The Many Faces of Shakespeare

The Martin Droeshout engraved portrait of “William Shakespeare” in the 1623 Folio

In Shakespeare’s third sonnet we encounter an interesting quotation which says:

Look in thy glass and tell the face thou viewest
Now is the time that face should form another;
Whose fresh repair if now thou not renewest,
Thou dost beguile the world, unbless some mother.
For where is she so fair whose unear’d womb
Disdains the tillage of thy husbandry?
Or who is he so fond will be the tomb
Of his self-love, to stop posterity?
Thou art thy mother’s glass and she in thee
Calls back the lovely April of her prime;
So thou through windows of thine age shalt see,
Despite of wrinkles this thy golden time.
But if thou live, remember’d not to be,
Die single and thine image dies with thee.

While the fifth continues:

Those hours, that with gentle work did frame
The lovely gaze where every eye doth dwell,
Will play the tyrants to the very same
And that unfair which fairly doth excel;
For never-resting time leads summer on
To hideous winter, and confounds him there;
Sap checked with frost, and lusty leaves quite gone,
Beauty o’er-snowed and bareness every where:
Then were not summer’s distillation left,
A liquid prisoner pent in walls of glass,
Beauty’s effect with beauty were bereft,
Nor it, nor no remembrance what it was:
But flowers distill’d, though they with winter meet,
Leese but their show; their substance still lives sweet.

The very first confirmed portrait of Shakespeare is the one on the title page of the Shakespeare Folio which was executed by the Dutch artist/engraver Martin Droeshut. If one examines this impression in more detail one will note there are several anomalies and incongruities in its execution and overall appearance. For example the eyes of the subject are clearly asymmetrical, that is he has two left eyes staring to the right, similarly the shoulders of the subject, judging from the embroidered seams of the jacket he is wearing, are the left hand view of the back shoulder and the right hand view of the front shoulder. Moreover, the face itself resembles an impassive mask with the line of the jaw from the ear as well as the accentuated hairline over the forehead suggesting a type of actor’s mask concealing what one must assume to be the real identity of the person. Printed by Isaac Jaggard and Edward Blount on the adjoining page to the first page it is described as follows:

To the Reader,
This figure, that thou here seest put
It was for Gentle Shakespeare cut
Wherein the graver had a strife
With Nature to out-doo the life:
O, could he but have drawn his wit
As well in brasse, as he hath it
His face, the Print would then surpasse
All that was ever writ in brasse.
But, since he cannot, Reader looke
Not on his picture, but his Booke.
BI (Ben Jonson)

Furthermore, the collar appears to resemble a semi-circular plate or some commentators have suggested an axe-head engraved with lines that suggest the initials T.T. several times. The initials are presumed to be that of Thomas Thorpe who published Shakespeare’s Sonnets in 1609 but they are also a Masonic symbol secretly denoting a megalithic dolmen, the zodiac sign of Gemini, which rules writing and communication. Other academics have suggested that the initials are in fact “gamma letters” after the Greek letter “G” which in Masonic circles is assigned to GOD. While researchers studying the Folio portrait have not been able to find that style of collar in the fashion archives of Europe suggesting that its design and shape were deliberately concocted and could be a rebus for some secret message. In the Chandos portrait the figure identified as William Shakespeare is not only wearing an earring but also wearing a plain collar which clearly identifies him as a commoner. In Shakespeare’s time elaborate lace collars were solely worn by nobles of the aristocracy and laws existed to apprehend and prosecute anyone who attempted to wear anything inappropriate to their class or status.
Aside from the 36 plays, the edition also contains a 2-page dedicatory address to the Earl of Pembroke, William Herbert (Mr. W.H.?) and his brother Phillip Herbert, the Earl of Montgomery. There is an epistle dedication signed by John Heminges and Henry Condell. This is followed by an address to the great variety of readers urging them to purchase the volume; again signed by John Heminges and Henry Condell, with the following page depicting a catalogue list of the 36 plays included and finally a two-page poem by Ben Jonson memorialising Shakespeare, his life and his work.
In his two-page eulogy to Shakespeare Ben Jonson states:

“To the memory of my beloved, Author Mr. William Shakespeare…Looke how the father’s face lives in his issue, even so, the race of Shakespeare’s minde, and manners brightly shines in his well torned, and true filed lines: In each of which, he seems to shake a lance, as brandish’t at the eyes of ignorance, Sweet Swan of Avon.”

Also included is a sonnet by Hugh Holland, two eulogies by Leonard Digges and someone who signs themselves I.M (possibly James Mabbe or John Marston?) and, as was quite common for the time, a list of the principal actors who played at the Globe Theatre.

