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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,
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
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 Brontės,
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
"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."
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