Researcher Says He has Found the First True Portrait of William Shakespeare

Posted on May 21, 2015

Cover of Country Life showing Shakespeare likeness

Botanist and horticulturist Mark Griffiths has announced that he has discovered the first accurate likeness of William Shakespeare, which was drawn during his lifetime.. The story was broken by the UK's Country Life magazine which calls it the literary find of the century. The image that has everyone in such an uproar is found in an engraving on the title page of a rare and valuable 1598 botany book.

Griffiths was researching botanist John Gerard (1542-1612) and was studying his most famous tome, The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes, which was published in 1598. It is the longest book in English about botany. the title page features an engraving by William Rogers which shows four figures.

The style of the time was to hide symbols and drawings inside engravings which would give clues as to the identity of those portrayed. He quickly discovered the identities of three of the figures portrayed, but the fourth was trickier. The first three figures are the author, Gerard, Rembert Dodoens, a famous Flemish botanist, and Queen Elizabeth's Lord Treasurer, Lord Burghley.

Griffiths and scholar Edward Wilson, emeritus fellow of Worcester College, Oxford, spent five years consulting Latin and Shakespeare scholars before going public with their conclusion: that the figure is indeed William Shakespeare. The figure is dressed as a Roman and is surrounded by symbols which relate to the Bard. If true, this is a remarkable discovery. It would be the only accurate image of William Shakespeare drawn while Shakespeare was still alive by someone who knew him. He is pictured at the age of 33, according to Griffiths who says "He was dressed as a Roman and appeared to have something to do with poetry." Shakespeare is holding a fritillary and an ear of sweetcorn, which is a reference to the Bard's 1593 poem, "Venus and Adonis" and to his 1594 play, Titus Andronicus. He wears a laurel wreath which references Apollo and the classical poets.

But the biggest clue is that the figure is standing on the base of the statue that has a code on it used by men of letters at the time. Griffiths says its translates to "William Shakespeare." So, why was Shakespeare included on the title page of a botany book? Griffiths says the four figures are all linked. The incredibly powerful Burghley assisted Shakespeare in his literary career, who helped the author with the Greek and Latin translations for his book. It was the fashion of the time to include representations of important people in engravings of books.

Not everyone agrees with Griffith's find. Professor Michael Dobson, director of the Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham, says the proof is not convincing. He is quite grumpy about Country Life Magazine's big cover story about the discovery and told reporters that Griffiths et al. are "hallucinating." But others say the research is sound. Here is Griffith talking about his exciting find:



Photo: Country Life