The Chandos Portrait

The Chandos Collection portrait by artist John Taylor

Over a long period of research some biographers have cited the Chandos portrait as being a good facsimile of the face and features of William Shakespeare. Although the portrait is not signed by the unknown artist or any indication on it that the portrait is assigned to Shakespeare; some experts have asserted that it was probably painted by Richard Burbage and is a good likeness of the Stratford Shakespeare. This conclusion comes on the back of the fact that Richard Burbage also painted the coat of arms for the Earl of Derby, and that William Shakespeare wrote the dedication inscribed on his tombstone. The interesting element of the Chandos portrait is that the visage sports an earring and the man is clearly wearing a simple cotton or perhaps linen commoner’s collar. Therefore the portrait must have been painted before the Stratford man was granted his coat of arms. In the time of Queen Elizabeth it was forbidden for a commoner to wear an elaborate, lace or silk collar, which denotes a gentleman or gentlewoman. Although similar in basic elements to the Droeshout Portrait found in the 1623 Folio, it differs where the collar and the earring are concerned. The portrait below the Chandos is a modern representation by an unknown artist, taken partly from its main features (balding forehead, moustache, earring and collar) but the overall expression has a romantic and perhaps idealistic appearance, the eyes are somewhat larger and dreamy and the lips altered to resemble more an adolescent cupid’s pout. The face is also much longer and less swarthy. It is taken from a much larger painting depicting the Bard of Avon as a sensitive and romantic genius, sitting at his desk searching no doubt for inspiration. The raw and rather mundane features of Shakspere in the Chandos portrait have been deliberately altered to reveal an idealised or iconic version of Shakespeare’s face. What this means is that there is such a thing as a universal imprint in our psyche of the “Face of Shakespeare” drawn partly from our knowledge of the life, or should I say biographical details confirmed, of William Shakespeare and the image that has been cultivated and espoused by numerous literary academics over time. The image or face, with again a receding forehead is surrounded by a dark mane of hair just above the shoulder. However, the asymmetrical stare and the “mask-like” enigmatic expression have completely disappeared.

A modern artist’s impression of Shakespeare

Another popular artist’s impression found on the internet depicts Shakespeare again sitting at his desk with an empty piece of paper supposedly glancing away to the right as if wondering what he is about to write next. His left elbow rests on a book with a bookmark inserted to suggest he is consulting some literary source such as he would need for say a history play. His expression has become somewhat gaunt as if he had lost some weight. Behind him is a bookshelf with an ornamental grape design and containing several books. Whether or not the Shakspere family owned such a desk is unverifiable but the artist gives the portrait a semblance of authenticity because he is again wearing a simple cotton collar and an earring.

Another artist’s impression of Shakespeare, again probably taken from the Wilton Memorial

To obtain another popular or iconic vision of William Shakespeare we can now turn to the sculptures of the Bard found at the Wilton House Memorial, the Westminster Abbey Memorial and the famous Stratford Memorial in the town centre. These appear to follow the general impression of an aging or mature William Shakespeare, with neatly trimmed beard and hair again depicted with a quill in hand, no doubt to indicate that he really was a “playwright” or poet, in case there should have been any serious doubts by the general public that he had written anything at all. In these national monuments of William Shakespeare, although the earring has gone, the collar begins whimsically to be elaborated on, sometimes suggesting brocade or lace embroidery as the nobles of the time were entitled to wear. No doubt the commissioners of these sculptures felt it was time to give William Shakspere something of a make-over, well at least to imbue his clothes with some style and elegance, which the Chandos portrait certainly lacks. This may have given some “substance” to the Stratford Man, but not much credence of him being the supposed author of 36 plays and several volumes of poetry. Since when we finally get round to examining the Holy Trinity Church Memorial sculpture, housed within an alcove and not on a pedestal, we find the Bard has a completely different facial impression. It has been noted that the image of Shakspere for this particular sculpture was taken from an actual mould soon after his death so we can assume it is a “fairly” accurate depiction.

