The face of William Shakespeare?

There are many things surrounding William Shakespeare which is shrouded in mystery, one is how he may have looked and whether the portraits Cobbe, Chandos and Droeshout may answer that question. Below Steven Wadlow tells of how the painting haning for years in his childhood home turned out to be a possibly contemporary of a man that very well may be the Bard.

When and how did you realise that the portrait in question might be William WadlowShakespeare?

Having just turned 50, I have known the Portrait all of my life. My father (now retired) was an antique dealer and picture frame restorer and he acquired it many years ago. As a child I was rather wary of it, as it followed you around the room, like the portraits in Scooby Doo! It has been hanging on the wall in the corner of the sitting room in a small 200- year old house on the corner of a road called Chapel Street in the Shires. I say this, as it is rather ironic that Shakespeare’s home in Stratford upon Avon was on the corner of Chapel Street and so if it is The Bard, he should have felt at home! Alas, he no longer sits on the wall and is now in safe storage and we hope that it will not be too long before he can be displayed for all to see.
For all of the time he has sat quietly on the wall, we have sometimes wondered whom he may be, but I confess, most of the time he has sat there quietly and anomalously. But, to get to your question, early in December 2013 my parents were watching a Time Team Special about the excavation of Shakespeare’s home ‘New Place’ and during the course of the program an image of Shakespeare (that my parents had not previously seen) was frequently used. The image was The Cobbe portrait (that had only been ‘discovered’ as a probable portrait of the Bard some four years previously). On seeing this image my parents both thought it looked similar to the portrait hanging above their television and called me, saying that they thought our portrait may be Shakespeare and I should have a look on the internet to see what I thought.


Cobbe portrait

I did have a quick look, thought it similar, but to be honest, I thought no more of it. At that time we had no idea what a discovery this would be and what a tenuous area  Shakespeare’s portraits were, indeed I thought they were probably ‘ten a penny’ and I was slightly put off by the Coat of Arms on the portrait bearing no resemblance to the Shakespeare arms. And then there was a remarkable coincidence, after all of these years with little comment, a neighbour visited my parents’ home for Christmas drinks a couple of weeks after the Time Team program and brought with them their mother who had not visited before. When she came into the sitting room she commented that she liked the “copy of Shakespeare on the wall. My father took it off the wall and showed her it was not a copy and I think she had to sit down and have a drink! It turned out that the lady lectures in art and Literature (although not a Shakespeare expert). She pointed out that we should really look into it further, thus the start of my research.

How have you gone about your research?

I have to admit straight away, that although I have always enjoyed research and History I not a researcher, I also ashamed to admit, that prior to my research beginning I knew very little about Shakespeare’s work or his life. I have since learned a great deal about his life (but I am still very ignorant regarding his works, but that is something I am trying to address). I have found his life absolutely fascinating and I am fascinated by the period in general, so if nothing else, this whole episode will have ignited a passion for learning about him and the period that will I am sure remain with me for life. So far as researching the portrait and Shakespeare’s life, I started (and apologies to my family) from scratch, basically on the internet and then reading any book I could get hold of on portraits of the period and Shakespeare.


Chandos portrait

I was not sure if our portrait was Shakespeare, it did not at first site look to me like the Droeshout or the Chandos, but I could see similarities with the Cobbe. I watched a video called Battle of Wills about the research into the sanders portrait and copied their pattern of research to a degree. I made very crude cut outs (scaled) and did my own version of ‘photo shop’ (which I do not have) and I could see there were in fact many similarities, but I was not sure if I was convincing myself from a biased angle. The first thing I wanted to do was find out about the Coat of Arms and so I corresponded with the College of Arms, where ‘Chester Herald’ Timothy Duke was most helpful and confirmed that the Coat of Arms on our portrait did not exist and was a poorly added addition (a fake). He recommended that we have the portrait x Rayed as original ‘arms’ may be found beneath.
I took the portrait to the top experts and connoisseurs who confirmed the age correct to Shakespeare’s period and whom were all impressed at what a fine portrait it is. We then took it to The Hamilton Kerr Institute at Cambridge University for X Ray and other tests. The X-Ray confirmed that there was indeed something previously beneath where the (fake) Coat of Arms now is and it also revealed that a shield shape was on the other side beneath over paint and this is very likely a coat of arms now hidden. I then contacted a Shakespeare Historian & author, Simon Stirling, who had been researching Shakespeare portraits for his opinion, which was very positive.

