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.

Jane Austen's Handwritten Letter About a Nightmarish Visit to the Dentist Is Up for Auction

Photos.com/iStock via Getty Images
Photos.com/iStock via Getty Images

For about $100,000, you could own a tangible reminder that Jane Austen hated going to the dentist, too—even when she wasn’t the patient.

After escorting her three nieces to a dentist named Spence in 1813, Austen was so appalled at the dental practices of the time that she described them to her sister Cassandra in a letter, which could now sell for $80,000 to $120,000 at an auction later this week. Smithsonian reports that the value is so high partially because only 161 of an estimated 3000 letters written by the celebrated author still exist; the rest were destroyed by Austen’s family after her death, possibly to avoid personal matters from leaking to the public.

jane austen letter about the dentist
Bonhams

This letter doesn’t contain anything particularly private, but it does provide some intimate insight into Austen—who famously remained unmarried and childless herself—as a doting aunt and sister.

“The poor Girls & their Teeth!” she wrote. “We were a whole hour at Spence’s, & Lizzy’s were filed and lamented over again & poor Marianne had two taken out after all … we heard each of the two sharp hasty screams.”

While Austen doesn’t speculate about whether or not the work on the aforementioned nieces’ teeth was necessary, she definitely had an opinion about Spence’s treatment of her third (and favorite) niece Fanny.

“Fanny’s teeth were cleaned too—& pretty as they are, Spence found something to do to them, putting in gold & talking gravely … but I think he must be a Lover of Teeth & Money & Mischief to parade about Fannys [sic].”

If you think a visit to the dentist is uncomfortable in the age of anesthetics and easily accessible milkshakes, you can imagine that getting teeth filed, filled, and pulled in the early 19th century was a full-fledged nightmare. The main fix for a cavity was simply pulling the tooth out, which the Jane Austen Center explains was often done with a pelican or key, both metal instruments that were braced against the gum and then twisted to tear out the tooth.

In addition to the horrifying dental report, Austen also writes about her mother’s improving health, a visit to a family friend, and a department store shopping trip.

Bonhams will include the letter in their annual Americana and Travel auction in New York on Wednesday, October 23.

Curious to know more about the woman behind Pride and Prejudice? Check out eight intriguing facts here.

[h/t Smithsonian]

25 of Oscar Wilde's Wittiest Quotes

By Napoleon Sarony - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
By Napoleon Sarony - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

On October 16, 1854, Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was born in Dublin, Ireland. He would go on to become one of the world's most prolific writers, dabbling in everything from plays and poetry to essays and fiction. Whatever the medium, his wit shone through.

1. On God

"I think that God, in creating man, somewhat overestimated his ability."

2. On the world as a stage

"The world is a stage, but the play is badly cast."

3. On forgiveness

"Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much."

4. On good vs. bad

"It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious."

5. On getting advice

"The only thing to do with good advice is pass it on. It is never any use to oneself."

6. On happiness

"Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go."

7. On cynicism

"What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing."

8. On sincerity

"A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal."

9. On money

"When I was young I thought that money was the most important thing in life; now that I am old I know that it is."

10. On life's greatest tragedies

"There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it."

11. On hard work

"Work is the curse of the drinking classes."

12. On living within one's means

"Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination."

13. On true friends

"True friends stab you in the front."

14. On mothers

"All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That's his."

15. On fashion

"Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months."

16. On being talked about

"There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about."

17. On genius

"Genius is born—not paid."

18. On morality

"Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike."

19. On relationships

"How can a woman be expected to be happy with a man who insists on treating her as if she were a perfectly normal human being?"

20. On the definition of a "gentleman"

"A gentleman is one who never hurts anyone’s feelings unintentionally."

21. On boredom

"My own business always bores me to death; I prefer other people’s."

22. On aging

"The old believe everything, the middle-aged suspect everything, the young know everything."

23. On men and women

"I like men who have a future and women who have a past."

24. On poetry

"There are two ways of disliking poetry; one way is to dislike it, the other is to read Pope."

25. On wit

"Quotation is a serviceable substitute for wit."

And one bonus quote about Oscar Wilde! Dorothy Parker said it best in a 1927 issue of Life:

If, with the literate, I am
Impelled to try an epigram,
I never seek to take the credit;
We all assume that Oscar said it.

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