Shakespeare’s face is everywhere. This is to be expected. It is the 400th anniversary of the publication of the First Folio, the collection of plays published in 1623, and the UK has been celebrating as though it were the second coming of Shakespeare himself. Libraries, universities and museums have busted out their First Folios, displaying the famous title-page portrait of a balding Shakespeare sporting the vaguely offensive peach fuzz of an unwashed teenager. Visitors are invited to pay homage. For those who want their own copy, the British Library has issued a facsimile edition. The same image beams from theatre bills, educational Shakespeare programmes, and the website of Conway Stewart, the British pen manufacturer, which has issued a special edition Shakespeare Sterling Silver fountain pen (£450). Last week, the Stationers’ Company held a First Folio dinner, including a re-enactment of the book’s registration. To cap it all off, Shakespeare’s egg-headed portrait was sent into space.
Shakespearean scholars and biographers over the years have lamented the portrait’s various deformities. “The face is too long and the forehead high”, the dimensions “disproportionately large compared with those of the body”, said Sir Sidney Lee. The head is “huge”, surmounting “an absurdly small tunic with oversized shoulder-wings”, Samuel Schoenbaum added. “The mouth is too much to the right, the left eye lower and larger than the right.” A guild of British ophthalmologists determined that it actually has two right eyes. The countenance is “pudding-faced”, J Dover Wilson moaned. The essayist and poet Arthur Benson wrote of the skull’s “horrible hydrocephalus development”. The ear is malformed. The hair is lopsided, like a bad wig. “I never saw a stupider face,” declared the artist Thomas Gainsborough.
Light hits it from several directions at once, falling “on the bulbous protuberance of forehead” (Schoenbaum again). The figure looks awfully sweaty, wrote Tiffany Stern, who recently wondered, “What went wrong with Shakespeare’s Folio picture?” The figure has no neck, so its head appears to be floating on top of the ruff. “It is very odd,” observed Emma Smith. “The head of Shakespeare looks as if it is about to bounce off!” Something funny is going on with his outfit. The shoulder wings are “grotesquely large and vilely drawn”, according to the art critic MH Spielmann. In 1911 an anonymous tailor writing in the Gentleman’s Tailor pointed out that the figure has two left arms: the doublet “is so strangely illustrated that the right-hand side of the forepart is obviously the left-hand side of the back part; and so gives a harlequin appearance”. This, the tailor noted, “is not unnatural to assume was intentional, and done with express object and purpose”. Northrop Frye put it bluntly: the portrait makes Shakespeare “look like an idiot”.
Suspicion has arisen that the portrait’s deformities were, as the anonymous tailor suggested, intentional – that it is a joke portrait, depicting a fool as the author. Two left arms signal left-handed writing, which in ancient tradition is associated with deception. (“Writing with the left hand is to make some secret circumvention, to cunny-catch, deceive, or defame,” wrote Artemidorus, whose work was translated into English in 1606, in the second century.) In 2010 John Rollett, a British scientist sceptical of Shakespeare’s authorship, analysed the image, concluding that the figure indeed has two left sides – that it is a “caricature” meant to suggest that the author is a deception. There is a strange double line running on one side of the jaw, which some sceptics see as further indication that the figure is wearing a mask. (“You easily, regretlessly relinquished the laurels… concealing for all time your monstrous genius beneath a mask,” wrote Vladimir Nabokov. “Reveal yourself, god of iambic thunder, you hundred-mouthed, unthinkably great bard!”)
Some have protested that the engraver, Martin Droeshout, was merely incompetent. (“Droeshout’s deficiencies are, alas, only too gross,” sighed Schoenbaum.) However, it is hard to believe that a professionally commissioned artist would be so inept as to accidentally make two left arms, two right eyes, a hydrocephalous head, and all of the other alleged deformities. “If it is an inferior work, its faults are anomalous,” notes the scholar June Schlueter, “for Droeshout’s other engravings which were done in London in the 1620s, also of public figures, show considerable expertise.” The First Folio was an expensive undertaking, several years in the making. (“Shakespeare’s plays are printed in the best crown paper, far better than most Bibles,” the puritan William Prynne complained.) If the publishers did not approve of the portrait, they could have refused it and sought out a better one. They did not.