We then had some actual photo shop mergers done with the Cobbe, Chandos and Droeshout, all of which were impressive, although amateur. Last summer I took the portrait to Lumiere technology in Paris (in the new lately for their work and discoveries regarding The Mona Lisa), to see if they could discover what was beneath the over paint and this research is ongoing. They did though, from the initial test, believe that the portrait was painted from life and they also made a professional video merger of the Portrait and the Droeshout, which is very impressive. In fact the only area that appears different is the one area that X ray showed had been re painted / changed.

What has the reception been so far?

In a word, ‘Mixed’. I really do believe from all I have learned, discovered and seen that this is a portrait of William Shakespeare. I also believe and understand that to many, this is “Too good to be true”. We are somewhat stuck in so much as we really need a heavy weight academic ‘scholar’ behind us, but this is difficult without a ‘Heavy weight’ Institution behind us, and we cannot get such an institution behind us without the scholar!

As one art historian put it, “I cannot help investigate based on the portrait being Shakespeare, there are too many academic ships wrecks on that shore”! This is of course rather frustrating, as even though I am convinced and other have agreed, the people we need to take this seriously for it to move forward, aren’t, as it is easier to say no, rather than yes and then be proven wrong. It is a shame as we are not actually asking anyone to say THIS IS WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE, we are asking for them to take the possibility seriously and help us prove that it is, or indeed is not! It is clear that no portrait of Shakespeare will turn up with a full provenance, none has yet.

Therefore, if we have a portrait that looks as though it could in fact be a life portrait, should we ignore it or try to find out more? One last point on reception so far. At the beginning I naively thought that the owners of the other portraits suspected (as none are proven) as Shakespeare may assist me. Wrong!  Let’s just say that the response from some showed a degree of what I believe was serious concern of a new kid on the block, and their comments rather than put me off, convinced me further that I am correct!


Droeshout portrait

You have speculated around the fact that Shakespeare may have been Catholic, what made you think that might have been the case?

Of course, the possibility of Shakespeare being a ‘secret’ catholic, or at the least a catholic sympathiser is not a new idea. The debate on his religious beliefs has raged for years. It is not really something I had ever thought about or believe would really matter, but as I have said, my research has included the reading of many articles and books about Shakespeare and his life and the catholic angle keeps coming up and seems to be suggested by some historians far more educated in the matter than me. It is something one has to decide for one’s self, but from what I have read, understanding the times, his families links with well-known Catholic families, his families previous beliefs & parts of his works that some think may allude to the faith, I personally believe that it is likely that he was Catholic (I am not, so I have no agenda on this) or at the least it should not be ruled out.

One can understand how that, if so, may have posed a problem during Shakespeare´s own lifetime, only decades after the suppression of the Monastic system, but you suggest that it, if confirmed, could be less than favourably received even today, why?

I do believe that there may be elements of society ‘even today’ that may not favourably receive the news that Shakespeare was Catholic. But I do not want to believe it and hope that I am wrong and indeed would be happy to be wrong.

My thoughts on this and I am no expert and would happily be corrected, is that whilst England (and I say England deliberately rather than the UK) is an extremely tolerant country of race and religion there are (as expect there are in most countries) bound to be undercurrents of distrust, fear or scepticism regarding religions other than ‘your own’, of course these are unfounded and unspoken, but to some they are there. With England, over the last few centuries since the late 16th century, not so now, the ‘enemy’ (for want of a better word) was generally Catholic / or Catholic countries, of course, James 1st tried to court both Catholic and Protestant nations, but generally the anti-catholic feeling was prevalent in the country from then and onwards.

This did not lessen as late as Victorian times, which, let’s face it were really only just over a hundred years ago! This may seem like a long time ago, but this is brought into perspective, when you realise our current queen is 90 this week! The Victorian era was one where there was much ‘ant-catholic’ sentiment, through news articles, pamphlets and even in a type of propaganda through fictional books. This ‘anti-Catholic’ atmosphere was far less prevalent after the second world war, but even if we look to the last half century, the ‘troubles’ in Ireland did not help with Catholic / Protestant relations and again thankfully things now are much better as they should be.

