Shakespeare's real face appears in 400-year-old botany book

  • Prasun Sonwalkar, Hindustan Times, London
  • Updated: May 19, 2015 22:54 IST

A historian has added another portrait to the collection of portraits of William Shakespeare, who is not known to have commissioned even one over the centuries, but is best known by the image that appeared on the First Folio (1623).

Now, historian Mark Griffiths claims to have identified what could be the only known portrait of Shakespeare (1564-1616) in his lifetime. The picture is being published on the cover of this week's issue of 'Country Life' magazine.

Griffiths says he's cracked an 'ingenious cipher' to identify the playwright in a botany book etching published in 1598.

Mark Hedges, the magazine's editor, hailed it as "the literary discovery of the century", and said: "We have a new portrait of Shakespeare, the first ever that is identified as him by the artist and made in his lifetime."

Griffiths said he discovered it when while researching the biography of pioneering botanist John Gerard (1545-1612), author of The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes.

The title page is illustrated with an engraving by William Rogers depicting four figures, which were considered to be imaginary. But Griffiths decoded decorative devices around the figures such as heraldic motifs and emblematic flowers to reveal their 'true identities'.

According to him they are the author Gerard, Rembert Dodoens, a renowned Flemish botanist, and Queen Elizabeth's Lord Treasurer, Lord Burghley.

The fourth figure holds a fritillary and an ear of sweetcorn - plants which Griffiths says point to Shakespeare's poem Venus and Adonis and his play Titus Andronicus.

Beneath the bearded fourth man was 'an ingenious cipher of the kind loved by the Elizabethan aristocracy' who decoded, confirmed his identity as 'William Shakespeare', Griffiths writes.

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