Portraits of Shakespeare, with Katherine Duncan-Jones

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 38

There’s no doubt you’ve seen images of Shakespeare – maybe in a book, a museum, or an ad on the wall of a bus stop. So it’s safe to say: You imagine that you have a pretty good idea of what Shakespeare looked like.
Oxford University Professor Katherine Duncan-Jones has written a book that invites you to question your assumptions and – maybe – take a new look. As you’ll hear, there really are only a few likenesses of Shakespeare where we’re pretty sure we know that the face in the image is his. She offers her theories on why that might be and tells us what’s known about how these images came to be. Katherine Duncan-Jones is interviewed by Rebecca Sheir.
Katherine Duncan-Jones is professor emerita of English literature at Oxford and an honorary professor of English at University College, London. Her book, Portraits of Shakespeare, was published by Oxford’s Bodleian Library in 2015.
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From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. © December 15, 2015. Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. “Now Thy Image Doth Appear” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. We had help from Nick Moorbath at Evolution Recording Studio in Oxford.


MICHAEL WITMORE: From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director.

This podcast is called “Now Thy Image Doth Appear." There’s no doubt you’ve seen images of Shakespeare: maybe in a book, a museum, or an ad on the wall of a bus stop. So it’s safe to say, you imagine that you have a pretty good idea of what Shakespeare looked like. Oxford University Professor Katherine Duncan-Jones has written a book that invites you to question your assumptions and maybe take a new look. As you’ll hear, there really are only a few likenesses of Shakespeare where we’re pretty sure we know that the face in the image is his. She offers her theories on why that might be and tells us what’s known about where these images came from.

Katherine is interviewed by Rebecca Sheir.


REBECCA SHEIR: As far as legitimate portraits of Shakespeare go, portraits that could be verified as actually being of Shakespeare, how many do we have? In the book, you say it’s just three?

KATHERINE DUNCAN-JONES: Well, being "of Shakespeare," of course, is itself problematic. That is, are they taken from life? Can they be seen as being "of Shakespeare"? Really, there were only three images that were almost certainly created by people who had seen Shakespeare and knew what he looked like, even if he didn’t actually sit, necessarily, for all three of those images.

SHEIR: Well, the first question that seems important, then, is why don’t we have more?

DUNCAN-JONES: I think there were various reasons why we don’t have more. One very big reason: I mean, now we live in a very visual age and we have film and lots of reproductive processes. Shakespeare’s age wasn’t so visual in that way, and there were quite a lot of writers of the Elizabethan period of whom we don’t have an image at all.

But what I think, what I myself think, is possibly more relevant to Shakespeare himself, is that he was a playwright, a poet, and an actor, and, almost certainly, an actor who played a major part in directing his own plays. And he lived in two places, London and Stratford, and journeys between those two places probably took two to three days every time he made them, sometimes longer than that. And this didn’t leave him with very much time for sitting for his portrait.

SHEIR: Well, how much time does it take to sit for an artist? I mean, how long would it take to get such a portrait painted?

DUNCAN-JONES: Well, to the highest standards of Elizabethan portraiture, it would take quite a long time for a really good, large oil portrait. But even for something less than top class, I would have thought that it couldn’t take less than a day. But I think a day in Shakespeare's very, very busy and active life might have been more than he could easily spare at many phases of his life.

SHEIR: Does the fact that we only have a handful of pictures of him suggest at all that maybe he wasn’t as famous then as he is now?

DUNCAN-JONES: I don’t think it does mean that. I think he was extremely famous. Quite early in his career, he became very successful, with his very first long poem, Venus and Adonis, which was quoted. I mean, there’s plenty of evidence that that was very widely read. It was published under his name. I think he was quite famous, quite early. But then, as his writings developed, the plays also became very, very famous, not just as plays that everyone enjoyed, but plays that William Shakespeare had written.

SHEIR: You do a really nice job in your book of discussing how, if we look at the stories behind portraits of other writers, we could get an idea as to why there aren’t more Shakespeare portraits. Can you tell us about that?

