This page runs through the various William Shakespeare images that exist. Sadly there’s no William Shakespeare photo (as cameras were not around in the Elizabethan era!), but there are a number of Shakespeare portraits, paintings, engravings and sculptures.

As with many questions around his life and identity, determining what William Shakespeare really looked like is a tricky area, full of supposition, conjecture, and guesswork.  Of the images of Shakespeare have been created over the years, each has its champions who insist that a particular Shakespeare image is the true representation of the man. Below are what are regarded as the most important William Shakespeare images, along with a brief overview of each, and our take on how likley it is to be a lifelike Shakespeare image.

NoSweatShakespeare Logo

Whenever anyone wants to create an instant recognition impression of Shakespeare they present this kind of shorthand image – a man with a dome-like high forehead, a beard and moustache, and shoulder-length hair. As soon as you see it you think ‘Shakespeare.’ This logo – and the many similar Shakespeare images – are inspired by the Droeshout engraving.

Likelihood of being a lifelike image of Shakespeare: 6/10

NoSweatShakespeare logo

NoSweatShakespeare logo

The Droeshout Engraving

The Droeshout engraving is a strong contender for the distinction of being a good likeness of Shakespeare, although it is not lifelike. The English engraver, Martin Droeshout, created it for the First Folio (first edition) of Shakespeare’s published works. Droeshout was 15 when Shakespeare died and 22 when he did the engraving. It is unlikely that he ever saw Shakespeare, but he is thought to have worked from an authentic Shakespeare portrait which either hasn’t survived or hasn’t yet been identified. Scholars are increasingly excited that a consensus seems to be growing that the Cobbe portrait is that painting.

The Droeshout Shakespeare image

The Droeshout engraving

Likelihood of being a lifelike image of Shakespeare: 7/10

The Hilliard Miniature

Titled ‘An unknown Man’, the Hilliard Minature is very pretty, but there is not a great deal of credibility in the claim that it is a portrait of Shakespeare. Apart from everything else, it is nothing like the more credible images and is an expensive painting by a society artist. It is also clearly a portrait of a young aristocrat, which Shakespeare was not. We feel it’s very unlikely this miniature is even intended to be a portrait of Shakespeare.

Likelihood of being a lifelike image of Shakespeare: 3/10

The Hilliard Shakespeare portrait

The Hilliard miniature

The Sanders Portrait

The Sanders Portrait was discovered in an attic in a house in Canada in 2002. It created a great deal of interest, with experts taking sides at numerous conferences about it. It’s a nice idea that this is an authentic picture of the young Shakespeare, but there are a number of problems with the portrait – not least that it was painted when Shakespeare was 39 years old, but it is a painting of a much younger man.

Likelihood of being a lifelike image of Shakespeare: 4/10

Cobbe portrait of William Shakespeare

The Sanders portrait of William Shakespeare

The Chandos Portrait

The Chandos Portrait is lifelike and was thought to have been painted by a member of Shakespeare’s acting company, Richard Burbage. Unfortunately, most experts agree that it is unlikely that it is a portrait of Shakespeare. It does resemble the Droeshout engraving, though.

Likelihood of being a lifelike image of Shakespeare: 4/10

Chandos portrait of William Shakespeare

Chandos portrait of William Shakespeare

The Holy Trinity Bust

The Holy Trinity Bust was commissioned after William Shakespeare’s death by his son-in-law and placed above his grave in the Holy Trinity Church. His widow was still alive then, and we can’t imagine that they would have placed a false image of him over his grave! There is general agreement that this is the likeness of Shakespeare, looking rather old and bloated, but that’s life: we can’t expect our hero to fit the fantasies we may have about him.

The Holy Trinity bust of Shakespeare

The Holy Trinity Bust of Shakespeare

Likelihood of being a lifelike image of Shakespeare: 8/10

The Cobbe Portrait

The Cobbe portrait is a panel painting displayed at Hatchlands Park in Surrey. Discovered in 2006, researchers at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust claimed in 2009 that it is a painting of Shakespeare, painted from life. Their evidence includes the fact that the painting came to the Cobbe family via Shakespeare’s patron it was the Earl of Southampton’s great-granddaughter who inherited it.

Likelihood of being a lifelike image of Shakespeare: 7/10

The Cobbe portrait of Shakespeare

The Cobbe portrait

Which of these images of Shakespeare gives the best representation of how he looked in real life is likely one of those things about the Bard that will never be resolved. Though there’s evidence the Cobbe portrait may have been painted from life we should stick with the Droeshout engraving for a general idea of Shakespeare’s appearance. To see it in the flesh go to Stratford, and visit the Holy Trinity Church for a true impression of what Shakespeare looked like shortly before his death.

What Would Shakespeare Look Like If He Lived Today?

