The debate about what Shakespeare looked like has taken a new turn with the discovery of a new portrait by Cobbe. This is one of those things about the Bard that will probably never be resolved. There are some who insist on the Sanders Portrait, but there are quite a few problems with that. The most serious is that the picture was painted when Shakespeare was almost forty but it’s an image of a much younger man.
The latest candidate is more credible. It is the Cobbe portrait, which has been in the Cobbe family since it was part of a marriage settlement when a member of the family married a great-granddaughter of Henry Wriothesley, the 3rd Earl of Southampton, who was Shakespeare’s patron. He was believed to have commissioned the portrait by an artist whose identity has, sadly, been lost.
It’s an exciting discovery because it has that direct link with Shakespeare’s friend and patron – the young man of the sonnets. What’s more, the picture has been dated to about 1610, six years before Shakespeare’s death. Shakespeare would have been forty-six, a man in his prime and at the height of his fame and wealth. The portrait seems to show just such a man. As a successful businessman and playwright, already the equivalent of a modern-day millionaire, Shakespeare would have presented himself just like that. And it looks more like a successful forty-six year old than some of the other candidates.
We all have the same mental picture when we think about Shakespeare. It is an iconic picture – more like a logo or symbol than a picture of a living person. It’s an image of a high-domed, stern, wooden presence presented on a black and white woodcut. That’s the short-cut image that anyone wanting to refer us instantly to the Bard produces.
It’s the engraving by Martin Droeshout, an important portrait because Droeshout was 15 when Shakespeare died and 22 when he did the engraving. It’s unlikely that he ever saw Shakespeare but he is thought to have worked from an authentic portrait, which either hasn’t survived or hasn’t been identified. Scholars are getting excited now because a consensus seems to be growing that the Cobbe portrait is that painting.
The Cobbe portrait went on display at The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-Upon-Avon on 23rd April, Shakespeare’s birthday, and continues until 6th September, in the exhibition “Shakespeare Found: A Life Portrait.”