DUNCAN-JONES: Yes. Well, for instance, there is Samuel Daniel, who was almost an exact contemporary of Shakespeare’s, who didn’t write plays for the public theaters. He was very prolific and he cultivated wealthy patrons, and that was how a great many of the successful Elizabethan and Jacobean writers made their money. They had patrons, who would look after them financially and encourage them in some cases to write a particular kind of poem or a particular kind of work.

Michael Drayton might be a better example than Samuel Daniel, because he also grew up in Warwickshire, like Shakespeare. They were almost exactly the same age. They lived only about 25 miles apart from each other, may even have known each other as boys. Michael Drayton had very, very comfortable relationships with patrons, who paid him money to keep him going while he was writing. And Shakespeare doesn’t appear to have had a major patron in quite the same way.

SHEIR: Something you mentioned in the book is that some of Shakespeare’s contemporaries had patrons who were women, wealthy women. And you suggest that rich married women were more inclined to commission visual images as mementos. Why would that be?

DUNCAN-JONES: Well, they had the leisure that their husbands didn’t have. They could often devote much more time to encouraging and cultivating other writers than their husbands did. And, in some cases, the wives had quite a lot of money to spend. But it is striking that all of Shakespeare’s patrons do appear to have been male.

SHEIR: You talk in your book about this kind of Mount Rushmore of writers and great thinkers at the Bodleian Library at Oxford, and Shakespeare is not there. Who is there?

DUNCAN-JONES: Well, all sorts of... They are a rather odd selection. I mean, they go back to very early writers like Plato and Sophocles the tragedian. There’s a tremendous assortment of ancient, and not quite so ancient, and more or less contemporary figures among the 206, is it, images. There’s just one women; that is the poet Sappho. And they’re all in one way or another, I think, virtually all, could be described as learned, scholarly, knowing more than one language. And Shakespeare, though he had been to a grammar school, he was described by Ben Jonson as having "small Latin and less Greek," and I think that probably sums up the level of his learning.

SHEIR: So at the time that this frieze was done, and it’s a frieze at the Bodleian Library, perhaps he just wasn’t considered great enough to be memorialized there?

DUNCAN-JONES: I think that’s right. Yes, I mean he just hadn’t made it, no.

SHEIR: I want to go back to those three representations of Shakespeare that you talk about in the book. There is a painting, there is an engraving, and then there is a bust. And let’s start with the bust. It's in the memorial to Shakespeare in the church in Stratford. Can you describe for us what this bust looks like? In the book, you make it sound like it’s not very attractive?

DUNCAN-JONES: It’s not very attractive, for various reasons. Shakespeare looks rather bald and his head is somehow rather unattractive, and rather, sort of, puffed-up cheeks; he looks a bit swollen. His eyes don’t seem quite right. He has a rather smug expression. I mean, he has been described by one Shakespeare scholar, Dover Wilson, as looking like a pork butcher, though I don’t think pork butchers necessarily have to look porky. But, in the Stratford bust, it has to be said that this rather plump and smug-looking chap who is depicted just does seem rather fat, a bit pleased with himself. And actually, he’s not wearing a laurel crown, which would’ve made his bald head look rather prettier, and he just doesn’t look very attractive.

But I don’t think we can trust that bust for all sorts of reasons, but the chief reason is that it needed restoration after barely 20 years. So the images of it, it’s undergone so much restoration and so much, well in a way, vandalism, as with Edmond Malone, who got the whole thing painted white. And then, eventually, the white was taken off, and it was recolored, and with that huge, long gap, people didn’t really know exactly what the coloring and the detail was like.

SHEIR: The second portrait you talk about in the book is this engraving. It’s the one we see of Shakespeare in the front of the First Folio. It’s so intriguing that, as you say in the book, portrait engravings are almost always based on some picture, but we have no idea what this one is based on.

