Recently, British publication Country Life Magazine proclaimed a ‘World Exclusive’ with the revelation that the botanist and historian, Mark Griffiths, had cracked a complex Tudor code and revealed ‘the living face of Shakespeare for the first time’. After studying the various ‘clues’ surrounding the Romanesque figure found on the title page, Mark Griffiths is convinced that every shred of evidence, as he calls it, can only point towards one man: the playwright, William Shakespeare.
Hailing it as the’ literary discovery of the century’, the claim is made that on the title page of a 16th century book of plants – The Herball, by John Gerard – the figure of a handsome, toga-clad man holding an ear of corn in one hand and a snake’s head fritillary in the other is the only image of Shakespeare to have been drawn from life at the approximate age of 33. All other portraits generally accepted to be that of England’s famous son were all produced posthumously.
The title page of the 400 year old book contains the images of four identifiable figures surrounded by symbolic flowers, ciphers and various motifs; there is Gerard himself, a Flemish botanist Rembert Dodoens and Chief Minister and closest adviser to Queen Elizabeth, Lord Burghley (Gerard’s patron). This left one, unidentified figure on the right-hand side of the page. As Griffiths began to look closely at the flowers and symbols that surrounded the man, he believes he solved the encoded meanings, so beloved of the Elizabethans, to reveal Shakespeare himself.
Griffiths believes that Shakespeare was given his literary start by Lord Burghley, who was the most powerful man in the country.
If this is indeed true, then Shakespeare would have moved in the same circles as John Gerard, with both men having Burghley to thank for their careers.
The so-called evidence and clues include:
- A possible ‘W’ for William
- A figure ‘4’ and an arrow head with an E attached to it. The connection being that in Elizabethan times, the Latin word “quater” would have been used as a slang term for a four in dice and cards. If you then add an ‘e’ on the end, it becomes ‘quatere’, which is the infinitive of the Latin verb quatior, meaning shake. The ‘4’ can then be seen as a spear…
- The ‘Or’ seen in the centre of the symbol is suggested to be a link to the Shakespeare coat of arms which bears a gold background – the heraldic term for gold being ‘or’.
- The ear of sweetcorn is proposed to be a reference to the line “this scatter’d corn into one mutual sheaf.” from Titus Andronicus.
- Two irises, one French and one English are said to be a nod to Henry IV Part One.
- The snake’s head fritillary that the figure can be seen holding connects to Venus & Adonis, apparently the only piece of Elizabethan creative writing that refers to the flower discovered in France only twenty years earlier.
Mark Griffiths is quoted as saying “For me, it is not about doubt or supposition. I’m faced with a series of facts that I can’t gainsay, as much as I try. This is what these facts are, these are what the plants are, this is what they signify, this is what the symbol decodes as. All of that adds up to Shakespeare. I can’t make that – and believe me I’ve tried – add up to anybody else but Shakespeare.”
Leading Shakespearean scholars, however, have been quick to dispute the theory. Professor Michael Dobson of the Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham responded by saying “I’m deeply unconvinced. I haven’t seen the detailed arguments, but Country Life is certainly not the first publication to make this sort of claim. One has seen so many claims on Shakespeare based on somebody claiming to crack a code. And nobody else has apparently been able to decipher this for 400 years. And there’s no evidence that anybody thought that this was Shakespeare at the time…It’s a man in a toga, holding a little bit of a corn on the cob in one hand and a fritillary in the other.”
Professor Stanley Wells CBE, of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust responded to the news by Tweeting: ‘So apparently Shakespeare went around in fancy dress holding a fritillary in one hand and a cob of corn in the other.’
Standing by his discovery, Mark Griffiths said “What we have here is a series of incontrovertible facts. I dare say people will think: ‘Oh no. it’s not him.’ But there is no other construction that can be placed on these facts. It is not an assumption that he is Shakespeare, it is algebra … it is an equation.”
So, what do you think? Do you think this is the face of the playwright William Shakespeare, man of Stratford, drawn from life when he was in his prime? To watch Mark Griffiths and Country Life’s Editor, Mark Hedges discuss the findings, visit the Country Life Magazine website here.
To learn more about the Cobbe portrait – the image that the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust feel has the strongest claims to represent Shakespeare as he appeared to his contemporaries – click here for the ‘Shakespeare Found’ exhibition website.