Conspiracy theories concerning the identity of William Shakespeare bring together even the most disparate human beings. For example: what traits are shared between filmmakers Roland Emmerich and Jim Jarmusch other than their mutual suspicion that William Shakespeare was not, in fact, William Shakespeare? And blinding white hair?
Much of the Anti-Stratfordian case against Shakespeare is built on two things. First, the Bard’s education totaled out to the “small Latin and less Greek” cited by the admiring poet Ben Jonson. How could such a poorly educated man have written Hamlet?
Second, we don’t have a reliable portrait of Shakespeare from his lifetime. The only proximate images we have of him come from the First Folio and the funerary monument at the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford — both are posthumous. How can anyone possibly believe that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets if we don’t have a likeness of him?
Well, as of yesterday, the game has changed completely. According to editor Mark Hedges, the new issue Country Life — “the quintessential English magazine” — will unveil “[the literary discovery of the century.” You guessed it: William Shakespeare’s face.
“We have a new portrait of Shakespeare,” Hedges writes, “the first ever that is identified as him by the artist and made in his lifetime.”
So how was this portrait of Shakespeare discovered? Enter one Mark Griffiths, a self-described “botanist, horticulturalist, and researcher of the relationship between human beings and plants, particularly as it manifests itself in culture, in literature — the literature of the 16th century.” He is also deathly pale, and he appears to model and groom himself in the style of neocon-era Christopher Hitchens.
To cut to the chase: Griffiths used his crackerjack detective skills (and a magnifying glass) to unriddle a “many-layered Tudor code” and reveal “the living face of Shakespeare” in the frontis of The Herball, a 16th-century book on plants written by John Gerard.
According to Griffiths, the title page of The Herball contains four small portraits of “real persons”: John Gerard (the author), Rembert Dodoens (a Flemish botanist), Sir William Cecil (a statesman), and a mysterious fourth figure dressed curiously as a Roman.
“I realized there was a method to these figures,” Griffiths explains. “They were all camouflaged, they were all wearing fancy dress, but their identities were encoded in the plants around them.”
But apparently Lord Burghley (Cecil) and the mysterious Roman were “further encoded” in symbols.
“As I worked hard on this fourth figure,” Griffiths announces, “I realized it had to be William Shakespeare.”
The editor and star writer of Country Life, whose website features a drop-down menu devoted to dogs, go on to explain that this is indeed William Shakespeare drawn from life, in the prime of his life, at the ripe young age of 33. I would only add that he appears to have a) a rattail, b) hair all over his face, and c) a suspiciously virile moustache. He’s also holding a corncob.
Is this real? How did he crack the code? To find out, unsurprisingly, you’ll have to buy the new issue of Country Life, which also features Mediterranean property, the avian Fisher King, hand-dived scallops, the new Jaguar XE, and a feature on how to cook new potatoes. Apparently it really is the most English magazine in the world.
And, intriguingly, the magazine claims that as a result of the discovery it has also found a new play by Shakespeare, which it will reveal in the next issue.
Yet, as we know, there is a rich history of Shakespeare hoaxes. Most famous, perhaps, was the great Shakespeare forgery of 1795-6, perpetrated by law clerk William-Henry Ireland, who “discovered” a new Shakespeare history called Vortigern and Rowena:
Like Shakespeare before him, William-Henry drew on Holinshed’s Chronicles, a copy of which he borrowed from his father’s study. The young man wrote the play on ordinary paper in his own handwriting, explaining that it was a transcript of what Shakespeare had written. The supposed original document he produced later on, when he had time to inscribe it on antique paper in a flowery hand.
So is the newly discovered portrait a hoax? Probably? But if it isn’t, it will crush the dreams of Anti-Stratfordians everywhere.