Is there an accurate picture of William Shakespeare, do we know what William Shakespeare really looked like? The Plot...

 

‘-Reader, look not on his picture, but his booke.’



These are the very words of Ben Jonson, telling us to focus not on his friend William Shakespeare’s looks but on his work. Well sorry Jonson, but it looks as if people disagree with you.

Drousehout engraving  from the First FolioThere are several works of art purporting to depict William Shakespeare, but few generally recognised as being both lifelike and genuine. I include the three works that, according to the experts, meet at least part of the criteria.

1.The Droeshout Portrait. A copper engraving of Shakespeare by Martin Droeshout. Printed in 1622  and published on the title page of the First Folio in 1623.

2.The Chandos Portrait. Believed by some to have been painted from life between 1600 and 1610, it may have served as the basis for the engraved portrait of Shakespeare used in the First Folio in 1623 [see above]. It is named after the 3rd Duke of Chandos, an early owner. The portrait was given to the National Portrait Gallery, London on its foundation in 1856 and it is listed as number one in its collection, being its first acquisition.

3.The sculpture that adorns his memorial in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford upon Avon, which dates from before 1623.

The iconic image of Shakespeare must be the Droeshout print. It depicts him as a balding middle aged stuffed shirt, rather like one would imagine a clerk in an Elizabethan legal office. Unfortunately an introductory poem in the First Folio, by Ben Jonson, implies that it is a very good likeness!

The iconic image of Shakespeare must be the Droeshout print. It depicts him as a balding middle aged stuffed shirt, rather like one would imagine a clerk in an Elizabethan legal office. Unfortunately an introductory poem in the First Folio, by Ben Jonson, implies that it is a very good likeness!

The Chandos picture is by far the most attractive of the pictures of Shakespeare and depicts another wildly different The Chandos Picturecharacter, a romantic byron-esque person with long wavy hair and fashionable beard. Unfortunately the experts cannot even agree on the artist (John Taylor or Richard Burbage), so I would take their opinion on this picture with a pinch of salt.

The statue in Holy Trinity Church,  that depicts him as both bald and rather fat, was commissioned some six years after Shakespeare's death and must have been seen by his widow Anne Hathaway, which in my opinion must lend a degree of  authenticity to the work.

Which picture depicts the real Shakespeare? Well you pays your money and you takes your choice. Or should I say you read his books and make your own choice.

The popularity of Shakepeare's plays both in his life time and after his death ensured that there was a need for pictures of the Bard. Unfortunately it is believed that he never commissioned a painting of himself. This has led to the present situation of doubt about which portrayals are genuine, which are forgeries, which are contemporary and which posthumous, and indeed pictures that were probably never intended to be depictions of the great man have become entangled in the web that has been spun around images of the Bard. Conspiracy theories abound. Arguments have raged down through the centuries and indeed as I write in 2009 the latest controversy concerns another painting the "Cobbe" painting as it is known.

On Monday 9th March 2009, a new portrait of Shakespeare was unveiled in London by Professor Stanley Wells, who is 90% certain that the portrait is of William Shakespeare (Oh yes! another one?), and the only one of him painted during his life. Of course, Wells should know, being one of the world’s leading Shakespeare experts and having studied portraits of the writer for 30 years.

The picture was commissioned by the Earl of Southampton in 1610, six years before Shakespeare’s death in 1616. Although he would have been forty, he looks more like twenty five in the picture. He could have been very youthful looking, but it is more likely that a few ‘alterations’ were made to his face, such as giving him rosy cheeks and leaving out the wrinkles. Air brushing is obviously no new technique…

But just where did this picture come from? Was it unearthed from the remains of a buried theatre (of which we shall discuss later)? Surprisingly it has been hanging on a wall for 300 years without anyone ever knowing the identity of the man in the portrait.

The picture has belonged to the Cobbe family, of Ireland, for 300 years, believing it to have been handed down to them some time in the early 18th century. It was only when Alec Cobbe  caught sight of the painter Janssen’s own portrait of Shakespeare that he realised there was a great similarity between Janssen’s portrait and his own. No longer does the portrait sit quietly on the wall of a house, but the real portrait of Will, if it is believed to be real, has been exposed to the whole world.

What will happen to the portrait now then? Even though it has already been unveiled, the portrait will go on display to the public in Shakespeare’s hometown of Stratford upon Avon on 23rd April, the date of Will’s birthday and also the anniversary of his death. .....29th March 2009 latest news on Cobbe picture >

The First Shakespeare Theatre Uncovered >   The Plot Thickens >

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