DUNCAN-JONES: They would always have to be based on... I mean, I suppose they could be based on another engraving, but that sounds unlikely in this case. Yes, there were a lot of problems about the Droeshout, and my Dutch is not very good, Droeshout engraving, shows us in Shakespeare. One of the problems, I think, is that this is the frontispiece to what is called the First Folio, that is, the first collected edition of all of Shakespeare’s plays. And it was terribly expensive, getting these 36 plays all printed and compiled into the volume, and the first section of the volume was what was actually worked on last. And by the time they reached the portrait and the frontispiece, they were really running out of money very badly. So I think the Droeshout engraving was done on the cheap, and we don’t know what it’s based on, and it also is not very attractive.

SHEIR: Why do we call it the Droeshout engraving?

DUNCAN-JONES: Well, it is initialed M. Droeshout, it’s certainly the work of an originally Netherlandish engraver. And there were really quite a lot of Droeshouts, I mean, there were a lot of Dutch engravers, who migrated to London and had families of engravers, who were very, very skilled artists in many cases. Unfortunately, there were several with the surname Droeshout and the initial M. And the jury is still, I think, out, not absolutely certain on which member of the Droeshout family actually should be credited with the First Folio engraving. I'm inclined to think that there is a kind of joke going on, on the opposite page when Ben Jonson wrote some verses about the engraving, and said, “Look / Not on his picture, but his book.” And I think Jonson saw that it was a really rather clumsy and shoddy and inadequate piece of work, and better turn the page and start reading The Tempest. It’s not a very charming picture.

SHEIR: Just ignore this picture.

DUNCAN-JONES: And it’s possibly not a particularly good likeness. I mean, he said it “was for gentle Shakespeare cut,” which almost implies, "this is meant to be Shakespeare, but I’m not sure that it is."

SHEIR: And as I understand it, the Droeshout got worse with subsequent printings, because they kept reusing the same plate?

DUNCAN-JONES: Yes, that’s right. I mean the original print run was a very substantial one, and it was repeatedly reprinted, because we have the Second Folio, Second and Third, Fourth Folios, and the actual metal plate, which had to be pressed very hard with its ink on the paper, became, if anything, even less attractive, and, rather as with the bust, where attempts to make it better by repainting it or tinkering with it, in some way mostly made it worse.

SHEIR: Let’s turn now to the third portrait you talk about in the book. This is the Chandos portrait. And you say that of all the portraits that have been claimed as likenesses of Shakespeare done from life, this is the one that truly holds its own. How do we know that it’s probably real?

DUNCAN-JONES: I think we know it’s probably real, because it was... it belonged to Shakespeare’s playing company, rather than to Shakespeare himself or his patrons, and it can be traced from very early on to have been owned by actors who knew what Shakespeare looked like. And probably the first actor, who both painted it and owned it, was a very promising up and coming actor trained by Shakespeare, Joseph Taylor, who is on record as having been both a player and a painter, and almost certainly, in some quiet afternoon, probably not even a whole day, did this oil painting of the great Shakespeare.

So it isn’t a brilliant piece of workmanship, but it does have life and animation and that mysterious thing called “presence.” I think if one looks at the Chandos portrait, there’s a sense there’s someone there, you feel, almost embarrassing. There’s a strong sense of a personality there and a presence. And he seems... yes, there’s one thing it has in common with the bust. In the bust, have I mentioned, Shakespeare’s lips are just ever so slightly parted as if he is about to speak, and the Chandos portrait also shows him with his lips slightly parted, as if he is... has either just finished speaking or is about to speak. And that contributes, I think, to the sense of presence in the Chandos painting.

SHEIR: There’s been a question over the years of whether this portrait was painted by Joseph Taylor, as you suggest, or a John Taylor. Where does that confusion come from?