An historian, working with a team of digital artists, has spent three months updating a series of classic portraits to reflect how historical figures might look today. Shakespeare is one of the subjects, using the Cobbe portrait of 1610,  in which Shakespeare, is splendidly dressed in aristocratic clothes, like the wealthy man he was by 1610. They have left him pretty much as he is in the portrait, but changed his hairstyle and dressed him in a striped tee-shirt and a casual but traditional style of jacket. In that portrait, he comes across as lean and hungry, although other portraits of Shakespeare show him to be more full-faced.

Shakespeare portrait - then and now

How Shakespeare looks – then and now?

It’s an interesting idea and it’s set me on my own course, thinking about what Shakespeare might have looked like today. I like the Chandos portrait, in which Shakespeare has quite wild hair and facial growth. He’s wearing an earring, too,  a feature of the portrait that I’ve always liked. I prefer the earring to the crucifix that the digital artists have hung around his neck.  In the Chandos portrait he’s wearing very plain clothes – a black suit and a white collar, like a Puritan.

We have to consider what he might have been like if he were living today. We must also assume that he would be a great writer whose work will be read and studied for the next half millennia. Much has changed in the last half millennia and the only thing that hasn’t is human nature. Shakespeare lived before the Industrial Revolution, so even the most primitive of steam-driven machines couldn’t have been imagined by him, not to mention the wonders of the digital age.

Given all that, though, what would he be like today? Alright then, he’s a writer – a successful one, making a lot of money. He was also a theatre director so let’s transpose him to a man who makes a lot of money writing and directing scripts. That would make him a Hollywood film man. Given his talent, he would also be going around the circuit picking up awards for his films. I place him as a cross between Stephen Spielberg and Quentin Tarantino.

Both those movie men are more hard-working filmmakers than celebrities. Whenever we see them they appear as men who aren’t very concerned about their appearance and the image they create. They’re fanatical about film making. That’s Shakespeare, too – a very hard-working playmaker. Spielberg and Tarantino are both rich men, but like Shakespeare, they don’t take the money and run, they keep on working. As Shakespeare did, even after his retirement from the theatre.

I think the Chandos portrait shows Shakespeare more or less as he would be today. The unruly hair and beard indicate a man more interested in working than in creating an image. The simple clothes show a lack of interest in social graces. I’m going to keep the earring, which is every bit as modern today as it was in his time. It suggests a man who rejects conformity.

This is a spurious exercise, however, because Shakespeare was a product of the Elizabethan age, a very different age from ours and there’s no way one can make comparisons between people living in such different cultural contexts. To drape him in modern clothes and give him a contemporary hairstyle the digital team has done is the best anyone could do.

If you have any ideas about what Shakespeare might have been like if he’d been born in our time let us know in the comments below!

12 replies
    • blackberry
      blackberry says:

      it sure is…but i think that shakespeare was meant to be a mystery..if he wasn’t who would care that much about him..they would alredy know everything!!

  1. DrammaQueen
    DrammaQueen says:

    Its to bad that there isnt a painting defintly made when shakespeare was alive and that it was titled “shakespeare” and was painted to make it look like him, same age and everything. that would make this progect way easier!

  2. Sue Smith
    Sue Smith says:

    Having become interested in the Sanders Painting, due to a collegue l know being involved with the research, l feel that l should comment on your remark l quote “was discovered in an attic in a house in Canada in 2002”, this was not the case, it was known through several generations that it was painted by a family member back in 1603 not a recent discovery. may l suggest that you look at the reseach online site CASP.

  3. William Shakespeare
    William Shakespeare says:

    The Cobb portrait is not Shakespeare at all………
    It’s Overbury…….
    Shakespeare was balding from his early twenties.

  4. Susan A Wozniak
    Susan A Wozniak says:

    When I look at these paintings, my first reaction well, if you painted a man whose face was turned toward the artist’s left in a 3/4 presentation and if the man had a receding hairline, most people would say he looks like Shakespeare.

    The aristocratic man in the Hilliard portrait seems to be a curly-haired ginger, even a strawberry blonde. I do not think it is Shakespeare. Nor do I think the rather pretty, very young man in the Cobbe portrait is Shakespeare, although he does appear to wear a wig, perhaps, one borrowed from a theatrical company. The Sanders portrait looks unfinished. It also looks like it was painted by someone who wanted to be an artist when he grew up who persuaded an indulgent cousin or neighbor to sit for him in order to allow him to practice. It also looks like an unfinished sketch. Perhaps, the sitter grew weary of posing.

    I do, however, feel that young Mr. Droeshout was shown the Chandos portrait to refresh his memory or to show him for the first time what Shakespeare looked like. The faces in both are similar enough — with just a touch of age — to be two portraits of the same man. The Chandos portrait shows a man with just a bit of the artist (or dandy) in that one gold earring. If there is a portrait of Will, that’s the one.


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