“To me, fair friend, you never can be old,
For as you were when first your eye I ey’d,
Such seems your beauty still.”
What we know about Shakespeare and his life is an incomplete picture. We know more about his plays than we do about his personal and home life. We have always used his plays to not only learn lessons about the human condition, but about Shakespeare himself. Human nature seems to hunger for what we don’t have, and so there are volumes of scholarship and great numbers of people dedicated to completing this incompletable puzzle.
One of the things we most want to know is “What did Shakespeare look like??” We don’t know for sure. Looking at the following portraits will help us on our way, but there is no definitive answer.
Take a look at the way the sitter is dressed in each of these portraits. Like the figures in these portraits, Shakespeare probably dressed in the Tudor fashion of his class within society - middle class. He surely wore a doublet and hose, leather shoes and a ruff. Unfortunately, there is no existing portrait that shows conclusively what Shakespeare looked like in real life.
The portraits above are arranged from top left to bottom right in order of date. Which one is most familiar to you? Are there any that you have not seen before? How do they differ? Which one do you think looks most like the image of Shakespeare you have? Let’s take a look at each one.
The Grafton Portrait (Portrait of an Unknown Man)
John Rylands Research Institute and LIbrary, Manchester, England
Painted in 1588 by an unknown artist, this portrait is not considered to be Shakespeare, though it has proven to be of interest to scholars due to an original inscription of the sitter’s age: 24 years in 1588, exactly contemporary with Shakespeare. In the 20th century, some argued for its veracity as Shakespeare, while others noted that the sumptuous clothing of the sitter (silk and satin) would not have been available to an actor of his day.
The Chandos Portrait
National Portrait Gallery, London
Painted in c. 1600-1610 by John Taylor, this is probably the most famous depiction of Shakespeare as well as the only portrait which could have been painted from life with Shakespeare in attendance. This portrait served as the basis for the engraving (see below) by Martin Droeshout used in the First Folio (1623). of Shakespeare's plays. Follow the link below to read an article from Smithsonian Magazine about how cleaning a painting like this one could actually change the way we see Shakespeare.
The Cobbe Portrait
National Trust, Hatchlands
There is debate as to whether this is a portrait of Shakespeare or Sir Thomas Overbury (1581-1613), an English poet and essayist. The work originally belonged to the family of Henry Wriothesley (1573-1621), 3rd Earl of Southampton, one of Shakespeare’s most important patrons. It was found in the Cobbe family collection in Ireland in 2006.
The Droeshout Portrait
Folger Shakespeare Library
This engraving by Dutch artist Martin Droeshout was the frontispiece of the First Folio (1623) collection of his works compiled by his King’s Men associates John Heminge and Henry Condell. This portrait is generally acknowledged as an accurate version of Shakespeare supported by those who knew him.
The Kite Portrait
Royal Shakespeare Company
Believed to be painted around 1650, this is an oil painting on copper. The artist is unknown and very little is know about this painting.
The Flower Portrait
Royal Shakespeare Company
Once believed to be the original inspiration for the Droeshout portrait engraving, this oil on wood panel actually dates from the 19th century.