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Portraits of an invisible man

First published in Fortean Times, no. 331.

A new portrait of William Shakespeare has been announced. What does the frustrating lack of verifiable portraits of the writer really say about him?

There is an "astonishing new image of Shakespeare" according to COUNTRY LIFE magazine, an engraving where the 33 year-old writer, in the company of three other fellows, is the thrillingly mysterious 'Fourth Man': a bearded, laurel-wreath and toga-wearing gentleman holding an ear of sweetcorn and a Tiffany-lamp flower. Touted as a near-epochal discovery, this likeness from John Gerard's The Herball of 1598, is an artistic letdown, a rough sketch at best, but due to being claimed as a unique record of "... the only demonstrably authentic portrait" of what Shakespeare looked like, "drawn from life and in the prime of life",[1.] the Shakes-spheres have set upon the discovery of botanical historian Mark Griffiths, their zealousness exceeding even the anointing of the Cobbe portrait as Shakespeare by Stanley Wells and The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in 2009. Even after four centuries the only generally accepted true likenesses of the writer remain the much-criticised engraving by Martin Droeshout in the First Folio of 1623, and the gormless funerary bust at Stratford-on-Avon. As both of those are possibly posthumous (maybe derived from the National Gallery's dusky Chandos portrait) the finding of a likeness made when Shakespeare was still alive is huge news for the Shakes-scene. Has Mark Griffith's stumbled upon "the greatest  discovery in 400 years", or is Country Life experiencing a Hitler Diaries moment? For not only is there a portrait, there is also a new 'play', no less; yet outside the scope of this article.

            When published in 1598 John Gerard's, Great Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes, was the ultimate book of its kind, a botanical Paradise in over a thousand pages. Gerard's (1542-1612) passion for plants brought him into the orbit of Sir William Cecil, Lord Burghley, the Lord Treasurer, who is Griffith's 'Third Man' in the title page engraving, with the other two identified as different versions of Gerard himself. Griffith's case for the identity of the Fourth Man as The Man draws on references to fauna placed near to the figure which also occur in Shakespearean texts such as Venus and Adonis (written to persuade Burghley's son to marry), and various plays, matters in which Griffith's botanical expertise shines. Out of this garden of symbolism, added to Burghley's need of a propagandist to stem a decline in his fortunes, Griffiths has Shakespeare being brought into the Cecil household, where Gerard supplied the knowledge about plants and horticulture that would later suffuse the plays. In similar title-page illustrations the Roman figure was traditionally the 1st century physician Dioscorides, but Apollo's laurel wreath and the faux Classical garb in Gerard's book signify a noted writer and stage player. These clues were changed for the second edition by an editor who hated Gerard, "suppressing" poetic collaboration worked on by Gerard and Shakespeare, and doing "everything in his power to distance his 1633 edition" from the original[2.] – everything except actually publish it.

john, gerard, great, herbal, herball, shakespeare, image, portrait, william

Frontspiece of Gerard's Great Herball, 1597

gerard, herbal, shakespeare, griffith, country, life, great, herball
Has Mark Griffith's stumbled upon "the greatest discovery in 400 years", or is Country Life experiencing a Hitler Diaries moment?

         A shielded monogram underneath the Shakespeare figure is where the matter takes a cryptographic turn. This runesque device, Griffiths says, is a cipher assembled from "always an unambiguous" numeral 4, the Latin form of which combines with the upper right E to make 'shake!', and a pictographic 'spear' completing his name. It declares Shakespeare's gentleman status. The OR letters in the middle of the rebus additionally signify the "heraldic term" for gold", referencing the colour of coat of arms granted to his father two years previously, while the W at the base stands for, what else, William. How can this be when Joseph Ames in Typographical Antiquities (1749) described it as the joint cypher mark of The Herball's publishers, William and John Norton? It clearly includes the letters N, O, R, and W, in which Barry Clarke, a puzzler for the Daily Telegraph, also sees a pair of Roman tens, hence "NORTENS!"[3.] Griffiths says Ames was wrong, he could have misconstrued the Royal Arms on the title page, and his error was removed for the second edition of his book. Moreover, William Norton had been dead for four years when The Herball  was published, so it made no sense to identify him as having anything to do with it.

         As online debate spiraled-off into conjectures about the true rebus meaning of this mark, and the Nortons' possible status as the Queen's printers, I expected someone to cut through the sub-Da Vinci Code games by citing F. A. Girling's papers on 15th and 16th century merchant's marks which shows that, far from having anything to do with the numeral, Griffith's 'shake' cipher, the purported 'Sign of Four', was being used in marks long before the figure 4 was even used in the West. The sign was common in English and French printer's marks in the 16th century, and even caps the mark of the East India Company. The runic appearance of this sign and these marks in general is not certain, yet they probably were indeed originally runes, emerging from Nordic and Baltic trading contacts, and their printed orientation was irrelevant since there was no "right way up" for such marks.[4.]The M and W 'letters' appear on many marks with no relevance to the owners name, and were also commonly scratched on building stones and timbers as ritual marks to protect against evil by invoking Mary as Virgin of Virgins ('Virgo Virginum').[5.]

