Wednesday, February 20, 2019

New Possible Shakespeare Portrait Contains Allusions to Ovid and As You Like It

Portrait of a Gentleman, privately owned (photograph from Bridgeman Images website)
Updated: a few suggestions and comments about this portrait have caused me to rethink who this sitter might be (see below). I also found a better image of it via wikicommons.

I came across this portrait while rummaging through the website called Bridgeman Images. It was dated in their catalogue c. 1600 by artist unknown. The first detail that caught my eye was the sitter's linen collar (with decorative sun-ray bands) of the same style Shakespeare wore in the famous Droeshout engraving. The doublet is similar to the Droeshout's as well except that the wings are wider. Then I noticed the banner on the tree behind the sitter, which, taken in context with the sitter's melancholy pose (unkempt collar and hair) inside a pastoral setting, called to mind the play As You Like It.

The banner contains a Latin quote from Ovid's Tristea, "Bene Qui Latuit Bene Vixit." The catalogue entry translates this roughly into, "He who lived hidden lived well." Tristea was Ovid's epistolary lament from exile. We don't know why Ovid was banished by Augustus, although the reason might be hinted at in the epitaph Ovid wrote for himself inside that same poem: "I who lie here, sweet Ovid, poet of tender passions,/fell victim to my own sharp wit."

The portrait has seemingly been scamped with a mound of crude overpaint applied behind the sitter's head. 
Mound of overpainted behind sitter (photo from Bridgeman Image)
Portrait tweaked (lightened) in Photoshop. Note the high bangs, brushed upward with gum, are obscuring something white, perhaps a shield, that is not connected to the banner. There appears to be a rope extended down from our upper left perhaps supporting some sign of heraldry that has been extirpated. Photo from Bridgeman Images.

With all this in mind, this portrait would seem to depict a writer who has been sent into a woodland exile due to the satirical content of his works. Or perhaps it's simply a portrait of a writer who employed a pen name to write satire anonymously. But you get the idea.

The sitter's face and clothing fit somewhat into the Chandos group, the early copies of which are considered more valid than the original portrait. As far back as 1824, James Broaden called the Chandos "the perhaps most-touched up painting in history."
The Ovid portrait (right, c.1600, Bridgeman Images) and the beautiful Ozias Humphrey's copy of the Chandos (c. 1780, Folger Shakespeare Library). Note the similarities in collar down to the detail of the ties.
Intrigued by all this, I posted the above comparison onto the Facebook group ShakesVere--Edward de Vere, Shakespeare By Another Name, knowing they'd be interested in the portrait, and some insightful suggestions followed, the best of which (in my opinion) was Lu Ann Lewellen's observation that the sitter bore a good resemblance to the "Wizard" earl Henry Percy, the 9th Earl of Northumberland. Percy was a patron of Kit Marlowe's at one point so we know he was active in the literary world. (BTW, Shelly Maycock was merely suggesting that the two men looked alike, nothing more.) The comparison below involved a posthumous painting of Percy and therefore might be meaningless.
Unknown Man (left, image via Bridgeman Images) and Henry Percy (right) the 9th Earl of Northumberland, as painted posthumously by van Dyck c. 1641 (Petworth House, image via wikicommons)
It was also suggested the portrait might depict Tom Nashe, a writer who exiled himself from London after his books were burned by Elizabeth, but as there is only one nondescript cartoon of Nashe, shackled for his offenses against power, it is hard to know if this could be Nash. All we know about Nashe is that he supposedly had buck teeth.

The larger point is that here we have visual evidence that writers were using pen names for the purpose of protecting themselves from the dire consequences of writing satires. One of the aspect I dislike most about the traditional view of Shakespeare is that it erases the courage he constantly demonstrated by satiring the most powerful players in Elizabeth's court. Whoever Shakespeare was he was fearless, but this side of his personality has been ridiculed by scholars who can't explain how a backwoods actor straight out of Stratford got away with satiring power players like Burghley, Cecil, and Queen Elizabeth herself.


  1. The sumptuary laws of Elizabethan England would not have permitted any man lower than the title of Earl to have worn golden cloth. Some of the sumptuary laws could be broken if an untitled man were wealthy enough, but gold cloth was not one of the exceptions.

  2. I was under the impression that the "gold cloth" of the sumptuary laws referred to a fabric that was made with actual gold in the thread.

  3. I see no resemblance at all. I'm sure Shakespeare was not the only man in England to wear such a shirt.

    1. Yes, I agree the resemblance isn't that strong with Shakespeare, but I'd argue there are some shared features and certainly its worth pondering. As to the "shirt" it's actually a jerkin, the shirt being located beneath the doublet (itself located beneath the jerkin), but yes it was a popular style. Tarnya Cooper of the NPR noted that this style collar could be dated as early as 1604.

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