Much of what we would like to know about William Shakespeare, the greatest writer in the history of the English language, remains beyond our grasp. We simply do not much about the man — what he read, how he worked, when he wrote, who his friends were, etc.
One of the things we do not know about Shakespeare is what he looked like.
Shakespeare was a man of some standing and wealth, and most men in his position would have commissioned a portrait of some kind during his lifetime. We have no record of Shakespeare having done this, and no such portrait survives. So, we have no first-hand evidence of his visage.
But, like many other things about his life, we do have some clues. The search for Shakespeare’s likeness is not without evidence.
First, there is the bust of Shakespeare that rests in Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-on-Avon, Shakespeare’s hometown. This is a half-length plaster cast of Shakespeare that was commissioned mostly likely by a family member and placed in a few years after his death in 1616. Because it would be viewed by many people who had known the man, we can assume that it was a reasonably satisfactory likeness. Indeed, the characteristics we have come to associate with the writer’s appearance are all there: high, receding hairline, hair that flairs out from the ears and neck, mustache, and goatee or beard.
In this rendering, Shakespeare is slim-faced and broad-shouldered. His eyes bulge a bit, and there is little hint of an expression.
The second likeness that comes close to being contemporary and authentic is the engraving found in the frontispiece of the First Folio, the 1623 collection of Shakespeare’s plays. This one is known as the Droeshout portrait because it comes from an engraving by Martin Droeshout. A poem in the introduction by Ben Jonson implies that this is a good likeness of the man.
The engraving is a competent rendering of a man with Shakespearean features, but it lacks much depth and expression. The head is actually slightly larger than it should be in proportion to the body on which it sits. Though it may present the general characteristics of the subject accurately, it’s sterile quality leaves the view wishing for more. Much more.
Chief among those is the Chandos portrait, so named because it was once in the possession of the Duke of Chandos. This portrait was done during Shakespeare’s lifetime, but we have no direct evidence that the subject was Shakespeare himself. Scholars have studied this portrait closely for many decades and have never been able to satisfactorily answer important questions about it or produce any convincing documentation that it shows us, William Shakespeare.
The portrait, unlike the bust and the engraving, shows a somewhat dark-skinned man whose appearance is strong and comfortable. The fact that he is wearing an earring is a bit jarring to modern eyes, but such an accouterment was not unknown in portraits of the time.
The Chandos portrait is as close as we have come so far to a contemporary likeness of Shakespeare.
The Grafton portrait is a painting of a young man of 24 years, painted in 1588. Shakespeare was 24 in 1588, but otherwise, there is no evidence or reason to believe that this is a painting of William Shakespeare. The young man in the painting has some features that resemble other likenesses of the writer, but these are not enough to convince any discerning view of its authenticity. Even at that, the Grafton portrait had many adherents during the 20th century, and scholars went to great lengths to authenticate it. Their efforts were not successful.
Like the Grafton portrait, the Sanders portrait dates from the time that Shakespeare was alive. It presents a young man, who might have looked like Shakespeare at a young age. It is named for John Sanders, a painter at the time who was thought to have had some connection with Shakespeare’s theater company. No such connection has been documented, and there just is not any evidence that this is a picture of William Shakespeare.
The Janssen portrait also dates from the time Shakespeare lived, and its likeness is so close to what we know about Shakespeare that many believed — for a time — that this was an authentic likeness. The uninterrupted curve of the heard mirrored that of the Droeshout portrait, and yet this gentleman looked more like the proprietor of a theater than one of its actors. There was a problem, however. There had always been doubts about this painting, and in 1988 those doubts were confirmed. The forehead and been overpainted to look like Shakespeare. The original showed a man with to receding hairline at all. The painting was undoubtedly of somebody, possibly Thomas Overbury, but it wasn’t Shakespeare.
The Soest portrait was executed in 1667, about 50 years after Shakespeare’s death, and is the most subtle and artistic of all of the paintings discussed here. It was produced as a memorial to Shakespeare by Gilbert Soest and is clearly Shakespearean in its features. Shakespeare is shown as an intelligent, serious young man, possibly in his thirties, and his clothing is simple and unadorned. Again, however, there is no real evidence that this is a portrait of Shakespeare based on any authentic source.
The Flower portrait was a painting based on the Droeshout engraving but signed and dated 1609. It is a faud. The painting was probably executed some time in the first part of the 19th century, and doubts about its authenticity have always existed. Those doubts were confirmed in 2005 when it was x-rayed and examined extensively and found that it could not have been painted during Shakespeare’s lifetime.
The source for much of this information is Searching for Shakespeare by Tanya Cooper and others; the book is the companion to an exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery in London in 2006.
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