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Thursday, August 05, 2021

In his own image

Will the real Shakespeare please stand up?

By: Express News Service |
Updated: May 21, 2015 12:36:19 am

William Shakespeare needs to be told, quite severely and in his own words, “God has given you one face, and you make yourselves another.” Historian and botanist Mark Griffiths now claims to have found him lurking in the title page of The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes, laurel wreathed and holding an exotic plant. The surrounding flora apparently contains a cipher that could only point to a young Shakespeare. What was he doing in a botany book, looking less like harried playwright and more like current Globe heartthrob tries out his green man/ Caesar costume? What’s more, why does he bear no trace of the features seen in postcards and pub signs, usually scrawled with the legend, “Shakespeare’s Head”?

For a man generally acknowledged to be the greatest author in the English language and the scourge of schoolchildren for generations, Shakespeare is notoriously hard to pin down. The image that mostly does the rounds is from the Martin Droeshot engraving, made seven years after the playwright’s death and appearing on the cover of his First Folio. Perhaps it suits readers to believe that domed, impassive face belonged to the bard — he was a sort of blankness to be filled up by the lives of his characters and stories. Then came the Chandos portrait, apparently drawn from life, with its rakish earring and distinct air of unwashed poet, and the Cobbe portrait, of a prosperous young man with a patrician nose. Both carry the disturbing hint of a personality, intruding into his plays, disrupting the idea of a god-like creative genius.

Evidently, custom cannot stale his infinite variety. The many faces of Shakespeare are part of his enduring fascination. But the closest physical likeness may not bring readers any closer to the man. Ben Jonson, in a poem praising Droeshot’s engraving for being true to life, also has this to say: “Reader, look Not on his picture, but his book”.

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