Never, I believe, have the words Shakespeare, ad vivum, murder, dilettante, Percocet and Adderall with a tequila chaser, codswallop, sex ring, and Queen Elizabeth all appeared in the same book or let alone as repetitive touchstones in a memoir centered on one man’s search for a lost portrait of the bard painted from real life.
Hold on for a wild ride as the raconteur, Elizabethan historian, Shakespearean and endearingly crazy author Lee Durkee meets us in Vermont, then Japan and Washington, D.C., and finally escorts us to London in his search for the real Shakespeare. He throws the door wide open in the first pages: “So Welcome to the Shakespeare Funhouse, where four centuries of frauds stare out at you from inside warped mirrors.”
Stalking Shakespeare: A Memoir of Madness, Murder, and My Search for the Poet Beneath the Paint
By Lee Durkee
Durkee is the author of the novels The Last Taxi Driver, listed as a Best Book of 2021 by Kirkus Reviews, and Rides of the Midway. His stories and essays have appeared in Harper’s, The Sun and The Oxford American. Durkee was born in Honolulu, Hawaii.
In Stalking Shakespeare, we meet Durkee, a misplaced Southerner freezing in Vermont, newly divorced, bartending and determined to be near his young son, which meant enduring the harsh New England winter where “… the wind would leap howling under the doors and through the cracks in the glass making the windowpanes shudder and the chimney scream its long ghost whistle night after night and to step outdoors was to be near about denuded by wind.” It was while shivering and bored that Durkee became “addicted to Elizabethan portraiture” to pass the seemingly endless succession of cold, dark, Northern nights. Durkee was determined to locate a portrait of a seated Shakespeare painted from real life, buried in the dusty back room of a museum storeroom, mistakenly attributed as a portrait of a member of minor royalty or unknowingly painted over by a zealous fop and hanging above the fireplace in a smoky rural British pub.
The obvious question is how a man snowed under in a small New England town could begin to roam the world on a quixotic quest for the real Shakespeare. Pshaw! Is Durkee a daft doofus? No, he became adept at emailing and calling galleries and collectors for high-resolution jpegs of portraits he wanted to study and subsequently “pestering curators into plumbing their would-be Shakespeares with spectral technologies” such as infrared reflectography, X-ray examination, dendrochronology tests, pigment analysis, and ultraviolet examination. Soon, Durkee had hundreds of images saved on his hard drive and thousands of late-night hours logged with a magnifying glass in one hand and a shot glass of tequila in the other. “Broadband internet had revolutionized my ability to pilfer art from virtual galleries that had been designed to thwart thieves like myself.”
The odds are against a college dropout accomplishing what lifetime scholars could not. Undeterred, Durkee explains his advantage: “The dilletante works alone, a solitary figure, no colleagues to shock, no tenure at risk…we make up new rules, rig together new methods, and in doing so sidestep familiar pitfalls.”
Wielding an elegant and eclectic writing style, Durkee lobs words like firecrackers, holding our wide-eyed attention as he blazes through to his point. He brandishes his way through a sequence of commas as pacing for his crisp phrasing, fearless, luring the reader into his eloquent thought trail, detonating an obscure word as a literary KABOOM, a final skyward flourish before the period. “Now, at first glance, the theory that Shakespeare had wanted to be immortalized as a heretical usurious madman might seem, well, insane, but it’s important to remember that we weren’t there and anything’s possible, so, yes, perhaps Shakespeare did hover over the painter’s shoulder urging him to make those lips more lubricious, the eyes more red-edged and wanton.”
Durkee, gently and subtly, reveals much of himself through the journey over two decades attempting to locate Shakespeare. Much like an art restoration expert is hired to remove over-paints and touch up the damage and wear of the years, so too is Durkee, the thoughtful and wounded person, revealed. The soul of this story is the author, a battered man, broken-hearted, Adderall addicted, the epitome of a lost spirit, gracious, without an ounce of avarice, not so much looking for the ad vivum Shakespeare, I submit, but inner peace and purpose, a quiet spot in the sunlight, the ad vivum Durkee. “Unrequited love, however idealized by French troubadours, is nothing less than torture, and small-town heartbreak is nothing sort of crucifixion,” sobs Durkee. He traipses the world in an allegorical search for the bard, I think, when he was hoping to settle his heart.
“Who could refrain / That had a heart to love and in that heart / Courage to make ’s love known?” Macbeth, Act 2
Scene 3, summarizes this beautifully penned quest of stalking the inexplicable.