Historian Discovers New Portrait and Says This Is How Shakespeare Really Looked

The face, thought to be that of William Shakespeare, as featured in the Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes, written in 1598. Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
The face, thought to be that of William Shakespeare, as featured in the Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes, written in 1598. Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Historian Mark Griffiths says picture of unknown man on title page of botanical work is playwright, as editor hails ‘literary discovery of the century’

He is a handsome, laurel-wreathed man in a toga with a fine beard and hipster moustache holding an ear of corn in one hand and a fritillary in the other. But could he be the true face William Shakespeare?

The botanist and historian Mark Griffiths on Tuesday claimed that he had discovered what he firmly believes is the only demonstrably authentic portrait of Shakespeare made in his lifetime.

He argues that an engraving on the title page of a 400-year-old book about plants contains four identifiable figures – one of whom is the Bard aged 33 looking very different from the round-faced bald man we know from the First Folio of his collected works.

It is, by any measurement, a sensational claim. Griffiths said he first came up with the theory five years ago and has secretly been trying to disprove it ever since.

The scoop belongs to Country Life magazine, to which Griffiths is a regular contributor. Mark Hedges, the magazine’s editor, said it was nothing less than “the literary discovery of the century”.

He added: “This is the only known verifiable portrait of the world’s greatest writer made in his lifetime. It is an absolutely extraordinary discovery; until today, no one knew what William Shakespeare looked like in his lifetime.”

The only known authentic likenesses of Shakespeare are in the First Folio and the effigy on his monument at Holy Trinity church in Stratford-upon-Avon. Both of these were made posthumously.

Over the years, there have been many subsequent claims to have found the real Shakespeare, the most recent being in 2009 when Shakespeare Birthplace Trust made a case for a painting known as the Cobbe portrait. Academics then queued up to pour scorn on the claim.

Griffiths, with a substantial amount of compelling evidence, claims that this is the face of Shakespeare, made when he was at the height of his celebrity shortly after writing A Midsummer Night’s Dream and just before Hamlet.

The work by William Rogers, England’s first great exponent of copperplate engraving, is on the title page of a groundbreaking 1598 book , The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes, by the horticulturist John Gerard.

It is full of elaborate decorative devices, flowers and symbols which surround four male figures, who had generally been assumed to be allegorical.

Griffiths, in the course of writing a book about Gerard, decided to discover who the men might be. THe had to crack an elaborate Tudor code of rebuses, ciphers, heraldic motifs and symbolic flowers, which were all clues pointing to the men’s identities.

The relatively easy ones were Gerard himself, the renowned Flemish botanist Rembert Dodoens and Queen Elizabeth’s chief minister and closest adviser Lord Burghley, who was Gerard’s patron. That left the tricky fourth man, bottom right.

“My problems began,” said Griffiths. “He’s dressed as a Roman, wearing laurels and meant to make us think of Apollo and poetry … I couldn’t think of anybody really who was a direct intimate of Gerard’s and was involved in writing his book.”

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SOURCE: The Guardian
Mark Brown

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