Is This What Shakespeare Looked Like?

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Reproduced by agreement between The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and the copyright holders

The Cobbe oil painting of William Shakespeare

We all know what William Shakespeare looked like: similar to a hippie uncle — balding, moustached, longish hair in back. How do we know? Mostly from an engraving by Martin Droeshout that appeared with the First Folio, the collection of Shakespeare's work that was published in 1623, seven years after his death. That engraving is reproduced with almost every edition of Shakespeare that offers a picture of him.

But engravings are typically copied from another source, like a drawing or painting. Shakespeareans have been tantalized for generations by the possibility that a genuine life portrait of the man survives somewhere. Now Stanley Wells, professor emeritus of Shakespeare Studies at Birmingham University and one of the world's most distinguished Shakespeare scholars, says he has identified one. Wells is convinced that an oil painting on wood panel that has rested for centuries in the collection of an old Irish family was painted from life around 1610, when Shakespeare was 46. If that's so, it would be the only true likeness we have of the greatest writer of the English language. (See the 100 best novels of all time.)

The painting has languished for centuries outside Dublin at Newbridge House, home base of the Cobbe family, where until recently no one suspected it might be a portrait of the Bard. Three years ago, Alec Cobbe, who had inherited much of the collection in the 1980s and placed it in trust, found himself at an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London called "Searching for Shakespeare." There he saw a painting from the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., that had been accepted until the late 1930s as a portrait of Shakespeare from life. Looking at it, Cobbe felt certain the Folger painting was a copy of the one in his family's collection. He asked Wells, an old friend, for his help in authenticating it. (See the top 10 literary hoaxes.)

The two men arranged to have the Cobbe painting subjected to a battery of scientific tests — tree-ring-dating to determine the age of the wood panel, X-ray examination at the Hamilton-Kerr Institute at Cambridge University and infrared reflectography. The tests produced convincing evidence that the panel dated from around 1610 and was the source for the Folger painting, among others. Wells is now sure of it. "I don't think anyone who sees [the Cobbe painting] would doubt this is the original," he says. "It's a much livelier painting, a much more alert face, a more intelligent and sympathetic face." (See pictures of Shakespeare's plays being performed.)

It also matters that the Cobbe painting seems to have been copied more than once. (Wells believes the famous Droeshout engraving was made from one of these copies and not the Cobbe original.) In addition to the Folger, there appear to be three other versions, all from the 17th century. "It suggests that this is someone who was famous enough that there was a demand for copies," says Wells. "We have a fascinating reference in a play from 1603 in which there is the character of a young man who was obviously a fan of Shakespeare. He quotes bits of Romeo and Juliet and is rather foolish. And he says the line: 'Sweet master Shakespeare, I have his picture in my study at the court.' That also shows that there was likely to be a demand for his portrait."

And how will the Cobbe painting change our picture of Shakespeare? For one thing, it shows us a man of substance. Although Shakespeare came from relatively humble beginnings — his father was a glovemaker — he ended up a wealthy man. "The Cobbe portrait will show people a man who was of high social status," says Wells. "He's very well dressed. He's wearing a very beautiful and expensive Italian lace collar. A lot of people have the wrong image of Shakespeare, and I'm pleased that the picture confirms my own feelings — this is the portrait of a gentleman."

In April, the Cobbe painting will go on display for several months at the Shakespeare Center in Stratford-on-Avon. After that it will return to the Cobbe family trust. Wells says that, to his knowledge, the family has no plans to sell the painting. (Read "Shakespeare: A Life on Stage.)

The Cobbe collection includes works handed down from the family of the third Earl of Southampton, Shakespeare's only known patron. (The Bard made most of his money the hard way, by running a theater company.) Shakespeare dedicated to the earl both of his long-narrative poems, Venus and Adonis in 1593 and The Rape of Lucrece in 1594. The second inscription is particularly intimate: "The love I dedicate to your lordship is without end ..."

This is one of several reasons that the earl, who was 10 years younger than Shakespeare, is often supposed to be the "fair youth" who turns the poet's head in some of Shakespeare's sonnets. How fair? A painting of the long-haired earl at 19, also in the Cobbe family collection, was mistaken for many years as a portrait of a young woman. And though the earl later married and fathered children, there is a letter written about him during his participation in the Irish wars that alludes to a sexual relationship between him and one of his captains. (See the 100 best novels of all time.)

Wells mentions a rumor dating back to the 18th century that the earl once gave Shakespeare a thousand pounds, possibly to allow the Bard to purchase the second largest house in Stratford-on-Avon. That would be an extraordinary amount of money even from a patron who was, as Wells describes him, "very rich and very generous, almost profligate." But if the rumor is true, it might be another sign of the very high regard that the earl had for his favored poet. "This rumor has often been discounted," says Wells. "In one of my own books, I said it was ridiculous. But I'm beginning to have a bit more faith in it."

It hasn't been established whether the Cobbe portrait is one of the paintings that came to the family via the earl, though Wells believes the evidence is strong that it is. But if so, that inevitably invites speculation that the earl might have commissioned it. Could it even have been a keepsake for himself, a memento of his loving — maybe very loving — admirer?

Read a TIME story on Milton and Shakespeare.

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