A new portrait of William Shakespeare

What did Shakespeare look like? I will come to how I created the above image in a moment. First we need to review the existing portraits that are claimed to be of Shakespeare.

All of the three or four likeliest images of him are problematic in one way or another. The three likeliest portraits are the Cobbe portrait, which portrays the forty-something Shakespeare as a gallant young courtier; the Chandos portrait, which presents him as a comfortably well-off bohemian; and the Droeshout portrait — the familiar one from the first folio — which is so inempt and cartoonish that it gives little sense of any real person. (A Scientific American article once put forth the bizarre theory that it actually depicts Queen Elizabeth). Brice Stratford has helpfully assembled the three portraits, along with some supporting text, on this page. As you can see from the details below, all of the portraits share points of similarity, notably the high forehead, deep-set eyes, and long nose.

3 portraits of shakespeare

The problem with the Droeshout portrait (right) is that its young and inexperienced artist never met Shakespeare. He may have worked from the Chandos portrait, although this is speculation. Still, Ben Jonson and others who knew Shakespeare seem to have approved the image.

The problem with the Chandos portrait (middle) is that its ultimate provenance is unknown, and the sitter is not identified as Shakespeare. Still, the National Portrait Gallery in London, which has researched the issue, believes that this is probably Shakespeare, though there is no proof of that. I like this candidate because it is from the right period — the first decade of the seventeenth century; the black robes suggest affluence, and we know Shakespeare was doing pretty well by this time; and the rakish earring suggests a bohemian or artistic lifestyle. Moreover, this image simply has more presence than the others.

The Cobbe portrait (left) only came to light recently. It had been in the possession of the Cobbe family for 300 years. They had thought it a portrait of Sir Walter Raleigh but it is now believed that it may be a portrait of Shakespeare. It too dates from the right period, and there is at least a tenuous provenance for it, as the Cobbe descent can be traced back to a patron of Shakespeare. Stanley Wells, chairman of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and co-editor of the Oxford Shakespeare, vouches for the authenticity of this one. The problem that I have with it is that it does not appear to depict a man in at least his mid-forties as Shakespeare would have been at the time the painting was made. In addition, the Cobbe family had good reason to think it a portrait of Raleigh, since it depicts its subject as a nobleman rather than a working playwright. (Although by the time this painting was made the status of playwrights had risen, and Shakespeare had even obtained a court of arms.) Nor does the hairline conform to the other images. But it’s conceivable that the artist simply went overboard in the direction of flattering the sitter.

A fourth image is a bust in Stratford-upon-Avon. This one was made by Gheerart Janssen, an artist who lived near the Globe theater during Shakespeare’s lifetime, and it was presumably approved by people who knew the playwright well. The problem with it is that the painted features had been removed and then reapplied in the eighteenth century, long after anyone who remembered him was alive. In addition, it is likely that the conservative Stratford community wished to make their native son look more like a respectable burgher than something as doubtful as a frequenter of London’s rowdy theater scene. The bust looks like this:

I reject the Droeshout image because it is more of a cartoon than a portrait, and the Statford bust because the loss of the original paint compromises the image too grossly. Despite serious doubts, I am inclined at least for now to entertain the idea that the portraits claimed as images of Shakespeare on the authority of the National Portrait Gallery and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust convey something of his appearance (these, if you have been paying attention, are the Chandos and Cobbe portraits).

For my Shakespeare, therefore, I computer morphed those two portraits into a new image of Shakespeare — splitting the difference if you will; the midpoint morph makes him a little less rough than the Chandos Shakespeare and a little less prettified than the Cobbe Shakespeare. If both of those portraits are indeed Shakespeare, then this intermediary version should probably be a fairly reasonable likeness. On the other hand, if the Cobbe portrait actually represents someone else — Sir Thomas Overbury has been suggested — well then we have something like an Overbury-Shakespeare morph. In any case, I think the result is an interesting image. Do you agree?


UPDATE: In response to Jim Hale-Sanders’s arguments in favor of the Sanders portrait (in the comments below), I have made new Shakespeare morphs incorporating the Sanders portrait.


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  1. I fail to understand why the “Sanders” portrait has been ignored. Is it perhaps that it is considered impossible for someone from the “colonies” to hold the only true image of the bard, painted during his lifetime. It has better provenance than the Cobb or the Chandos.

    Please read my blog and feel free to visit Will’s site.


  2. I think it’s a lovely image and since we will never have a photography of Will, as close as we can get. I thought that some of the images of Shakespeare (like the one in the middle above) have also been identified as Ben Johnson?

  3. James, thanks for introducing the Sanders portrait. You can put me down as a skeptic on this one, because the label wording seems suspect to me, and it doesn’t much resemble the Droeshout and Sratford images, which passed muster not long after his death, but it is certainly a candidate. It’s interesting that it has a somewhat similar hairline to the Cobbe painting. As a long-time resident of San Francisco I don’t know why I would be anti-colonies.

    Nancy, I’m glad you like this Will. BTW, I’m pretty sure the Chandos portrait isn’t Jonson. He looked like this:

  4. I received the following comment by e-mail from Jim Hale-Sanders. When I get a moment I will see if I can add this image to my morph (stay tuned).


    Thank you for your response.

    Of course the label would have been completed and added after Shakespeare passed. But, note that both the date of birth and death are recorded before exact dates had been publicly established. Both the label material and the actual ink have been verified to be of Shakespeare’s time. This painting has been continuously in our family’s possession. It is the only painting that clearly identifies itself as being of the Bard.

    On March27, BRAVO will air (for the second time) a documentary film entitled “Battle of Wills”. It contains both sides of the argument with established experts. I should advise that movie was completed prior to us receiving the final results of the ink dating.

    All other paintings have been demonstrated as suspect in some tangible way (if not declared outright frauds). Only the Sanders painting has fully passed every scientific test. Even the Folger library acknowledges the positive facts and its curator has demonstrated great interest.

    The claim of any painting can never absolutely prove it is of the Bard during his lifetime but there comes a time when all possible tests have been performed on a subject when one has to acknowledge the painting with the best and most probable claim.

    Thank you, once again, for your response. If you have any particular question you want answered from the horses mouth, so to speak, myself or my cousin, Lloyd Sullivan would be glad to oblige.

    Jim Hale-Sanders

  5. What an illuminating e-mail! Thanks to the two of you – Tom for posting such a thought provoking post and Jim Hale-Sanders for such an intelligent response.
    Ooops on my incorrect identification of the middle Shakespeare portrait. Somewhere I got the wrong idea. Can I be allowed a senior moment because the authentic Johnson portrait looks nothing like any of the Shakespeare images.

  6. Sarah Newman

    What did Shakespeare look like – well l know what l would like him to look like, I’m all for the Sanders I don’t believe that the Cobbes is Shakespeare I agree with Dr Cooper that it is more likely Sir Thomas Overbury.
    One would expect each generation who was in responsible for the Cobbes would have known the sitter & passed it down generation to generation.
    I was very interested to read some months ago the articles on both the Cobbes and the Sanders and find the date of 1603 very interesting on the side of the Sanders since Queen Elizabeth had died and James became king hence ‘The Kings Men’ was this painted to remind him of his past? no for me l find that the Sanders l give 10/10

  7. The eyes in all four portraits are consistent. Perhaps they are all correct. Different painters have different styles but the eyes are one of the important keys to likeness. Note that the Jonson looks nothing like the others.

  8. As noted in an update to the post above, in response to Jim Hale-Sanders’s arguments in favor of the Sanders portrait (in the comments above), I have made new Shakespeare morphs incorporating the Sanders portrait.