The Faces of Shakespeare

Shakespeare’s image is universally recognised, but there remains heated debate among scholars about which extant portraits of Shakespeare genuinely depict the man himself.  The famous Flower Portrait above, for example, was recently exposed as a fraud, and was in fact painted 200 years after his death.  Given the authorship debates restimulated by James Shapiro, questions about Shakespeare’s authenticity currently abound, and because so much of our enjoyment of Shakespeare seems inextricably bound in his pictorial representations, I thought it might be interesting to explore some of the most famous portraits of Shakespeare.  I’ve provided a few snippets about the provenance of each one.  Please feel free to comment on which portrait you prefer and why – is there one representation which seems more authentic and genuine than the others?

The portrait above comes from the title page of the First Folio, Shakespeare’s collected plays published for the first time in 1623.  The copper engraving is signed by Martin Droeshout, a young Flemish engraver living in London as a Protestant refugee.  The editors of the First Folio, Henry Condell and John Hemminge, knew Shakespeare personally, so it is likely this portrait is a reasonably accurate depiction of the playwright.

Of the Cobbe Portrait above, four surviving versions date to approximately 1610, and the painting has long been associated with Shakespeare.  However the sitter is clearly someone of extreme wealth, and while Shakespeare was a man of considerable means, he was not of aristocratic birth, and such costly clothes are unlikely to have been worn by him outside the theatre.  Despite this, the sitter does bear some striking similarities with the image of Shakespeare engraved by Droeshout.

The so-called Sanders Portrait above has been dated to 1603, and it attributed to John Sanders. It has been linked to Shakespeare through rumour and association, and is damaged in places.

The Grafton Portrait above has been dated to the late sixteenth century, which means the date on the painting itself, 1588, is not in dispute.  The sitter is of the right age for Shakespeare, when, in 1588, he was just 24.  If this is indeed Shakespeare, it was painted while he was still living in Stratford-Upon-Avon, shortly before the birth of his children.

The painting above, known as The Chess Players, is attributed to Karel Van Mander.  Early in the 20th century the sitters were identified as Ben Jonson and Shakespeare, however most scholars have sinced dismissed these claims.

The above painting, known as the Chandos Portrait, dates to 1610 and is currently in the National Portrait Gallery. Regarded as authentic, it is believed by many to represent the true likeness of William Shakespeare.  In the late 17th Century it was owned by the actor Thomas Betterton, who belonged to William Davenant’s theatre company.  Davenant was governor of the acting company which suceeded Shakespeare’s King’s Men only 20 years after Shakespeare’s death.

The above Soest Potrait dates from c.1650-60.  It is not Shakespeare, but believed to be a contemporaneous actor said to resemble him.  This portrait was used to celebrate the the restoration and the subsequent reopening of the playhouses.

Above is Shakespeare’s funeral monument in Holy Trinity church, Stratford-Upon-Avon.  Installed after his death, it is, along with the Droeshout engraving from the First Folio, the only officially accepted face of Shakespeare.  Created by Gerard Johnson, it pre-dates the First Folio of 1623, since it is referenced in the Folio as ‘thy Stratford Moniment’.  The poem beneath it reads in English:
Stay, passenger, why goest thou by so fast?
Read, if thou canst, whom envious Death hath placed
Within this monument: Shakespeare, with whom
Quick nature died, whose name doth deck this tomb
Far more than cost, sith all that he hath writ
Leaves living art, but page, to serve his wit.

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  • Anonymous
    April 1, 2010 - 9:09 pm | Permalink

    I agree with the other posts that the Sanders looks what i would have liked Shakespeare to have looked like the smurk suits him.

    1603 makes good sense of why it was painted at this time

  • April 1, 2010 - 9:00 pm | Permalink

    The Sanders portrait is proving popular. I wonder if it’s the smile?

  • April 1, 2010 - 7:00 pm | Permalink

    The Sanders one is my favourite too – he seems to be suppressing a smile, as if he’s just thought of a joke for his next play.

  • April 1, 2010 - 1:47 pm | Permalink

    I like the Sanders portrait too.

    I hadn’t seen the Woldhek analysis but it is fascinating! Thanks for the link.

  • April 1, 2010 - 11:39 am | Permalink

    Thanks for a very interesting review of Shakespeare’s faces. I shan’t say which one I prefer!

    Have you seen Siegfried Woldhek’s analysis of Leonardo da Vinci’s faces? He is a portrait painter, not an historian, so his analysis is pictorial, and brilliantly convincing.

  • Anonymous
    April 1, 2010 - 11:01 am | Permalink

    I like the Sanders portrait the best even though it doesn’t look much like him, if that makes sense.

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