His face I know not


I’m sure you’ve all seen Country Life’s earth-shattering scoop* where they claim to have found an engraving of William Shakespeare – which if true would be the only likeness of Shakespeare created during his lifetime. In case you aren’t avid subscribers of Country Life** there’s a pretty comprehensive write-up in the Guardian here .

It’s a very appealing, Dan Brown-esque story, about a frontispiece full of hidden meaning, where four seemingly random men actually represent the four people who contributed most to the production of the book – the author John Gerard, Rembert Dodoens his Flemish inspiration, Lord Burghley who was his patron to whom the book was dedicated, and the Fourth Man, William Shakespeare.

I find a lot of the evidence for the other figures – particularly Burghley – very convincing (taking the facts presented at face value that is – I am afraid I don’t have enough knowledge of the time to do anything else). That for Shakespeare is less so – hinging it seems on three separate things:

  • His holding of a snakes-head fritillary, a plant newly discovered, much in vogue, and mentioned by Shakespeare in Venus and Adonis – its only recorded mention in Elizabethan literature
  • In his other hand he holds an ear of maize – confused by the author for corn, which Shakespeare used as a metaphor in Titus Andronicus, the first of his plays to be printed
  • A complicated rebus printed below the figure, involving, apparently, a pun on his surname, a reference to his father’s coat of arms, and a hint to his first name.
Luckily I happen to have a picture of a fritillary - they really are the most tremendously weird plants.

Luckily I happen to have a picture of a fritillary – they really are the most tremendously weird plants.

I’m taking it all with a pinch of salt – particularly the unpacking of the rebus which seems to me to be trying to do far too many things at once. The fritillary and the corn seem to be more straightforward and probable clues. But I am excited. Not because we might have found a tiny engraving of Shakespeare done when he was alive (although it would be a first) but because if true it provides an interesting glimpse into what else he was up to, apart from being an actor, playwright and part-owner of a theatre.

The other three men are all significant to the work and it seems reasonable to assume that this Fourth Man is too. Mark Griffiths’ contention is that the men met and were connected through Lord Burghley, and that William Shakespeare helped John Gerard to translate Latin and Greek into well-written English – and may even have helped with the literary style of the book. In return, Shakespeare picked up the horticultural knowledge which is present in so many of his works – not least that fashionable fritillary.

More than that, though, the connection between Shakespeare and Lord Burghley causes Griffiths to attribute two pieces performed for the Queen at Burghley’s house to Shakespeare – The Hermit’s Speech and “a comic two-hander… between a gardener and a molecatcher”*** External literary experts should be able to make some sort of pronouncement on the likelihood of this being the case – if confirmed, I will be delighted to add them to my list.

* Yes this is sarcasm. Yes I know it’s the lowest form of wit.

** Sarcasm again.

***Quotation from the Country Life article

A total aside here, but the copy of The Herball used to examine the frontispiece in question originally belonged to Dorothy Redmayne, who was Pocohontas’s mother-in-law. It is a very small world…


4 thoughts on “His face I know not

  1. Ah, this is great stuff – really interesting. Reading the Guardian article it does seem like supposition, though. Huge historical discoveries are not usually launched in Country Life! It’s a bit of fun, but even if it were true, the face isn’t exactly idiosyncratic – we’re no closer to seeing the ‘real’ Shakespeare.
    It does remind me of Dan Brown – I remember shaking my head at the idea that so much could be deduced from a few squiggles by a ‘symbologist’ – surely a made up job.
    A fun , intriguing story, though


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