As always with questions of Shakespeare’s life and identity, this is a tricky area, full of supposition, conjecture and guesswork. No Sweat Shakespeare has looked into pictures of William Shakespeare and written an overview below.

There are quite a few pictures and portraits of Shakespeare – each has their champions who insist that a particular painting or engraving or sculpture is the true image of him. Here is No Sweat Shakespeare ‘s considered opinion:

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

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The Droeshout Engraving

It is a strong contender for the distinction of being a good likeness, although it is not lifelike. The English engraver, Martin Droeshout, created it for the First Folio (first edition) of Shakespeare’s published works. He 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 portrait, which hasn’t survived.

The Droeshout portrait

The Droeshout portrait

The Hilliard Minature

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. No Sweat Shakespeare doesn’t understand why anyone has claimed that it is Shakespeare.

The Hilliard portrait

The Hilliard portrait

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 and there have been numerous conferences about it with experts taking sides. No Sweat Shakespeare likes the idea of an authentic picture of the young Shakespeare but there are a great number of problems with it. It was painted when Shakespeare was 39 years old but it is a painting of a much younger man. No Sweat Shakespeare doesn’t know what to think about it.

The Sanders portrait

The Sanders portrait

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.

The Holy Trinity Bust

The Holy Trinity Bust was commissioned after his 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. He was once a young man and wrote Romeo And Juliet when he was thirty. Wouldn’t it be a treat to be able to see what he looked like then?

The Holy Trinity bust

The Holy Trinity bust

The Cobbe Portrait

The Cobbe portrait is a panel painting displayed at Hatchlands Park in Surrey. It was owned by Charles Cobbe (1686-1765) the Anglican Archbishop of Dublin. Early copies were thought to be of Shakespeare and the original was discovered only 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,Southampton’s great granddaughter, who inherited it. Scientific testing showed that the portrait is painted on a panel of English oak sometime after 1595 – the form of the collar suggests a painting date of around 1610. The portrait is inscribed with the words ‘Principum amicitias!’, meaning ‘the alliances of princes!’, a quotation from Horace in an ode addressed to a man who was, among other things, a playwright.

No Sweat Shakespeare ‘s conclusion is that 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, and go to Stratford, and visit the Holy Trinity Church for a true impression of what Shakespeare looked like shortly before his death.

 Sanders Portrait

An article on the NoSweatShakespeare  site outlines the various claims of the portraits that vie for the distinction of being representations of Shakespeare. Just as with Jesus, we all have a mental image of Shakespeare. Although we know that Jesus didn’t look like the conventional  pictures of him, with blue eyes, very light skin and well-brushed, long auburn hair, that image is everywhere, in paintings and in sculpture.

Similarly, Shakespeare is routinely represented by the Droeshout engraving, the picture that was used in the First Folio. So we think of him with a very high forehead, a very high collar, hair that falls down like flaps on either side of his face, and piercing eyes. But new research claims that this is the face of Shakespeare.

It’s the Sanders portrait, one that has always been a contender and the evidence has always been substantial. Now, however, the evidence for it’s being the true image of Shakespeare has just become stronger. Forensic tests have shown that the portrait dates to 1600, placing it at the right time.

The portrait shows Shakespeare at the age of thirty-nine. Looking at him it’s hard to think that he had only thirteen more years to live. And also, at thirty-nine, he was at the age when an eye-test might have improved his output, substantial as it already was. But there he was, writing late into the night, by candle-light One is tempted to paint a pair of glasses on to the portrait to see what he really looked like at thirty-nine.

A University of Guelph professor has helped reveal family connections between William Shakespeare and ancestors of the Ottawa owner of the portrait. Daniel Fischlin’s team has spent seven years unearthing the family connection between the Sanders and the Shakespeares. The portrait is owned by Lord Sullivan and has been handed down within the family. He is a descendent of the Sanders’ and the Guelph team has found a multitude of geographical connections and social interactions between the two families over hundreds of years.

Cobbe Portrait Discovery Takes Centre Stage

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.

sanders portrait

Sanders Portrait

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.

Cobb Portrait

Cobb Portrait

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.

Droeshout Portrait

Droeshout Portrait

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.”

Shakespeare: The 21st Century Man

Shakespeare – then and now?

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.  A fourteen part television series is underway on the UK television channel, Yesterday.

Shakespeare is one of the subjects. They’ve used 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.

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 round 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 film makers 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 play maker. 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.

11 replies
  1. 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.

  2. William Shakespeare
    William Shakespeare says:

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

  3. 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.

  4. 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!

    • 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!!


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