Shakespeare's greatest feat is his concealment of his art, and his non-identity; absences that only inflames our searches, elevating his life and work into a mythical realm.

 Stanley Wells quickly endorsed the three other men of Griffith's identification, guessing that the Fourth Man was actually Sir Walter Raleigh since the sweetcorn in his hand is an American crop, as was the tobacco and sweet potato that Raleigh introduced to England. Griffiths didn't use his botanical expertise to show how conflating two different plants for both being American made no sense, instead pointing out that the other Fourth Man plants have no connection to Raleigh, and that the sweetcorn was already well established by 1597 and was not even introduced by Raleigh (among other reasons to do with status and how Raleigh might have looked at the time). And so the game of Elizabethan Code Detectives went on, escalating at every turn. Was Wells was actually satirising Griffith's approach, his taste for over-ingenuity? Possibly not, since when the Cobbe portrait was unveiled as a 'new' Shakespeare portrait it was, in Wells' words, "what Shakespeare ought to have looked like " (my italics), ie. a wealthy gentleman.[6.] Griffiths has his gardener Shakespeare, Wells his gentlemen: to each their own. To Griffith's credit, he did not set out looking for Shakespeare; the Bard found him.

         The latest portrait is at the crest of a modern wave of Shakespeare portraiture. In 2002 the Sanders portrait of a young man that turned up in Canada, which includes an ancient inscription on the back naming Shakespeare, passed forensic tests.[7.]The Shakespeare 'death mask' at Darmstadt Castle in Germany provided the basis for Dr Caroline Wilson's 3D digital image in 2010. The hyper-detailed recreation has consistencies with other portraits (including the Cobbe portrait), which in turn purportedly supports the death mask's provenance.[8.] The mask figures in Simon Andrew Stirling's theory that Shakespeare was murdered for his Catholic beliefs, a theory turning on the very skull of Shakespeare, which, we learn, rests in a private crypt under the church in the village of Beoley in northeast Worcestershire. Discovered by a Victorian clergyman who published about how the skull was stolen from Stratford by Horace Walpole, it has forehead indentations that match swellings around the left eye as also seen on the Darmstadt mask, the Cobbe and Chandos portraits, and the Janssen funerary bust.[9.]

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Merchant's mark with the Sign of Four

at the base of the figure of 'Shakespeare.'

We must welcome all such discoveries since they enrich the wider mystery of Shakespeare's life and career. Perhaps the lack of a definitive life portrait of him connects with the near-total absence of direct evidence for him writing his attributed works.

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The Cobbe

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Nicholas Hilliard, Man Clasping Hand From a Cloud

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The Grafton

sanders, shakespeare, portrait, painting, william, writer

The Sanders

We must welcome all such discoveries since they enrich the wider mystery of Shakespeare's life and career. Perhaps the lack of a definitive life portrait of him connects with the near-total absence of direct evidence for him writing his attributed works. Consider a scenario in which Shakespeare, potentially with the help of his collaborators, destroyed all their handwritten works, bar Shakespeare's legal documents which survive because they were beyond their reach. Why do that? The ultimate character a dramatist could conceive, he and his contemporaries might muse, would be a fictitious person in real life. For dramatists utterly committed to exploring the artistry of illusion and theatrics, the power of myth and mystery, it would be their greatest achievement. And so, most taken with the idea, they or Shakespeare alone set upon achieving it – as have other writers by degrees since. Thomas Pynchon has managed it with his image. Philip Larkin had all his diaries burned. JG Ballard and Roald Dahl claimed to destroy all their manuscripts, revealed upon their deaths as wishful thinking. Perhaps Shakespeare and his friends were committed enough to see it through, extending even to writer's visage in his lifetime. Why not, if not for other reasons? Such motives may explain why the only 'official' portrait from the First Folio is unique for such a work, a “masterpiece of duplicity”, the sleeves of the “impossible doublet” mismatched and reversed, giving (along with the disproportionate head) “a harlequin appearance to the figure”.[10.] What game is afoot here; is this really the portrait of an actual person?. In this sense, Shakespeare's greatest feat is his concealment of his art, and his non-identity; absences that only inflames our searches, elevating his life and work into a mythical realm – which maybe was his intention all along, the cunning knave.


1. COUNTRY LIFE magazine, May 20th 2015


3. Ibid.

4. F.A. Girling, 'Merchant's Marks in Suffolk', Suffolk Institute of Archaeology, Vol. XXIX part 1 (1961)]

5. T. Easton, 'The Use of Conjoined Vs to Protect a Dwelling' appendix to C. J. Binding and L. J. Wilson, 'Ritual Protection Marks in Goatchurch Cavern, Burrington Combe, North Somerset', Proceedings of University of Bristol Spelaeological Society 23 (2), 2004, pp.119-133


7. Stephanie Nolen, Shakespeare's Face, Free Press (2004)]


9. Simon Andrew Stirling, Who Killed William Shakespeare? ,The History Press (2013)

10. John Rollett, William Stanley as Shakespeare, McFarland & Company Inc. (2015), pp.10-13

william, shakespeare, portrait, face, likeness, engraving, martin, droeshout, folio
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