But the point is this, the English for the last few hundred years have had this ‘drummed’ into them through History lessons, books and media, not obviously lately, but nevertheless there. It is very difficult for a Catholic to be Prime Minister, there are restrictions on the royal family (although this has been improved lately). And so I think it is very likely that there are likely to be elements of the English establishment event today, which would be less than enthusiastic about England’s greatest cultural export turning out to have been Catholic. I am sure though, that overtime, this will become less and less of a problem.

Do you at the moment see a point where your “suspicions” that the painting is indeed a previously unknown painting of William Shakespeare will be confirmed?

Bearing in mind that (although I believe they are) The Chandos & now the Cobbe are not 100% proven to be Shakespeare and I believe, now, never can be & even the much researched ‘Sanders’ meets objections from many scholars (I am not sure about that one), my answer is a definite YES.
Our portrait has a certain mystery to it and all that have seen it, (including technical research) agree that whoever the sitter is, at some point there has been a deliberate attempt to disguise the identity. Which has of course worked, and would explain why no one realised it was Shakespeare (if it is) many years ago.
We are confident that beneath overpaint is inscription and a coat of arms or crest of some type. If we are unlucky, these have been completely scratched off and then, no we will never know, but if they were completely scratched off, we would not (I believe) be able to see the shield shape in the X Ray) and so I am confident that we will be lucky and find what is beneath. This will then prove that tis portrait is William Shakespeare, or that it is not! The real question is when?  We are nervous and reluctant to have the overpaint physically removed to find what is beneath, as careful as restorers are, it is not 100% safe and any ‘accident’ could then result in any evidence beneath being wiped away for ever.

This is why we are publicising our predicament in the hope that at some point an institution may come forward with technology that can see what is beneath for us, without physically interfering with the portrait. We have taken it to such a place in Paris, but they are a commercial enterprise and thus can only assist us to a point. That said, they are so interested, that their research is ongoing for us, but commercial work has to come first and their work on the Mona Lisa took over ten years! Thus we are keen to have other different technical analysis carried out alongside that research. If at all possible.

Theories of identity – the alleged Shakespeare mystery

Some subjects, in history or in our time, can be a bit like a hornets nest. It shouldn´t be touched or poked, because the risk is that you will be severely stung. But probably against better judgement, I will try to approach the theories existing around the identity of William Shakespeare.

I will yet again stress that I personally hold the very firm belief that William Shakespeare was the man born in Stratford to John Shakespeare and Mary Arden, but some people don´t, and I´m curious enough to take a peak at what they actually believe, and why.

Let´s start out with the ones that has been lifted as potential candidates. Some years ago, the film Anonymous came and went, and at the bottom of the plot was the Oxfordian theory which holds as a fact that the real Shakespeare was Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford.

Edward-de-Vere-1575This is seemingly the most popular theory and contains a fair amount of conspiracy theory, namely that records has been falsified to protect the identity of the real author. It was first presented in the 1920 by Thomas Looney, an English writer to whom it was inconceivable that a person further down the social ladder than a nobleman could possibly create the work that William Shakespeare, the son of a glover, did.

There are no links to connect de Vere to the actual work of Shakespeare, and in absence of evidence, that absence has come to in itself be evidence for the Oxfordian following, a so called argument from silence.

The proof for the true identity of Shakespeare, according to Oxfordian theorists, are similarities between the life of Edward de Vere and Shakespeare´s plays, longer poems and sonnets. This would of course mean that a large number of his work would in fact be biographical. One also point out similarities in language, idioms and thought in Shakespeare´s work and surviving letters and poems actually written by de Vere.

In this case, one could on the other hand argue that no man is an island, and that it isn´t that rare to find similarities between two contemporary men without coming to the conclusion that they are one and the same.

That no plays exist under de Vere´s own name is taking as further evidence, as one is of the opinion that he may have been one of several writers suppressed during the 16th and 17th century, one of the “anonymous”. Edward de Vere died in 1604, at which point the world had another 12 plays penned by Shakespeare to look forward to.