As the scholar Leah Marcus notes, the strangeness of the portrait becomes especially apparent when placed next to other title page portraits of the period. Other authors look nicely proportional in their portraits. Dignified. Their portraits also tend to be elaborate productions, featuring allegorical figures, personalised mottos, emblems and inscriptions communicating information about the author. By contrast, Shakespeare’s portrait is “stark and unadorned”, writes Marcus, “devoid of the allegorical figures and emblems which customarily surround such portraits”. There are no laurels signifying a poet, no motto, no coat of arms. The figure is as stripped of pomp as Lear crying, “Doth any here know me?… Who is it that can tell me who I am?”
On the page directly facing Shakespeare’s portrait – in fact, preceding the portrait – there is a short poem, “To the Reader”, by Ben Jonson. It begins: “This Figure that thou here seest put,/It was for gentle Shakespeare cut”. It ends by advising the reader to look away from the portrait: “Reader, looke/Not on his Picture, but his Booke.”
“Shakespeare, the verses tell us, is not to be found after all in the compelling image opposite,” writes Marcus. “The poem undermines the visual power of the portrait by insisting on it as something constructed and ‘put’ there.” It is not an image of the author but a “Figure” cut “for” him and “put” on the title page. “Jonson’s poem is, in a precise sense of the term, iconoclastic.” It attacks the portrait’s authenticity. In fact, Marcus continues, it “sets readers off on a treasure hunt for the author: Where is the ‘real’ Shakespeare to be found?” In his “Booke”, the poem tells us – in his plays. “Jonson’s poem abolishes Shakespeare as an entity apart from his writings… The First Folio opens with an implicit promise to communicate an authorial identity, which it instead repeatedly displaces. Shakespeare is somehow there, but nowhere definitively there.”
In 1640 an anthology of Shakespeare’s poems was published, featuring a version of the Droeshout portrait. An accompanying poem questioned the legitimacy of the image: “This Shadow is renowned Shakespear’s? Soule of th’age/The applause? delight?”
There is “something fishy” about the First Folio, wrote James Boswell the Younger. It’s like one of the riddles or charades of mistaken identity in the plays themselves. Deceptive appearances abound in Shakespeare. Reputations are false. Things are not what they seem. “I am not what I am,” says Viola, disguised in Twelfth Night as the boy servant Cesario. “I am not what I am,” says Iago, deceiving Othello to suit his purposes. The apparent Viola is not the real Viola. The apparent Iago is not the real Iago. “Is the apparent author the real author?” Harvard scholar Marjorie Garber asks. “Is the official version to be trusted?”
The Droeshout portrait is so hideous and embarrassing that some scholars have grasped for an alternate image of the author. In 2009 the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon claimed that an unidentified portrait of a sophisticated-looking courtier was in fact a portrait of William Shakespeare. The Cobbe family, who owned the portrait, were eager to encourage the identification, which immediately increased the portrait’s value. However, art historians were dubious – one called the claim “codswallop”. The Cobbe portrait, as it is known, does not have any inscription or coat of arms identifying the figure as Shakespeare. Besides, it closely resembles a portrait of the courtier Sir Thomas Overbury. Most scholars agree that the Cobbe portrait is Overbury. Nevertheless, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust has adopted it as Shakespeare, emblazoning the image on souvenirs, T-shirts, and guidebooks. (If you visit the Shakespeare Centre in Stratford, you will find a 2014 sculpture “based on Cobbe portrait of William Shakespeare”.)
It is a clever rebranding – an image upgrade from “pudding-faced” Will to a courtly, educated-looking Shakespeare, a Shakespeare who might believably have written the dramas presented before England’s monarchs. The rebranding has extended to Shakespeare books, too. This autumn, Cambridge University Press published What Was Shakespeare Really Like? by Sir Stanley Wells, honorary chairman of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. On the cover is the Cobbe portrait of Sir Thomas Overbury. A blurb from Kenneth Branagh reads: “Brilliant!”
Elizabeth Winkler is a journalist and critic. This is an extract adapted from her book “Shakespeare Was a Woman and Other Heresies” (Simon & Schuster, 2023).
[See also: The lies we tell about Joan Didion]
This article appears in the 22 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The paranoid style