What Dost Thou Looketh Like, Mr. Shakespeare?

Today, April 23, traditionally marks both William Shakespeare’s birthday and the day of his death, fitting a poet who could pack so much meaning into a phrase, a line, a monologue.

But, actually, we don’t know when Shakespeare was born. He was baptized on April 26, 1564, in Stratford-upon-Avon, and died there on April 23 1616, at 52. Perhaps he was born on April 23. Perhaps he wasn’t. Perhaps the symmetry is too hard to resist.

The idea that we know what he looked like is also hard to resist. All existing depictions of Shakespeare are variations on one of three “original” likenesses. How “original” or how much of a “likeness” these three images are is up for debate.

These are the three:

The so-called Chandos portrait, painted perhaps between 1600 and 1610, perhaps depicting Shakespeare in his early 40’s:


Then there’s the Droeshout engraving, i.e. the frontispiece of Shakespeare’s First Folio (1623), not drawn from life, as its subject had been dead seven years:


And then there’s the bust at his funerary monument at Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon (placed there in 1623, the same year of the First Folio). Mark Twain unkindly described it as having “the deep, deep, subtle, subtle expression of a bladder:”


That’s it. Every likeness of Shakespeare we’ve ever seen comes from a mix of these three images and imagination.

The trouble is, we don’t really know if any of these images accurately depict Shakespeare. Two were executed by mediocre artists years after his death, and the earliest and best one (artistically speaking) may not even be him at all.

For more on this (and much, much, else besides) I recommend the eminently readable Shakespeare: The World as Stage, by Bill Bryson.


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