Back in the days when we used to have proper people on our money, rather than the motley gang of also-rans who currently populate our banknotes, our national poet was second only to Wren in the currency pantheon. And in choosing to represent Shakespeare on the £20 note using William Kent’s memorial statue from Westminster Abbey, the Bank of England cleverly sidestepped a debate which has raged for centuries. What did Shakespeare actually look like?

But we all know the answer to that, don’t we? A high-domed head, a trim little beard, a platelike ruff that made him resemble John the Baptist, and a tiny body with all the proportion and muscularity of Kermit the Frog. That, at least, is how he appears in Martin Droeshout’s engraved frontispiece for the First Folio (1623), and given that a number of Shakespeare’s friends were involved in compiling that volume, there is reason to believe that the image is true to life. Then again, maybe he was a swarthy character with rather frizzy hair, a piratic earring and a pair of irritating drawstrings hanging down from his collar. For that is what he looks like in the so-called “Chandos” portrait, attributed to John Taylor; this painting horrified many Victorian art critics, who refused to believe it could be the Swan of Avon because of its heavy Mediterranean countenance. Shakespeare’s tan is largely attributable to the ageing of the varnish, but those eminent Victorians had a point. No-one can say for certain that the Chandos portrait depicts Shakespeare – although this did not stop it becoming the first work of art to be presented to the brand-new National Portrait Gallery in 1856.

To celebrate its 150th anniversary, the NPG has brought together various other paintings of Elizabethan and Jacobean men who may (or may not) be William Shakespeare. If it is hard, looking at their disparate features, to believe that they all depict the same person, then that is only in keeping with a man whose very name can be variously represented as Shaxspeare, Shackespe, Shaxberd or even Shagspere. The one thing that everyone knows about Shakespeare is that we know nothing about him.

In fact, we know a great deal about Shakespeare; it is just that much of it is far from enthralling. We know where he lived and who his friends and patrons were. We know about his financial transactions – that he owed the taxman money in 1597, 1598, 1599 and 1600; that he sold a load of stone in Stratford in 1598; and that, in his will, he left his wife his “second-best bed”. We know the layout of his theatres, and when his plays were performed at court. We even know what clothes he wore, since this was dictated by various statutes: men were compelled by law to wear knitted woollen caps on Sundays, and scarlet cloth was proscribed for all but the nobility. This fact alone is sufficient to dismiss the spurious “Grafton” portrait of 1588. It shows an anonymous man with hooded eyes, who was 24 at exactly the same time as Shakespeare – but his red satin doublet indicates that he is a nobleman, not a playwright.

In the days before conspiracy theorists had JFK, the Apollo landings and Princess Diana, they convinced themselves that Shakespeare’s plays must have been written by Sir Francis Bacon, Kit Marlowe, Elizabeth I – anyone but the grammar-school alumnus whose picture appears in the First Folio. It is literary snobbery of the worst kind, arising from a wish that a more suitable character could have been responsible for writing the Complete Works. The same is true of those who believe that the Grafton portrait depicts the Bard. It suits them to imagine Shakespeare as this dashing figure, rather than as a balding man who went around selling stone and forgetting to pay his taxes.

Shakespeare may have lived a relatively prosaic life, and he may not have looked terribly glamorous, but such concerns are unimportant. Ben Jonson says as much in his title-page poem from the First Folio, which praises Droeshout’s engraving for its accuracy, but recognises that what matters about Shakespeare is not his likeness. “Could he but have drawn his wit as well in brass, as he hath hit his face,” he laments. “But since he cannot, reader, look not on his picture, but on his book.”

First published in World of Interiors issue 283. Reproduced with permission.

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