This is by Oxfordian’s explained by stating that a dedication to the Sonnets implies that the author was dead previous to the publication, and that the plays written after 1604 are the work of collaborators of de Vere.

In one of the many branches of the Oxford theory one also find a love child of de Vere´s and Elizabeth I who, as an homage to his father’s nom de plume, adopted the stage name William Shakespeare.

Other circumstances considered evidence by the Oxfordian’s are de Vere´s connections to the theatre as he was a known patron, family connections as the dedications of Shakespeare´s plays are to actual or proposed husbands of de Vere´s daughters (the earls of Southampton, Montgomery and Pembroke). On the other hand, there wouldn´t have existed many other authors at the time if a few Oxfordian’s are to be believed as there are those who think de Vere was also Edmund Spenser, Christopher Marlowe, Philp Sidney, John Lyly, George Peele, George Gascoigne, Raphael Holinshed, Robert Greene, Thomas Phaer, and Arthur Golding. The author and motivational speaker Paul Streitz has even suggested that de Vere is the real man behind King James Bible.

Common for Oxfordian’s is that they disregard evidence found by historians

The theories of another author than the man from Stratford-upon-Avon started in theFrancis_Bacon,_Viscount_St_Alban_from_NPG_(2) 19th century, and the first candidate was Sir Francis Bacon, philosopher, essayist and scientist, in the Baconian theory and his reason for writing under a pseudonym should have been that being a playwright would presumably have been that this dubious occupation would have hindered him from achieving success within his other areas.

Here, as in the Oxfordian theory, William Shakespeare himself is mostly a poster boy.

This theory was introduced by Delia Bacon, American writer of plays and short stories who eventually thought she herself was a descendant of Sir Francis (which she wasn´t). The Baconian Theory seems to be a mish-mash of misunderstandings, including the 18th century pamphlet The Learned Pig which has no references to Francis Bacon at all (here I really have to bite my, if not tongue, so the fingers I write with) and research, exposed as fraudulent, conducted by the English clergyman James Wilmot.

During the 19th century it was claimed by some that Bacon through ciphers in the text of the original plays (by Shakespeare) revealed his true identity, and while de Vere was suggested as the father of Elizabeth I´s alleged son, it was now suggested that Francis Bacon himself. The father in this version would be the favourite courtier Robert Dudley, and Robert Devereux was supposedly the younger brother.

All in all, the Baconian theory is about hidden messages, secret codes and a profound contempt for the idea that someone of a humble origin could have a profound talent, and it has rightfully been dismissed by all serious academics.

marlowe-corpuschristiThere is also the Marlovian theory, where someone I find incredibly fascinating in his own right is dragged in to the attempts to prove Shakespeare wasn´t Shakespeare; the playwright Christopher Marlowe.

This theory is based on the assumption that Marlowe was not at all murdered in Deptford in 1593, but change identity and continued writing under the assumed name of William Shakespeare. The assumptions are based on alleged anomalies surrounding Marlowe´s death and the fact Shakespeare´s name was connected with any literary work for the first time two weeks after Marlowe´s death.

The death of Christopher Marlowe was however acknowledged as genuine by 16 jurors at the time, and as he was far from unknown at the time of his passing, it´s highly unlikely that he would have lived on as another person without ever having been exposed. There *are* things surrounding both his life and his death that raise questions, but the possibility that he would have been Shakespeare is not one of them.

The funny thing about this theory, which was initiated in the 1890´s by T.W. White is that it was preceded in the 1820´s by another theory presented by an anonymous writer in The Monthly Review; that Christopher Marlowe might at one point have been a pseudonym used by William Shakespeare.

Finally, the probably least known theory, and also the one to have the least life in it; the6thEarlOfDerby Derbyite theory. In this it is suggested that the “real” Shakespeare was William Stanley, 6th Earl of Derby.

Introduced in the late 19th century, by the archivist James H. Greenstreet, this is a theory that has been favoured by French writers. It is based on the discovery of letters stating that Derby was “penning plays for common players”.

Greenstreet pointed out similarities in Love´s Labour´s Lost and a pageant only held at Derby´s home. Greenstreet however died at the age of 45 before he had the chance to elaborate any further on his theory.