DUNCAN-JONES: That’s right, until really very recently, it’s been claimed that it was the work of a John Taylor, and nobody has really decisively pinned down... The trouble is that the surname Taylor and the Christian name John are two very, very common names, and even among trained painters there are an awful lot of John Taylors. Received opinion, in say, the last 50 or more years, among art historians and experts on portraits of the period, has been that it was the work of someone called John Taylor. And this is because there were manuscript allusions to "Jo: Taylor," so if he had his name shortened, as a lot of people did in that period, just to two letters, "Jo: Taylor," which John Taylor was it, and was it perhaps not... This was the breakthrough that I feel I made about a year ago... That perhaps it wasn’t John, perhaps it was a Joseph Taylor and was the rather well-documented young actor Joseph Taylor.

SHEIR: Where do we get that "Jo: Taylor"?

DUNCAN-JONES: We get it partly from the notebooks of a man called George Vertue, and we get it from several 17th-century witnesses of people who were deeply involved in the London theater, that it was probably, fairly reliably believed to be the work of somebody, we can agree at least the initial was J, and the surname was Taylor. The question is really whether "Jo:", which would be quite a normal... it’s a rather ambiguous abbreviation, because it could refer either to "John" or to "Joseph." But nobody has actually found a John who seems to be the right kind of age, in the right kind of place, to have created this very attractive and lively, though slightly rough, painting. But Joseph Taylor does fit, in terms of dates and likely proximity to Shakespeare, and likely skill in filling a morning or an afternoon producing a very attractive memento of the older man.

SHEIR: I want to talk now about some of the other Shakespeare portraits that have emerged through the centuries. Do I have it right that you say there have been at least 60 fake Shakespeare portraits?

DUNCAN-JONES: Sixty portraits alleged by somebody, at some time, to be of Shakespeare, which are not now generally believed to be of Shakespeare, yes.

SHEIR: Okay, and there are four portraits that you talk about in the book that I’d like for you to comment on. We have the Flower portrait, the Sanders portrait, the Grafton portrait, and the Cobbe portrait. Give us the low-down on the first one, the Flower portrait?

DUNCAN-JONES: The Flower portrait is, it’s rather sad in a way, because it’s a very attractive painting, and it was given to the Royal Shakespeare Company as a wonderful, splendid honoring of Shakespeare, through this fairly recently discovered portrait. But unfortunately, it didn’t survive some tests, in terms of the kind of paint that it was done with, and it does turn out to be a fake. It’s very attractive... it’s more attractive, one might say, than some of the... any of the three “authentic” historical images of Shakespeare. But it is, alas, a 19th-century creation.

SHEIR: And the Cobbe portrait, tell us about that one?

DUNCAN-JONES: The Cobbe portrait isn’t a fake. It’s a very splendid Jacobean portrait, which I am not convinced is of Shakespeare, for various reasons that I think are probably a bit too complicated to go into here. One is that... well, two, the two main reasons why I don’t think it’s of Shakespeare: It’s a very grand painting and will have required expensive work by a fully trained and practiced limner. I’m not sure who would have paid for that during Shakespeare’s lifetime. Also, the young man portrayed is wearing a very, very grand lace collar of a kind that would normally be worn by, I would think, very few young men below the rank of nobleman, and Shakespeare certainly wasn’t a nobleman. And then the final reason is, that I think it’s one of a whole group of portraits of an unfortunate nobleman called Sir Thomas Overbury, who died in the Tower of London, having got into trouble with King James, and I think that it is a portrait of Overbury. I don’t think it’s a fake, but I think it’s a very splendid painting. But I don’t think it depicts Shakespeare.

SHEIR: So where did the idea come from that it is of Shakespeare?

DUNCAN-JONES: It came from the owner, Mr. Alec Cobbe, who saw it and then saw a portrait of Shakespeare in the Folger, which was then thought to be of Shakespeare, is actually of Thomas Overbury. And then, moving sideways, Mr. Alec Cobbe’s very splendid portrait is very, very like the one at the Folger, as Mr. Cobbe himself recognized. A very fine portrait. I don’t myself think that it is of Shakespeare.

SHEIR: What’s the story of the Sanders portrait?

