“There’s no art,” King Duncan says early in the Scottish play, “to find the mind’s construction in the face.” Macbeth will prove his point by murdering him. Shakespeare’s warning words, though, are lost on the zealots and cranks who – along with genuine scholars – have scoured the archives to discover what the playwright really looked like.
Country Life magazine has announced that it had unearthed a new likeness of the Bard. According to botanist and historian Mark Griffiths, who has “cracked a many-layered Tudor code”, a shaggily handsome depiction of Shakespeare appears on the frontispiece of John Gerard’s Herball: an influential plant encyclopaedia from 1598.
According to Griffiths, we can now gaze on the only contemporary portrait of the dramatist. Both of the widely accepted representations – Martin Droeshout’s engraving for the 1623 First Folio, and the funerary statue in Stratford-upon-Avon – were post-mortem productions. Country Life, however, overlooks the compelling claims made for the Chandos Portrait of 1610 in the National Portrait Gallery.
Does it matter whether The Herball’s title-page shows the writer – or what he looked like anyway? Decrypting Shakespearean enigmas always counts as good box-office, especially for the snobs, crackpots and conspiracists who believe he did not write his plays. The Griffiths proposition does less mischief. The quarrels will continue. The face may never quite come into focus. The plays, however, require no decipherment, and contain no secret code beyond the perennial mysteries of every human life.