hall, at around 8 p.m. on April 28, the housekeeping staff surprised a young man — described (however unlikely for an English major) as a “tall blond with a military crew-cut” — unscrewing the portrait from the wall. He was chased off, and the incident reported to the police. Attendees at a graduate- student event on the fourth floor of Bennett that night attested that the portrait was “sitting on the floor of the stairway (the screws had been removed) when they left the building between 12:30 and 1:00,” Mann’s e-mail account continues, which was confirmed by the housekeeping staff, who “told me it was still there when they left their shift at 12:30.”
But when she came in to work at 8:30 the next morning, the portrait was gone. “The most frustrating thing to me about this whole thing is the fact that the portrait is so big, how could it have been removed from Bennett and moved around or off campus without being observed?”
At first, suspicions fixed on the graduate students, who, the presumption was, had displaced Shakespeare — perhaps the ultimate “Dead White Male” — as a political statement. Circumstantial evidence for this interpretation was provided by what had apparently replaced Shakespeare’s looming visage: a photocopy-mosaic taped to the wall made up of a variety of women writers.
“Seeing those and, I guess, imagining them to have been installed by whoever stole Shakespeare, somebody floated the rumor that the theft was a symbolic attack on the traditional canon” by graduate students in English, writes Dr. James English, graduate chair of the department.
It turns out, though, that the photos had been there for the past few years. “When Shakespeare was taken down to be cleaned during the ’94-’95 school year, I started putting up photocopies of portraits and photos of women writers on the blank wall, just suggesting some possible alternatives,” writes graduate student Carolyn Jacobson. “Other people joined in (I’m not sure who), and we soon had 20 or so women up on the wall.” The writers included were Emily Dickinson, the Brontés, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Christina Rossetti, Elizabeth Bishop, Gwendolyn Brooks, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich, Edna St.Vincent Millay, Marianne Moore, Toni Morrison, “and others, some of whom I just can’t remember, and others whom I didn’t recognize.”
When workmen rehung the refurbished portrait, the women writers were left in place — an invisible but nonetheless felt presence. “Clearly, there’s a lot a playful mind can think about: all these women in Shakespeare’s shadow. ‘Behind every great man …’ I liked thinking about what future denizens of Bennett Hall would conjecture about how the women came to be there.” Jacobson recalls hearing two new graduate students discussing the women hidden behind Shakespeare earlier this year, and “loved the idea of such a rumor hanging around the department.”
Despite the initial fingerpointing, “Luckily, many people remembered that the photocopies had been there before, and so the graduate students weren’t universally blamed for the theft,” Jacobson notes. As for the actual culprits, well, no names have been named. Miriam Mann reports that she investigated the incident for several days after the theft before other departmental business took her away from the hunt.
“We assumed Shakespeare was gone forever, and were discussing what to put up in its place,” writes Dr. Wendy Steiner, department chair. Then came Commencement day. “The office staff were watching the graduation procession march past on their way to the ceremony, when the place broke out in giggles. A group of English majors in caps and gowns had triumphantly hoisted the Shakespeare portrait above their heads as they walked past Bennett Hall! They deposited it on the stair landing inside Bennett and rejoined the procession.”
Steiner calls the incident a “wonderful prank, by students so excited by their experience in English that they wanted to bring Shakespeare into the culminating ritual of their undergraduate years. In spite of the issues swirling around this little piece of thievery, the department was very proud to be saluted by its majors in this way.”
Mann, who was out of the office the day of Commencement, did not witness the return. “I was so disappointed that I missed this event,” she writes. Nobody who was there recognized the students who carried the portrait in, she adds. “I do not know the names of the students and by that time did not want to know since it was, after all, a student prank and Shakespeare was returned.”
It was early in the 1980s when Dr. Robert Lucid, now emeritus professor of English and then the “fairly new department chair,” arranged to have the portrait made — ironically, to replace a clock that had been stolen. The cost for enlarging the engraving and mounting it on the wall was about $700, paid through a budget surplus Lucid had discovered. He got the idea after learning that steel engravings don’t lose their proportions when enlarged.
“I didn’t consult anybody, but just went ahead with it,” he recalls. “Nobody in a department of over 40 faculty didn’t like it. I don’t know if you understand how unusual it is to be able to say that about anything, let alone a picture. We immediately began taking nominations for a picture for the next landing up. The faculty returned to form, and the argument has been going on ever since, without enough of a consensus to allow us to proceed.”
The portrait has been remounted. A visit to Bennett Hall confirms that Shakespeare is none the worse for his time away (wherever that may have been), though the plexiglas cover is cracked around a couple of the screws. Even those who question the message sent by the portrait seem glad to see it again, including Carolyn Jacobson.
Although “I’m not sure if I think a huge picture of Shakespeare best represents the English department at Penn,” she writes, “I was very happy to hear about Shakespeare’s return. In contrast to all of the articles I see in newspapers about how Shakespeare is being dropped from required lists of classes at various colleges and universities, here is an example of undergraduates embracing this icon. I love the image of Shakespeare being carried triumphantly through the streets. Of course that’s a bit of a slant reading of what was going on, but it’s such a great image.”
And what about the women writers? According to most reports, they are no more — either taken down by administrative order, or mistakenly removed by overzealous housekeepers sprucing up the campus for Alumni Weekend. Then again, maybe not. According to Jacobson, “I’ve also heard that they were still up when Shakespeare was returned.”