Seven Pillories of Wisdom – David R. Hall

 Historical evidence and argument – David P. Henige

 Shakespeare´s Fingerprints – Michael Brame, Galina Popova

 The Genius of Shakespeare – Jonathan Bate

 Hollywood Dishonours the Bard – James Shapiro, New York Times

 Forgery on forgery – James Shapiro, Times Literary Supplement

 England’s Elizabeth: An Afterlife in Fame and Fantasy – Michael Dobson & Nicola J. Watson

 The Monthly Review, Or, Literary Journal – Ralph Griffiths, G. E. Griffiths



The language of William Shakespeare

There is a scene in Black Adder where Rowan Atkinson punch William Shakespeare inShakespeare the shape of Colin Firth for the suffering he has caused endless school boys and school girls for the past 400 years, as they without result tried to find a joke in Midsummer Night´s Dream.

But while it is a recurring joke about the torment suffered primarily by English students as they were forced to read Shakespeare in school, one shouldn´t underestimate his impact on the language we all speak when we speak English, regardless if it´s as mother tongue or an acquired language later on. Surely we have all at one point stated that something or someone – maybe ourselves even – has “seen better days”? Maybe we have “come full circle” or stated that we´ve ended up with “strange bedfellows”. All of a sudden, we have without realising it, most likely, quoted William Shakespeare. It has been estimated that Shakespeare used 17 677 words in his work, plays, poems, sonnets included, and that 1 700 of those words were used for the very first time the moment Shakespeare wrote them down.

He is also considered to have borrowed freely from classical literature and languages other than English, something actually done by the entire nation during the period; it´s estimated that between 1500 and 1659, no less than 30 000 new words were added to the English language through nouns, verbs and modifiers of Latin, Greek and modern Romance languages.

quotesIn Shakespeare´s time, as well as -of course – prior to his time, English was not standardised, but as his plays became popular, it contributed to shaping a more uniform language.

Shakespeare has of course inspired other playwrights and authors, Charles Dickens and Herman Melville have been mentioned, but also more recent cultural expressions, such as lines in songs, titles of albums and films.

A few examples are given by Hepzibah Andersson in her article for BBC Culture; singer Nick Lowe, Agatha Christie and Alfred Hitchcock borrowed from Hamlet while Iron Maiden got a quote from Richard III and Mumford and Sons found a title for an album in Much Ado About Nothing.

Whether that was done unwittingly or done intentionally, I dare not say, but I can promise you that you at some point will quote Shakespeare without thinking about it. Maybe you are visited by the “green-eyed monster of jealousy”, or you simply refer to something as “gossip”, and there he is, smiling just in the corner of your eye.



How Shakespeare influences the way we speak now – Hepzibah Andersson, BBC Culture

Words Shakespeare invented – Shakespeare Online

Shakespeare coined words now common currency – Jennifer Vernon, National Geographic News



April: Shakespeare Month

We have entered the month which sees the anniversary of the death of the Bard,702px-Shakespeare William Shakespeare. On April 23rd it will be 400 years since the greatest playwright of all times passed away in 1616, opening the door to all kinds of speculation about him, and even about who he was.

Personally I will hold on to the opinion that the man who wrote the plays was who he said he was, a man born in Stratford upon Avon, son of John Shakespeare and Mary Arden, husband of Anne Hathaway until I´m beyond even the slightest shadow of a doubt convinced otherwise.

I will how ever take the opportunity to explore the different theories of those who believe otherwise.

My ambition for this month, which will for the already mentioned reason, see more posts than normally about Shakespeare, is to be able to present both regular posts/articles as well as interviews with people who in different ways has dedicated parts or all of their lives to William Shakespeare, his work and legacy.

In the meantime, please check out these links for activities in related to the anniversary:



Shakespeare´s England

Shakespeare´s Globe

Shakespeare Lives


World-Wide Shakespeare

The Wonder of Will: 400 Years of Shakespeare

Shakespeare 400 Chicago


(where they also commemorate the 400 year annivarsary of the death of Cervantes)

Cervantes and Shakespeare

And last but not least, a European compilation

European Shakespeare Festivals Network