“I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,” William Shakespeare wrote in a stanza from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, going on to name check several darlings of Elizabethan gardens — oxlips, violets, woodbine, musk-roses, and eglantine. The 16th century bard evidentially knew his plant names, but was he really involved in the creation of the largest botanical tome ever printed in English?
The UK-based historian and botanist Mark Griffiths thinks he was, and what’s more, he believes the book contains the only authentic portrait of Shakespeare drawn during his lifetime. The arts and antiquities magazine Country Life published the claim Tuesday, and unsurprisingly, it’s engendered quite the kerfuffle among Shakespeare scholars and readers.
Griffiths told the magazine he made the discovery while researching a biography on the botanist John Gerard, who published the The herball, or, Generall historie of plants in 1589. While studying the cover image of the encyclopedic tome, he noticed it had images of people involved in its making. There were four figures: one of Gerard, two of his employers, and an unidentified fourth wearing a toga and laurel leaf crown and holding an ear of corn. While trying to figure out who the handsome mystery man was, he found that each figure had Tudor symbols beneath it. He cracked the code, revealing the ciphers underneath the fourth figure to read as “Shakespeare.” Griffiths says it depicts the poet when he was 33 years old.
If true, the finding would be revolutionary. The only other portrait that has a real claim to having been completed during Shakespeare’s day hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, though its authenticity hasn’t been definitively proven. Only two fully confirmed portraits of the writer exist — one published in his First Folio, the other a funerary bust in Stratford-upon-Avon — but both were created after his death (and neither are as flattering as the Gerard illustration).
Country Life editor Mark Hedges has hailed Griffith’s research as “the literary discovery of the century.” (His magazine has also promised to reveal a new play by Shakespeare next week). But so far, scholars disagree whether the new portrait should be embraced as genuine or added to the pile of impostors — hundreds have surfaced over the centuries.
Speaking to RT News, Jonathan Bate, an English Literature professor at the University of Oxford, said the evidence is “very convincing” and much more plausible that other such claims, but that it’s still “a stretch far from proven.”
But Michael Dobson, director of the Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham, said he “can’t imagine any reason why Shakespeare would be in a botany text book.” His skepticism has been echoed by many, including the curmudgeonly but incisive critic Jonathan Jones in The Guardian.
“[The cover illustrations] are above all intended to give the book authority and dignity. Sure, they use emblems. But if you started treating each one as a deep allegory this would be losing yourself in what is really a printer’s hack job,” he wrote. “That’s what Griffiths has done. His complex strings of argument are massive acts of overinterpretation.”
It’s easy to get lost in all the details of the debate. And yet, when you stop to think about it, why should we really care what Shakespeare looked like at all? The whole drama of tracking down his likeness seems to exemplify just how quickly our interest in literature moves toward an idolization of the writer. Even if the illustration was a real portrait, it seems doubtful it’d satisfy our hungry search for the man behind the plays. Either way, at least we have his words.