May 20, 2015

Is this Shakespeare’s face?


Image taken from Country Life's website

Image taken from Country Life’s website

Shakespeare: remember him? But when you come to think of him, what image floats into your mind’s eye?

Perhaps it’s the “Chandos” portrait, which may or may not depict the playwright, and is suspected to be the source image for the engraving of Shakespeare on the title page of the First Folio. The portrait is the closest thing we have to a likeness of Shakespeare, and still it cannot be said for certain whether or not it really depicts him. Other portraits, such as the Cobbe portrait, have been offered up and quickly sneered at and dismissed by Shakespeare scholars.

Yesterday, a new image was added to this mix of history, myth and the search for authenticity. The botanist and historian Mark Griffiths claims that he has identified the only demonstrably genuine portrait of Shakespeare made in his lifetime. The picture is found in an engraving on the title page of a 400 year-old book on botany, The Herball by John Gerard, and shows a Roman-looking man dressed in a toga with a laurel wreath around his head. He is holding a snake’s head fritillary (a type of flower) in one hand, and an ear of corn in the other. He smiles and looks gently to the side. Perhaps most striking is what has been described as his “hipster moustache”.

Griffiths made his most boldest of claims in Country Life, a magazine not known for groundbreaking scholarly research, but rather photographic spreads of grand country houses and longform journalism on flowers and gardening. This month’s issue is a Chelsea Flower Show Special; next month’s issue is the Shakespeare edition, subtitle, ‘His true likeness revealed at last.’ His choice to reside in Stratford-upon-Avon rather than London suggests Shakespeare did seem to like country life, but I’m not sure he would have wanted his great reveal to happen in Country Life.

Griffiths, a regular contributor to the magazine made his discovery while writing a book on John Gerard after he decides to work out who the figures in the title page were meant to represent. He claims he has spent five years unlocking the motifs and symbolic flowers that surround the figure in the engraving and believes all the clues add up to prove that the man in the picture is Shakespeare. He told the Independent:

We have a bunch of identifiers, the names of which are indisputable and unique to Shakespeare. We have basically a caption underneath, coded in the style of clever men of the time, which says William Shakespeare… Drawn from life, in the prime of life, this is what he looked like. Finally we know what he looked like.

Mark Hedges, editor of Country Life called this “The literary discovery of the century. We have a new portrait of Shakespeare, the first ever that is identified as him by the artist and made in his lifetime.”

But as soon as the news was released, doubts were raised. Prof Michael Dobson, director of the Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham said,

I’m deeply unconvinced, I haven’t seen the detailed arguments, but Country Life is certainly not the first publication to make this sort of claim.

Another Shakespeare expert Stanley Wells tweeted:

Despite these protestations Griffiths and Country Life continue to push ahead with their alleged scoop of the century. They also plan to explain the launch of Shakespeare’s career and reveal a previously unknown Shakespeare play.


Zeljka Marosevic is the managing director of Melville House UK.