DUNCAN-JONES: The Sanders portrait has been traced back to a man called John Sanders, who was 19th century, so it doesn’t go... the provenance doesn’t go very far back. And it has been thought to be possibly authentic, because there’s a bit of paper attached to the back of the wood panel, painting on a wood panel, which gives the birth and death dates and the right age for Shakespeare. But it does appear that the label was written and attached to the back of the painting at a considerably later date. Somebody wanted to claim that it was of Shakespeare and wrote this label and put it on the back. And, of course, in a way, nothing is more easy than to write something on the back, on a bit of paper, and stick it on the back of a portrait. So it’s a mistake, rather than a fake. It’s just a portrait, which for a period of time was believed to be authentic.

SHEIR: You do some great detective work in the book because the date given for Shakespeare’s birth is April 23, that’s St. George’s Day, but you write that wasn’t adopted as his official birthday until the 18th century.

DUNCAN-JONES: Well, exactly, exactly yes, because it’s a notional date, rather than a real date, and that’s one of the reasons why it’s more recently been decided that the bit of paper was an attempt at a mistaken attribution.

SHEIR: So let’s talk about the fourth portrait now, the Grafton portrait?

DUNCAN-JONES: Yes, well, this is quite an attractive portrait that seems to be of the period. The age is right; he’s aged 24 in 1588 and that is what Shakespeare’s age would have been. But he would have... 24 is very, very young. I mean Shakespeare was... had a daughter and then twins. He was a father of three. He was only 24, he wasn’t yet in any way a man of substance or wealth, though he may have already been either considering joining an acting company or might already have joined one, to bring money into the family. It’s very hard to know who in 1588 would have painted Shakespeare’s portrait. It doesn’t look very much like the other images, the three that we’ve already looked at. It just doesn’t really seem to work. You know, I think, the general opinion is that it’s a genuine Elizabethan portrait of a young man, who happened to be the same age as William Shakespeare. But he’s not William Shakespeare. Also, its provenance is rather odd; perhaps I should just read you a bit: "The owners recalled an old family tradition that the portrait had been bequeathed by one of the Dukes of Grafton to their ancestor, a yeoman farmer in the village of Grafton, Northamptonshire five or six generations previously." Well, that seems to me a bit of a cock and bull story. Why would a grand duke bequeath a portrait that he believed to be of the already extremely famous Shakespeare to a yeoman farmer, who probably wouldn’t have a grand enough house to display a very good Elizabethan portrait? It just doesn’t ring true.

SHEIR: Katherine, is there some motivation to fake an image of Shakespeare or to claim that an image is of Shakespeare?

DUNCAN-JONES: Yes, I mean people are wanting... It’s huge, there was and is huge motivation. I would love to find an image of Shakespeare, because we read him, we see him performed, we think he’s wonderful. And I mean even now one would... It’s trivial; it doesn’t, in a way, matter what he looked like, but it would be lovely to know what he looked like. So we go on wanting to know what he looked like, but it’s a desire that will probably never be satisfied.

SHEIR: So you say it doesn’t matter what he looked like, which then leads me to ask,  why write a book about his portrait?

DUNCAN-JONES: Well, it’s interesting in itself, I think, as a bit of art history. But it’s also interesting to see what people have either thought Shakespeare looked like or thought that he was, he ought to have looked like. But, of course, the real sort of story behind it is something almost bigger than portraiture, and that is, who was the man who wrote those plays, to which we are still responding to, and seeing performed, and engaging with. We’re sort of bound to be curious, to have some sort of idea of what this great writer might have looked like in the flesh, even though the desire can probably never be fully satisfied.

SHEIR: Well, Katherine Duncan-Jones, thank you so much.

DUNCAN-JONES: Thank you, I’ve enjoyed it.


WITMORE: Katherine Duncan-Jones is professor emerita of English literature at Oxford and an honorary professor of English at University College, London. Her book, Portraits of Shakespeare, was published by Oxford’s Bodleian Library in 2015. Katherine was interviewed by Rebecca Sheir.

“Now Thy Image Doth Appear” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. We had help from Nick Moorbath at Evolution Recording Studio in Oxford.

Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, folger.edu. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.