Do We Actually Know What Shakespeare Looked Like?

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

When you think of Shakespeare, you probably have a particular image of the Bard in mind: a receding hairline, heavy-lidded eyes, a thin mustache, and long, wavy hair. As historical figures go, you'd probably be able to pick him out of a lineup.

The picture you have in your head is almost certainly based on just one source: the Droeshout portrait, a black and white engraving that was the frontispiece of the First Folio (and can be seen above). Believed to have been produced by Flemish engraver Martin Droeshout in 1623, it was originally published seven years after Shakespeare's death in the first original collection of his plays. It's unlikely that Droeshout produced it from life, and most historians believe it was copied off an authentic portrait made during Shakespeare's lifetime that has not survived.

In fact, no existing portrait shows conclusively what Shakespeare looked like in real life. Since the mid-17th century, scholars have thought that the figure in the below Chandos Portraitpainted in 1610, was Shakespeare. While the painting's provenance and painting style point to its origin in Shakespeare's time, there is no definitive proof of the sitter's identity, according to Tarnya Cooper, author of Searching for Shakespeare and curatorial director of London's National Portrait Gallery.

Chandos portrait of William Shakespeare
The Chandos portrait
Wikimedia Commons

Then there's the Cobbe portrait (below). Once owned by 18th-century Anglican Archbishop Charles Cobbe, it allegedly came to his family through the great-granddaughter of one of Shakespeare's patrons, the Earl of Southampton. Modern testing of the painting shows that it was made after 1595; the fashions depicted suggest it could have been painted as late as 1610. The unknown artist could have captured Shakespeare in life, between the ages of 31 and 46, although the figure appears somewhat younger than middle-aged.

Cobbe descendants have argued that the work is the only existing life portrait of the Bard, but art historian Sir Roy Strong described that as "codswallop" (translation: nonsense).

The Cobbe portrait of William Shakespeare
The Cobbe portrait
Wikimedia Commons

In fact, some historians have suggested that the Cobbe portrait is actually Sir Thomas Overbury, a poet born in 1581. Verified images of Overbury closely resemble the Cobbe figure, and—perhaps most damningly—the painting doesn't match the best existing image of Shakespeare from the same period, which was actually a bust.

The "holy trinity bust" wasn't made during Shakespeare's lifetime—it was commissioned four years after his death so that it could be placed above his grave in Stratford-upon-Avon's Holy Trinity Church. The sculpture depicts a portlier version of Shakespeare than the one we're familiar with, presumably because it shows him in his later life, and it doesn't look much like the Droeshout engraving, the Chandos portrait, or the Cobbe portrait—which are broadly similar. But because it was commissioned while his widow and son-in-law were still alive, scholars believe it's a credible likeness of the playwright.

More than 400 years after his death, Shakespeare's true identity still stirs debate. For the time being, a few secondhand images are the best clues we have to what he looked like. Luckily, his written work survives in far fuller fashion.

Beowulf Was Written By One Person, According to Computer Analysis

Justin Sullivan, Getty Images
Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

The poem has been read in classrooms around the world and has influenced countless works of literature, but the identity of the author of Beowulf remains unknown. Scholars can't agree on when exactly the anonymous poet wrote Beowulf, or on whether it was even a single person. Now, a study published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour may finally put one part of that debate to rest. After analyzing the text of the Old English epic, researchers have concluded that Beowulf is the work of one author, the Boston Globe reports.

Written a millennium ago, Beowulf follows a brave hero, the title character, as he slays beasts in Scandinavia, including a monster named Grendel and Grendel's mother. The oldest surviving manuscript dates back to roughly 1000 CE, and there are many competing theories as to its origins.

For their study, researchers from Harvard and other universities used computer algorithms to find patterns in the poem. A type of literary statistic analysis called stylometry was able to break down Beowulf by a number of factors, including meter, breaks, word choice, and the prevalence of certain letter combinations.

The team found that many of the distinguishing style elements of Beowulf are consistent throughout the poem, suggesting that every line came from the same source. But who that one author might have been is still unknown.

Scholars love to speculate on the true authorship of great works—even when there are famous names attached to them. Some experts think that as many as nine writers are really responsible for William Shakespeare's body of work.

[h/t Boston Globe]

25 Classic Books That Have Been Banned

iStock.com/asadykov
iStock.com/asadykov

National Library Week is a time to celebrate the most influential books in literary history. But not every novel that's considered a classic today received instant praise. Many beloved titles had to overcome years of censorship before securing spots on required reading lists and library shelves.

The American Library Association has shared a list of books from the Radcliffe Publishing Course Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century that have been challenged or banned. Of the 100 books, nearly half have received pushback from institutions in the past. Some have been criticized for featuring violence (Beloved), profanity (To Kill a Mockingbird), or controversial political messages (Animal Farm). Even seemingly inoffensive novels have been targeted by censors. (The Lord of the Rings was burned outside a New Mexico church in 2001 for being "satanic.")

Below are 25 of the most popular works of literature from the last century that have been banned from schools, libraries, and, in some cases, entire countries. For even more great books that have been banned, including picture books like Dr. Seuss's The Lorax, check out this list.

  1. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

  1. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

  1. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

  1. The Color Purple by Alice Walker

  1. Beloved by Toni Morrison

  1. Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

  1. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

  1. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

  1. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

  1. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

  1. Animal Farm by George Orwell

  1. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

  1. As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

  1. A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

  1. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

  1. Native Son by Richard Wright

  1. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey

  1. Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut

  1. For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

  1. The Call of the Wild by Jack London

  1. The Jungle by Upton Sinclair

  1. Lady Chatterley's Lover by D.H. Lawrence

  1. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

  1. The Awakening by Kate Chopin

  1. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

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