Shakespeare or Not Shakespeare? That is the Question

William Shakespeare is the man of many faces. No, I mean literally. There are disputes on what he really looked like. Just take a look at the portraits below:

But botanist and historian Mark Griffiths  claims that he has finally discovered the “true face of Shakespeare” in an engraving in a book called The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes by John Gerard in 1598. Here is the engraving:

The face, thought to be that of William Shakespeare.
Via The Guardian

Via BBC News:

The four figures depicted in the engraving were assumed to have been imaginary.

However, Griffiths revealed he had decoded decorative devices around the figures – such as heraldic motifs and emblematic flowers – to reveal their “true identities”.

They are the author Gerard, Rembert Dodoens, a renowned Flemish botanist, and Queen Elizabeth’s Lord Treasurer, Lord Burghley.

The fourth man holds a fritillary and an ear of sweetcorn – plants which Griffiths says point to Shakespeare’s poem Venus and Adonis and his play Titus Andronicus.

Below the bearded fourth man – who wears a laurel wreath – was “an ingenious cipher of the kind loved by the Elizabethan aristocracy” which, when decoded, confirmed his identity as “William Shakespeare”.

Edward Wilson, emeritus fellow of Worcester College, Oxford, explained said that he and Griffiths had spent five years consulting Latin and Shakespeare scholars before going public.

“We do not think anyone is going to dispute this at all,” he said.

Griffiths writes in Country Life: “The Fourth Man is not cartoonish or stylised. It may be monochrome, in fancy dress, and just 3.5 inches tall, but this is something that has been sought for centuries.”

He goes on: “By the time that portraits of Shakespeare were at a premium, the significance of the Rogers engraving had faded from memory. Its camouflaged figures, coded plants and ciphers proved too clever for its own good.

“The title page, one of the richest and most important artworks of the English Renaissance, came to be seen merely as a bibliophile’s rarity and a fine, if stereotypical specimen of Elizabethan decoration. Nobody dreamed of finding Shakespeare in it.”

Of course, there are skeptics who believe Griffiths claims to be unfounded but that was bound to happen, especially with the topic of Shakespeare. There are debates surrounding Shakespeare’s authorship, debate over how he may have spelled his name, so why not a debate over his appearance? In my opinion, it could be him, anything is possible. But I hope debates like these never cease. If we stop finding new and interesting things, what else do we literarians have to talk about?



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