The portrait of Sir Francis Nethersole sold at Sotheby’s but assumed by some experts to be of William Shakespeare since it imitates the Wilton statue.
The Wilton House & Westminster Abbey Memorials

According to the antiquary, William Dugdale it was made by the Dutch sculptor Gerard Johnson. The sculpture clearly depicts an elderly man, with small goatee beard, extremely receding hairline and of a portly body. The left hand holds a piece of paper, the right holding a quill which is resting on a cushion, although it is uncertain why that should be since it would be difficult to write on a piece of paper placed on a soft cushion. At least that is what the antiquarian William Dugdale did when he visited the Church on the 4th of July 1634 and sketched out on paper what he saw and what was written as a monument to Shakespeare. His drawing was subsequently engraved by the artist Wenceslaus Hollar for Dugdale’s book on Warwickshire Worthies (Warwickshire Antiquities, 1656). However, Dugdale’s drawing and Hollar’s engraving differ considerably with what we see today or what has generally been accepted belonged to the past. The Hollar engraving depicts a John Shakspere, with moustache and beard, in an arched alcove with down-turned collar holding a wool-sack between two columns. The history of the monument revealed several repairs, renovations and changes had occurred throughout its’ history. In his book describing the church Dugdale makes no mention of Shakespeare as a playwright and says simply:

Hollar’s original engraving of John Shakspere’s monument

By spelling his name “Shakespere” William Dugdale omits any direct reference to the author William Shakespeare, meaning that the Stratford actor never “shook a spear” or actually jousted in his entire career. It is generally accepted that the Holy Trinity Church monument looked like the image inserted here from time immemorial. In actual fact the monument as it currently stands was renovated and repaired and “magically” altered to the extent that the wool-sack has become a cushion which supports the quill and paper on which the now portly Shakespeare has changed his appearance and profession from notorious “wool-brogger” to poet and playwright.

The original sketch for Shakspere’s monument at Holy Trinity Church

Alongside that he includes a miniature by the artist Nicholas Hilliard of a what might be called a middle-aged Shakespeare with fair or red hair and wearing a hat with feather as was the fashion at the time. This portrait however depicts the young man wearing an ornate lace collar, his right hand raised and apparently clasping the “Hand of God”. It has been claimed by other authors (eg: Robert Nields, “Breaking the Shakespeare Codes”) that the un-named portrait is of the illegitimate son of Queen Elizabeth and her paramour Sir Robert Dudley, namely William Hastings who was fostered by Henry Hastings of Ashby-de-la-Zouche, the Earl of Huntingdon and the brother-in-law of Sir Robert Dudley and a staunch supporter of the throne. Originally charged by Queen Elizabeth to guard Mary Queen of Scots, he was also considered as a successor to the throne on the advent of the monarch’s premature death. Below these two portraits is another, clearly another artist’s impression with Shakespeare standing at a table in doublet and hose while holding a book and with his finger apparently pointing to a line on a piece of paper.

Hilliard’s and Soest portraits compared

This is similar in style and posture to the Shakespeare statue at the Wilton Shakespeare Memorial except that the latter maintains a slightly different posture whereby his feet are crossed while his finger points to a rolled scroll of paper with a well-known quote from Shakespeare’s play The Tempest (IV, scene 1, 146-58). The Westminster Cathedral monument is much the same except the excerpt from Shakespeare’s “first and last play” reads:

An artists impression and the Wilton House Memorial

“The Cloud cap’t Towers,
The Gorgeous Palaces,
The Solemn Temples,
The Great Globe itself,
Yeah all which it inherit,
Shall Dissolve;
And like the baseless Fabrick of a Vision
Leave not a wreck behind.”

His finger points directly at the word “Temples” suggesting a connection to Freemasonry ie; Temple of Solomon. The Stratford Memorial mimics much of the Wilton Memorial but the Westminster Abbey Memorial (commissioned by Alexander Pope and erected in 1741) has a different quotation from Macbeth (Act V, scene 5, 17-28) and on the scroll is written:

“Life’s but a walking Shadow, a poore player
That struts its’ hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a Tale
Told by an Idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying Nothing.”

With Shakespeare’s finger pointing directly at the word “Shadow”, which has led to much more ambiguous speculation among researchers about the nature of the playwright who was also understood to be an actor on the stage. One might construe for example that “Shakespeare” was a mere “shadow on the stage”, an actor was euphemistically known as a “shadow” or player. Or, that William Shakspere, the Stratford actor was a mere shadow in comparison with the real author of the poetry and plays, the 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere.

A portrait often assumed to represent Shakespeare and the 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere but which is also assigned to Sir Thomas Overbury (Cobbe Portrait)

The links to my publications on the Shakespeare Authorship Controversy, “Shakespeare’s Qaballah”, a Companion to Shakespeare Studies and my own anthology of poetry, “Parthenogenesis” are as follows:


“We all love Shakespeare, whoever he was…”

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The links to my publications 
“Shakespeare’s Qaballah”,
a Companion to Shakespeare Studies and my anthology of poetry,