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The Face-Off of the Shakespeare Portraits


by Jerome Weeks 13 Apr 2009

The ‘newly discovered’ Cobbe portrait (left) goes on display, courtesy of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, while the National Portrait Gallery continues to hold that the Chandos portrait (center) is the only likely likeness. Funny thing: They’re both dated to around 1610, when Will was 46, yet they look very un-alike. Other funny thing: The Cobbe […]

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The ‘newly discovered’ Cobbe portrait (left) goes on display, courtesy of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, while the National Portrait Gallery continues to hold that the Chandos portrait (center) is the only likely likeness.

Funny thing: They’re both dated to around 1610, when Will was 46, yet they look very un-alike. Other funny thing: The Cobbe portrait looks like a direct steal from the Janssen portrait (right) — or vice versa.  And the Folger Shakespeare Library holds that one, having once believed it was the only real likeness.

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  • Actually, there’s no single extant written comment on Shakespeare’s looks by anyone who knew him in life — whatever way he might have looked. So concluding that this means he mustn’t have been handsome is pretty thin; it’s based on an evidentiary vacuum. Perhaps we just don’t have that letter from his tailor and wigmaker.

    For instance, Sir William Davenant was the poet-actor who claimed to be Shakespeare’s illegitimate son (Shakespeare was definitely his godfather and it’s believed Davenant commissioned the Chandos portrait of Shakespeare). And Davenant was considered quite dashing. A thin thread, yes, but no worse than concluding Shakespeare wasn’t a looker based on the lack of evidence we currently have.

    We do know that the publishers of the First Folio — Shakespeare’s fellow actors and company men — felt that the Droeshout engraving that they included was inaccurate and unattractive. Martin Droeshout, the engraver, was 15 when Shakespeare died. He was either working from long memory or had never actually set eyes on the playwright and had to use the descriptions of Shakespeare’s fellow players. If he did, then he must have got things wrong: The publishers amended his portrait twice to make it look better — and only succeeded in complicating the issue of the playwright’s actual appearance.