Monday, March 09, 2009


It seems that Professor Stanley Wells has decided that an Elizabethan portrait that has been in the possession of the Irish Cobbe family since the early 18th century, is the only surviving lifetime portrait of Shakespeare. In his own words:

"The evidence that it represents Shakespeare and that is was done from life, though it is circumstantial, is in my view overwhelming. I feel in little doubt that this is a portrait of Shakespeare, done from life and commissioned by the Earl of Southampton and believe it could certainly be the basis for the engraving seen in the First Folio."

Now the second picture, above, is the Droueshot engraving that appeared in the First Folio. Am I the only person who sees little or no resemblance between these two pictures? In the first place, the Shakespeare of the engraving is bald and certainly middle-aged, while the recently discovered portrait (bottom) is of a younger man with a handsome head of hair. Perhaps, then, it could be Shakespeare from 20 years earlier? Not so. The portrait has been dated to 1610--or just 6 years before the poet died. Did Shakespeare lose all his hair and age so much in just 6 years? It is also important to remember that the engraving--dull as it may be--appeared with the First Folio and was approved by Heminges and Condell who knew Shakespeare personally. It MUST have some likeness to the real Shakespeare as many who read the First Folio--beyond Heminges and Condell--had known Shakespeare when he was alive. The first well-known picture of Shakespeare, above, is the Chandos portrait. This is the portrait of Shakespeare looking a tad bohemian with an earring and open collar. Now this has been proved to have been painted around 1610 (about the same date as the new portrait) and is usually credited to John Taylor. There is certainly a likeness between the Droushot engraving and the Chandos portrait, even if the portrait is far more complimentary. Both men are bald and probably around the same age. However, it takes a real stretch of the imagination to see any connection between the dandy of Professor Wells's new portrait and the Chandos picture. In spite of this, the whole saga began when a latter-day member of the Cobbe family viewed the Chandos portrait in London and decided that there was an uncanny similarity between his own picture of an unknown Elizabethan and Shakespeare. He eventually went on to claim that the Chandos Shakespeare had been copied from his own earlier original. Now, one thing that is absolutely clear is that Shakespeare during the latter part of his life was bald or balding. Besides the Droueshot engraving, we also have the bust of Shakespeare in Holy Trinity church to give us evidence of this. Remember, this would have been seen and approved of by his widow and family. Of course, like the Droushot engraving, the bust does Shakespeare no favors and makes him look like a possibly pedantic bank clerk--yet these images were approved of by the family and friends of Shakespeare. The Chandos portrait is more in the mould of what we expect an Elizabethan poet to look like--but it is still, as regards likeness, in the same ball park as the Droueshot engraving and the Holy Trinity bust. The new Cobbe portrait is totally dissimilar