Photo Friday: Portrait of a Shakespeare Edition

The First Folio image of Shakespeare

As we found out yesterday, we don’t know very much about William Shakespeare the man. So does it surprise you to learn that we’re not actually sure what he looked like, either? (Probably not.) There are two images of Shakespeare that scholars accept as definite likenesses: the one pictured to the left of this paragraph, and a bust (basically, a small statue from the shoulders up) that lives in a church in Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s hometown.

The picture to the left there is from the First Folio. The First Folio is a collection of most of Shakespeare’s plays that was put together in 1623 by two of Shakespeare’s theatre colleagues. We learned yesterday that Shakespeare died in 1616, so this engraving that appeared in the Folio was most likely done after his death. We don’t really know how accurate it is, but Ben Jonson, another playwright who knew Shakespeare and lived in the 17th century, claimed that it was a good likeness.

The First Folio is an amazing record of Shakespeare’s plays; without it, several of the plays probably would have faded away into obscurity. The Elizabethans weren’t always great at writing things down, remember, and plays in particular were usually not published or printed unless the author paid for it himself. So the fact that two people – Shakespeare’s friends and colleagues – collected his plays together after his death is pretty remarkable. Unfortunately, we don’t necessarily know if the engraving that appears inside the Folio is accurate. It was done by artist Martin Droeshout.

There are some portraits that may be of Shakespeare; you have probably seen one or more of these, as these are the images used to represent Shakespeare in pop culture. The most famous is probably the Chandos portrait, which art historians think was painted in 1610. This means that the artist probably worked from life, or perhaps knew Shakespeare well enough to do it from memory. As with most things Shakespeare-related, we just can’t be sure!

As always, you can learn the basics about all this from Wikipedia, or check out Bill Bryson’s great book about Shakespeare!



By: Kathleen


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