Toby Melville / Reuters

Botanist claims to have found authentic portrait of Shakespeare

But one Shakespeare scholar says ‘the literary discovery of the century’ is not to be

A British magazine on Tuesday said it has revealed “the true face” of William Shakespeare, purportedly the only portrait made during the lifetime of the poet and playwright who penned “Romeo and Juliet” and “Hamlet.” 

Alas, at least one leading U.S. Shakespeare scholar says it is not to be.

Country Life, the self-proclaimed “quintessential English magazine,” on Tuesday republished what botanist and historian Mark Griffiths said is “the first and only known” authentic portrait of Shakespeare. It was found on the title page of a 16th century book on plants, “The Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes,” by botanist John Gerard.

“We have a new portrait of Shakespeare, the first ever that is identified as him by the artist and made in his lifetime,” Country Life editor Mark Hedges said in a press release, hailing the finding as “the literary discovery of the century.”

Edward Wilson, an emeritus fellow of Oxford’s Worcester College, echoed Hedges, calling the revelation “the most important contribution to be made to our knowledge of Shakespeare in generations.”

The portrait in Gerard’s book, engraved by William Rogers, was untitled. But Griffiths identified the flora surrounding the figure, clad in Roman attire, as “symbolic allusions” or “clever code relating to Shakespeare’s works.”

For example, Griffiths said a fritillary in one of the figure’s hands points to Shakespeare’s 1593 poem “Venus and Adonis.” In the other hand is a sweetcorn, allegedly a reference to the play “Titus Andronicus.” This kind of symbolism was “loved by Elizabethan aristocracy,” Griffiths said.

Shakespeare referred to nearly 200 plants in his works. San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, home to a Shakespeare garden, lists 181 plants mentioned by the Bard of Avon.

But James Shapiro, a Shakespeare scholar and cultural historian at Columbia University, was more skeptical, arguing that the illustration that Griffith saw as a complex cipher more likely features plants signifying nothing.

“The odds of it being Shakespeare are slim to none,” he said. “The images on ‘The Herball’ are generalized drawings of young and old men in rustic garb.”

“The thing that probably bothers me most in this claim is it depends on [Griffiths’] decoding of symbols and letters in the most arbitrary way. Those claims are strained and suspect to me,” Shapiro said. “There’s no connection whatsoever that we know of between Gerard and Shakespeare at that time.” 

Shakespeare was also not renowned enough at the time to have been featured on a major work of botanical study, according to Shapiro. He said, “When [the book] was executed in 1597, Shakespeare was not yet the star and prominent figure we imagine him to be. His name only started appearing on the title pages of plays after this point.” 

Claims of an authentic portrait of Shakespeare have been made before. But even the most prominent image believed to be the bard, known as the Chandos portrait, may not depict Shakespeare, some historians say.

Next week, Country Life is set to reveal a new play by Shakespeare.

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