Among the many mysteries that surround Shakespeare and his life is the question of his physical appearance. No evidence exists today that his portrait was ever painted while he was alive; likewise, there is no known written description of him. Unless new material is discovered, we will never know for certain what he looked like.
Only two likenesses of Shakespeare have any claim to authenticity. Both, however, are problematic. The first image made of Shakespeare was erected in the Stratford Parish Church sometime between his death in 1616 and the printing of the First Folio in 1623. This was the memorial bust. We can put the date of the bust in this range because in the First Folio (1623) mention is made of the bust in a poem by Leonard Digges, which reads in part:
...that stone is rent, And Time dissolves thy Stratford Monument, Here we alive shall view thee soon. This book, When brass and marble fade, shall make thee look Fresh to all ages.
The bust would logically have the best claim to authenticity. However, it is highly doubtful that it looks anything like it did when first erected. We know nothing about its history, such as who commissioned it. More than once, the bust has been repaired or refurbished, starting in 1749 when a sum of money was raised at Stratford in order to "re-beautify" the monument. It is believed that the local craftsman in charge of the project took serious liberties and made major changes. It has been whitewashed and repainted many times, and there are accounts of it being taken down for the making of casts, sometimes incurring damage. Some have concluded that as a possible likeness of Shakespeare it is worthless. And virtually all are in agreement that the present-day bust is unflattering. A middle aged, stout Shakespeare looks out blankly. Eminent Shakespearean critic John Dover Wilson described it as a "self-satisfied pork butcher."
The best evidence that the present-day bust is not similar to the original is a drawing made in 1653 by William Dugdale, a Warwickshire antiquarian. Dugdale sketched the bust in his Antiquities of Warwickshire. When the sketch is placed next to the present-day bust, the differences are vast. The facial structures and expressions are totally unalike, and in the present-day bust Shakespeare holds a pen on a cushion, whereas in the sketch he clutches a sack.
The second image that has claim to authenticity is known as the Martin Droeshout portrait. The copper-engraved portrait appeared on the title-page of the First Folio in 1623, with the inscription "Martin Droeshout: sculpsit. London." On the opposite page, Ben Jonson's verses identify the portrait as Shakespeare. Droeshout was only 15 years old when Shakespeare died, making it unlikely that he ever saw him in real-life. Biographers have been united in their opinion of the engraving. "Ludicrous" and "Monstrous" are some terms that have been consistently applied. The author of Shakespeare's Lives, Sam Schoenbaum, wrote the following:
... a huge head, placed against a starched ruff, surmounts an absurdly small tunic with oversized shoulder-wings... Light comes from several directions simultaneously: it falls on the bulbous protuberance of forehead -- that 'horrible hydrocephalous development', as it has been called -- creates and odd crescent under the right eye...
The publishers of the First Folio apparently recognized the deficiencies of the portrait, and altered it twice while it went through press. They added a shadow and darkened it overall. Some critics have insisted that the portrait is actually an actor's mask, pointing to the dark line extending down from the earlobe as evidence. One...
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critic has even suggested that the right arm is actually the back of a left arm, thus asserting the portrait has two left arms.
The suspicions aroused by the two portraits are further intensified by another image of Shakespeare that appeared in a pirated edition of his poems published in 1640, engraved by a William Marshall. The image is clearly based on the Droeshout, but it is reversed and most believe it to be a parody. Given the lines that appear below the image, which seem to poke fun at Ben Jonson's poem that appeared in the First Folio, it seems probably that some kind of flippancy is at hand. The lines below the picture read in part:
This Shadowe is renowned Shakespear's? Soule of th'age The applause? delight? the wonder of the the Stage.
The lines seem to instruct us that there is more here than meets the eye. Further compounding the mystery is the publisher's name: John Benson, which is an inversion of Ben Johnson.
Ultimately, we are left with two possibilities of Shakespeare's appearance, both completely different, which practically dooms the search from the start. It is possible that a new portrait, engraving, or document will someday be uncovered behind an old wall, but until then, the debate remains a essential component of the Shakespeare lore.
Picture of the slabstone over Shakespeare's tomb, which reads:
Good Friend, for Jesus’ sake forbear To dig the dust enclosed here: Blessed be the man that spares these stones, And curst be he that moves my bones.