Shakespeare: writer claims discovery of only portrait made during his lifetime

139af321-11aa-4fcb-9cb7-067289f6a50a-620x372Historian Mark Griffiths says picture of unknown man on title page of botanical work is playwright, as editor hails ‘literary discovery of the century’

A small monochrome engraving of a handsome laurel-wreathed man on the title page of a 16th century book on plants is the only demonstrably authentic portrait of William Shakespeare made in his lifetime, it has been claimed.

The suggestion is, by any measurement, a sensational one. It was made by the botanist and historian Mark Griffiths, who first discovered it five years ago and has been secretly trying to disprove it ever since.

The scoop belongs to Country Life magazine, to which Griffiths is a regular contributor. Mark Hedges, the magazine’s editor, said it was “the literary discovery of the century”.

He added: “This is the only known verifiable portrait of the world’s greatest writer made in his lifetime, it is an absolutely extraordinary discovery… until today, no one knew what William Shakespeare looked like in his lifetime.”

The only known authentic likenesses of Shakespeare are the familiar ones of a round-headed bald man that exist in the First Folio of his collected works and the effigy on his monument at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon. Both of these were made posthumously.

Over the years there have been many subsequent claims to have found the real Shakespeare, the most recent being in 2009, when Shakespeare Birthplace Trust suggested that a painting, known as the Cobbe Portrait, could be the only portrait of Shakespeare painted in his lifetime. Academics then queued up to pour scorn on the claim.

Griffiths, with a substantial amount of compelling evidence, is claiming that this is the living face of a 33-year-old Shakespeare made when he was at the height of his celebrity – shortly after writing A Midsummer Night’s Dream and shortly before Hamlet.

The engraving by William Rogers, England’s first great exponent of copperplate engraving, is on the title page of an important and groundbreaking 1598 book called The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes by the horticulturist John Gerard.

It is full of elaborate decorative devices, flowers and symbols which surround four male figures, who had been generally assumed to be allegorical.

Griffiths, in the course of writing a book about Gerard, tasked himself with discovering who the men might be.

To do this, he had to crack an elaborate Tudor code of rebuses, ciphers, heraldic motifs and symbolic flowers, which were all clues pointing to who the men were.

The relatively easy ones were Gerard himself, the renowned Flemish botanist Rembert Dodoens, and Queen Elizabeth’s chief minister and closest adviser Lord Burghley, who was Gerard’s patron.

So that left the tricky fourth man, bottom right.

“My problems began,” said Griffiths. “He’s dressed as a Roman, wearing laurels and meant to make us think of Apollo and poetry … I couldn’t think of anybody really who was a direct intimate of Gerard’s and was involved in writing his book.”

Slowly, after reading up on how devious the Elizabethans were in encoding their meanings, Griffiths began, he said, to solve the clues provided by the symbols and flowers around the fourth man.

They include:

• A figure 4 and an arrow head with an E stuck to it. In Elizabethan times people would have used the Latin word “quater as a slang term for a four in dice and cards. Put an e on it and it becomes quatere, which is the infinitive of the Latin verb quatior, meaning shake. Look closely and the four can be seen as a spear.

“It is a very beautiful example of the kind of device that Elizabethans, particularly courtiers, had great fun creating,” said Griffiths.

Underneath it is a W – for William? And OR? A few months before it was engraved Shakespeare’s father was granted a coat of arms with a golden background. The heraldic term for gold is OR.

• He is holding a snake’s head fritillary flower (fritillaria meleagris) which had only been discovered in France 20 years earlier and was pioneered by Gerard for British gardens. “It was a sensational horticultural novelty, people were very excited. It was as hot as an equatorial orchid would have been to the Victorian sensibility,” said Griffiths. In Venus and Adonis Shakespeare did not have Adonis metamorphose into an anemone after being gored by a boar, as tradition dictated. He turned him into a snake’s head fritillary.

“Believe me, there is only one piece of Elizabethan creative writing that refers to this extraordinary new flower and that is Venus and Adonis,” said Griffiths.

• Two irises, one French, one English, can be seen as referring to Henry VI Part One.

• An ear of sweetcorn the man is holding refers, Griffiths argues, to the play Titus Andronicus and the speech Marcus makes about gathering the sad-faced people of Rome, “this scatter’d corn into one mutual sheaf.”

Griffiths believes all the clues lead to it being Shakespeare, that he had not a shred of doubt. “For me it is not about doubt or supposition. I’m faced with a series of facts that I can’t gainsay, as much as I try. This is what these facts are, these are what the plants are, this is what they signify, this is what the symbol decodes as. All of that adds up to Shakespeare. I can’t make that – and believe me I’ve tried – add up to anybody else but Shakespeare.”

All of which raises the question: why is he there?

Griffiths believes Shakespeare was given his literary start by Burghley, the most powerful man in the country – and that he became almost a political propagandist for him.

If you accept that theory then Shakesepeare of course would have moved in the same circle as Gerard as both men had Burghley to thank for their careers.

Griffiths said his theory was that Shakespeare helped Gerard with Greek and Latin translations in the book and acted as a kind of script doctor. So the four men are the writer himself, his patron, his inspiration (Dodoens) and his literary adviser.

But Griffiths promised more to come on that score, including the discovery of a new short play, which he will claim is by Shakespeare.

Griffiths said he had consulted an eminent but anonymous Shakespearean scholar, who had approved of his method. He also enlisted the help of Edward Wilson, emeritus fellow of Worcester College, Oxford, who set about trying to disprove it being Shakespeare.

Wilson said he failed in that mission. “We do not think anyone is going to disprove it,” he said. “This is the most important contribution to be made to our knowledge of Shakespeare in generations.”

Shakespearean studies is littered with examples of scholars finding a “true” image of Shakespeare only for it to be proved false.

Just as Griffiths claims he has cracked a code there will be academics examining his evidence for flaws.

Professor Michael Dobson, director of the Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham, was among the first to pour scorn on the theory.

“I’m deeply unconvinced,” he said. “I haven’t seen the detailed arguments but Country Life is certainly not the first publication to make this sort of claim.

“One has seen so many claims on Shakespeare based on somebody claiming to crack a code. And nobody else has apparently been able to decipher this for 400 years.

“And there’s no evidence that anybody thought that this was Shakespeare at the time.”

He added: “I can’t imagine any reason why Shakespeare would be in a botany textbook. It’s a lovely picture. Everybody is very fond of it. But that doesn’t mean that he had anything to do with it apart from the fact that he read it.

“It’s a man in a toga, holding a little bit of a corn on the cob in one hand and a fritillary in the other.”

Griffiths said he would stand firm. “What we have here is a series of incontrovertible facts. I dare say people will think: ‘Oh no. it’s not him.’ But there is no other construction that can be placed on these facts. It is not an assumption that he is Shakespeare, it is algebra … it is an equation.”

Griffiths said the identification of Gerard, Burghley and Dodoens was straightforward because they look like existing portraits. The question remains: does this young Shakespeare, with his good looks and hipster moustache, look anything like the First Folio Shakespeare which would have been him 10 years older and was based on a now lost portrait?

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