Do We Actually Know What Shakespeare Looked Like?

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

When you think of Shakespeare, you probably have a particular image of the Bard in mind: a receding hairline, heavy-lidded eyes, a thin mustache, and long, wavy hair. As historical figures go, you'd probably be able to pick him out of a lineup.

The picture you have in your head is almost certainly based on just one source: the Droeshout portrait, a black and white engraving that was the frontispiece of the First Folio (and can be seen above). Believed to have been produced by Flemish engraver Martin Droeshout in 1623, it was originally published seven years after Shakespeare's death in the first original collection of his plays. It's unlikely that Droeshout produced it from life, and most historians believe it was copied off an authentic portrait made during Shakespeare's lifetime that has not survived.

In fact, no existing portrait shows conclusively what Shakespeare looked like in real life. Since the mid-17th century, scholars have thought that the figure in the below Chandos Portraitpainted in 1610, was Shakespeare. While the painting's provenance and painting style point to its origin in Shakespeare's time, there is no definitive proof of the sitter's identity, according to Tarnya Cooper, author of Searching for Shakespeare and curatorial director of London's National Portrait Gallery.

Chandos portrait of William Shakespeare
The Chandos portrait
Wikimedia Commons

Then there's the Cobbe portrait (below). Once owned by 18th-century Anglican Archbishop Charles Cobbe, it allegedly came to his family through the great-granddaughter of one of Shakespeare's patrons, the Earl of Southampton. Modern testing of the painting shows that it was made after 1595; the fashions depicted suggest it could have been painted as late as 1610. The unknown artist could have captured Shakespeare in life, between the ages of 31 and 46, although the figure appears somewhat younger than middle-aged.

Cobbe descendants have argued that the work is the only existing life portrait of the Bard, but art historian Sir Roy Strong described that as "codswallop" (translation: nonsense).

The Cobbe portrait of William Shakespeare
The Cobbe portrait
Wikimedia Commons

In fact, some historians have suggested that the Cobbe portrait is actually Sir Thomas Overbury, a poet born in 1581. Verified images of Overbury closely resemble the Cobbe figure, and—perhaps most damningly—the painting doesn't match the best existing image of Shakespeare from the same period, which was actually a bust.

The "holy trinity bust" wasn't made during Shakespeare's lifetime—it was commissioned four years after his death so that it could be placed above his grave in Stratford-upon-Avon's Holy Trinity Church. The sculpture depicts a portlier version of Shakespeare than the one we're familiar with, presumably because it shows him in his later life, and it doesn't look much like the Droeshout engraving, the Chandos portrait, or the Cobbe portrait—which are broadly similar. But because it was commissioned while his widow and son-in-law were still alive, scholars believe it's a credible likeness of the playwright.

More than 400 years after his death, Shakespeare's true identity still stirs debate. For the time being, a few secondhand images are the best clues we have to what he looked like. Luckily, his written work survives in far fuller fashion.

First Editions of Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Other Jane Austen Novels Can Be Yours

GeorgiosArt, iStock via Getty Images
GeorgiosArt, iStock via Getty Images

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen hasn't been out of print since its initial publication in 1813. Now, fans of the British classic have a chance to own an original copy. On February 20, first editions of all of Austen's beloved books—including Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Persuasion—are hitting the auction block.

Born in England in 1775, Austen is one of the most influential British writers of all time. Her stories are famous for their witty commentary of English society, and they've been adapted into everything from modern rom-coms to an apocalyptic zombie novel.

First editions of her books from the early 19th century will go up for bid at an auction organized by Swann Auction Galleries in New York. A three-volume print of Pride and Prejudice from 1813 is expected to fetch between $20,000 and $30,000. The copy of Emma, which was printed in 1816, has an estimated value of $15,000 to $20,000, while Sense and Sensibility from 1816 is projected to earn $30,000 to $40,000. The first edition of Sense of Sensibility (published as "By a Lady") comes from a run of no more than 1000 copies that sold out in less than two years. The two other novels up for bid are Northanger Abbey and Mansfield Park.

The Austen works for sale are part of Swann's upcoming auction of fine books and manuscripts. A signed limited-edition copy of the Virginia Woolf short story "Kew Gardens" will be sold at the same event. You can view the items here before the auction goes live on Thursday.

First-edition of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.
Swann Auction Galleries

First-edition of Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen.
Swann Auction Galleries

The Scottish Play: Why Actors Won’t Call Macbeth by Its Title

Macbeth and the three witches in Shakespeare's possibly cursed play.
Macbeth and the three witches in Shakespeare's possibly cursed play.
Photos.com/iStock via Getty Images

If you see someone burst from the doors of a theater, spin around three times, spit over their left shoulder, and shout out a Shakespearean phrase or curse word, it’s likely they just uttered “Macbeth” inside the building and are trying to keep a very famous curse at bay.

As the story goes, saying “Macbeth” in a theater when you’re not rehearsing or performing the play can cause disaster to befall the production. Instead, actors commonly refer to it as “the Bard’s play” or “the Scottish play.”

According to History.com, the curse of Macbeth originated after a string of freak accidents occurred during early performances of Shakespeare’s 1606 play. In the very first show, the actor portraying Lady Macbeth unexpectedly died, and Shakespeare himself had to take over the role. In a later one, an actor stabbed King Duncan with an actual dagger rather than a prop knife, killing him on stage.

Macbeth has continued to cause calamity after calamity throughout its four centuries of existence. Harold Norman died from stab wounds sustained during a fight scene while playing Macbeth in 1947, and there have been several high-profile audience riots at various performances, too—the worst was at New York’s Astor Place Opera House in 1849, when fans of British actor William Charles Macready clashed with those of American actor Edwin Forrest. Twenty-two people died, and more than 100 others were injured.

Since Macbeth has been around for so long and performed so often, it’s not exactly surprising its history contains some tragic moments. But many believe these accidents are the result of a curse actual witches cast on the play when Shakespeare first debuted it.

As the Royal Shakespeare Company explains, Shakespeare really did his research when creating the three witches in Macbeth: “Fillet of a fenny snake,” “eye of newt and toe of frog,” and other lines from the “Song of the Witches” were supposedly taken from “real” witches’ spells from the time. According to legend, a coven of witches decided to punish him for using their magic by cursing his play.

For skeptics, Christopher Eccleston—who played Macbeth in a Royal Shakespeare Company production in 2018—offers a slightly more believable theory about the origin of the curse. In the interview below, he explains how theater companies that were struggling financially would stage Macbeth, a crowd favorite, to guarantee ticket sales. Therefore, saying “Macbeth” in a theater was an admission that things weren’t going well for your company.

[h/t History.com]

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