In the opening pages of “Stalking Shakespeare,” Lee Durkee sets the scene by disclosing preliminary facts about his place, pastime and personality. He describes how after divorcing his wife he moved to Malletts Bay, in Vermont. It reminded him of his native Mississippi – that is until the seasons changed, the temperatures plummeted and the wind howled through the cracks in his fishing shack. To get through, he became interested in, then addicted to, Elizabethan portraiture. “That,” he writes, “was my nature, obsessive – what women call ‘passionate’ at the beginning of a marriage and ‘psychotic’ by the time they kick you out.”

Durkee, a novelist whose books include “The Last Taxi Driver” (2020), pored over Elizabethan portraits with one aim in particular: to find out what William Shakespeare looked like. He was suspicious because to him “Shakespeare had been getting prettier by the century.” Durkee was determined to succeed as an amateur enthusiast where many academic experts had failed, and he set out to uncover the true identity of the celebrated playwright. His book is a captivating account of how a hobby became an obsession, how a noble quest turned into a fool’s errand, and how his research changed the way he looked at himself.

The first source of Durkee’s infatuation is a portrait miniature of a lovelorn courtier by the Elizabethan painter Nicholas Hilliard. Durkee recognizes a kindred spirit. But he is then fascinated by another portrait by the same artist, one that a Harvard scholar claimed depicted Shakespeare.

Durkee dismisses this idea but finds himself intrigued enough to carry on searching for the real portrait of Shakespeare. Over a series of long winters, he immerses himself in his project. He reads books, starts a blog and sifts and shares conspiracy theories. He trawls through countless pictures in virtual galleries of online museums. He badgers librarians with questions and requests curators to conduct spectral tests on selected pictures to see what concealed image lurks beneath layers of overprint. And he spends hours comparing facial anomalies by placing one jpeg portrait over another and adjusting the opacity of the top photo so that the lower one emerges into its lines “like a body floating to the surface of a lake.”

Soon Durkee’s office walls are like those of a police investigation room, with Shakespeare suspects (or “mug-shot bards”) staring out at him. Durkee devotes a chapter to each of the images. One of the most significant is the Droeshout engraving, which appeared in the collection of plays known as the First Folio in 1623. Shakespeare’s friend and rival Ben Jonson authenticated the likeness. But Durkee casts doubt, wondering why those closest to Shakespeare would select this cartoonish picture – “the bug-eyed bloke with the pecan head” – for such a worthy tribute.

We encounter also the Chandos portrait (its painter unknown) and learn how one 19th-century collector believed Shakespeare had posed as one of his creations – Shylock. Durkee offers witty nickname for the various renditions: the Flower portrait (deemed a 19th-century forgery in 2005) presents “a clown-faced bard,” the Cobbe portrait a “gigolo bard” and the Ashbourne portrait a nobleman – with a dark side. Eventually Durkee gets out and about, moving to Japan on a fellowship, visiting the Folger Shakespeare Library and hunting a portrait in Stratford-upon-Avon. But the farther he travels and the longer he studies, the more he gets lost in a labyrinth full of twists and turns, detours and dead ends.


“Stalking Shakespeare” could have been a dry tale about a niche subject. Fortunately, Durkee’s zeal proves infectious, and he keeps readers hooked with his dogged sleuth-work, his radical thoughts on authorship and his insightful potted histories of each portrait – some involving royal intrigue, unsolved murders and sinister coverups.

The book is particularly absorbing when Durkee allows the spotlight to swing from Shakespeare to himself. That light picks out every blemish. We hear how he fuels long hours of research and endures many a winter of discontent with steady supplies of Adderall and tequila. He wears his broken heart on his sleeve and writes candidly about unrequited love and his “feral patheticness.” And he freely admits that there is a correlation between his out-of-control collection of digital portraits and his state of mind: “I could murder any curator I wanted to and then plead not guilty by reason of insanity, and exhibit A in my defense would be my computer files.”

Durkee is such a sympathetic narrator that it is hard not to champion him when he crashes and burns and suffers the next morning, or when his fact-finding mission takes him down a rabbit hole or shows that there is little method in his madness. His prose is vibrant, at times it is too slick for its own good, but when he gets the balance right, his words thrill and beguile. Looking at his “Manson Family of Shakespeares” on his wall, he realizes his office has become “a halfway home for punch-drunk poets: eyes corkscrewed, cheeks scarred, ears cauliflowered, noses bowered. So many mutts: the catfish and drift-eyed, the banana-nosed, poxed, acned, and apoplectic, a police lineup of jostled bards.”

“Stalking Shakespeare” is part treasure hunt, part warts-and-all memoir. “It’s not a pretty story,” Durkee warns at the outset, “but it’s an honest one.” It’s also a gripping, poignant and enjoyable one.

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