‘True face of Shakespeare’ revealed at last?
A botanist has stumbled across ‘the literary discovery of the century’: a portrait of Shakespeare in his prime. Should the little we know of the bard’s life affect how we judge his plays?
Mark Griffiths has spent ten years researching an Elizabethan gardener and botanist called John Gerard, the author of a 1,484-page book called The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes. The title page of this weighty tome shows an intricate engraving of four men in fancy dress surrounded by decorative plants and symbols.
The more he studied the figures, the more Griffiths realised that these were people who had contributed to the book’s creation. He easily identified the author, his patron and a famous Flemish botanist of the time — but he found the final portrait more elusive. Dressed as a Roman holding a fritillary and an ear of corn, the bearded man ‘appeared to have something to do with poetry’. As he decoded a complex Tudor cipher accompanying the image, Griffiths became convinced that the man was in fact the most famous Elizabethan of all: William Shakespeare.
‘It is an astonishing discovery,’ says Mark Hedges, the editor of Country Life magazine, which is publishing the story today. If the man is indeed a 33-year-old Shakespeare, the portrait will become the only authentic image of the playwright produced during his lifetime.
Few details are known about Shakespeare’s life. The likenesses we have were made after his death, and we know only basic facts from studying council records: he married Anne Hathaway when he was 18, at which point she was probably already pregnant. He had two daughters and a son who died aged 11. He was an actor and a businessman as well as a writer.
But knowledge of his personality and the nature of his relationships has been lost to time. Why did he marry so young, and leave his wife in Stratford? What were his true thoughts on politics and religion? With no surviving letters or diaries, eager historians can only speculate.
All the world's a stage
‘Does it matter what we know about Shakespeare’s life?’ ask some literary critics. He has written some of the most important words in English literature — poems and plays which have shaped our culture, rich with the most fascinating experiences of human life: love, passion, betrayal, and death. You can read his plays one hundred times and still find new meanings in them. Obsessing over his everyday existence is a distraction from the most important thing: his work.
Perhaps, others respond, but do not dismiss the power of context and biography so quickly. Learning about Shakespeare’s life can help scholars to unveil new meanings in his plays. Think of Hamlet, a powerful meditation on the madness of grief, written four years after the death of his son Hamnet. Knowing his experiences at that time of writing can help us to understand some of his plays’ most powerful moments.
- How important is it to understand Shakespeare’s biography? Does it change the way you read his texts?
- Is this really the ‘literary discovery of the century’ as its finders claim?
- Write your own poem from the point of view of Shakespeare, his wife, or one of his children.
- Listen to Sonnet 130, as read by Alan Rickman under the Become an Expert section. As a class, discuss what you think the poem means. Does thinking about Shakespeare’s own life change your interpretation?
Some People Say...
“God has given you one face, and you make yourself another.”William Shakespeare
What do you think?
Q & A
- How do we know this image is real?
- So far, we only have Mark Griffith’s own analysis. He claims to have spent the last five years trying to disprove his theory alongside an Oxford emeritus fellow, Edward Wilson — but they both failed. The evidence he presents is compelling, but the director of the Shakespeare Institute at Birmingham University has already declared himself ‘deeply unconvinced’. The image is sure to be scrutinised for some time before it is accepted in academic circles.
- Shakespeare is really difficult.
- It can be — but it can also be incredibly rewarding. One of the best ways to understand the plays at first is to see them performed, as actors can bring out meanings that are easily missed on the page. Try to find a version on film if you cannot see it on stage.
- Many artists would be ‘sponsored’ by wealthier members of society, in exchange for recognition in their work; Shakespeare himself received support from Queen Elizabeth. In this case, Gerard’s patron Lord Burghley was the queen’s Lord Treasurer and a powerful member of her court.
- Fritillary and an ear of corn
- The fritillary is a flower in the lily family which appears in Venus and Adonis, Shakespeare’s first published poem. Elsewhere, corn is used as a symbol in Titus Andronicus, his first published play.
- 33-year-old Shakespeare
- The engraving is dated 1597, when Shakespeare was 33. By this time, he had already written some of his most successful plays, including Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
- Only authentic image
- There are several portraits of Shakespeare, but they were produced after his death. Griffiths believes that this image was ‘drawn from life’.
- Actor and a businessman
- We know that Shakespeare performed in some of his own plays, and that he earned money from his property in Stratford. He also bought a share of the Globe Theatre.