One of the ways we fund the podcast is through affiliate links to books, products, and resources. If you purchase these items through our links, we make a commission. This, and all the posts here on our website, may contain such affiliate links. If you have any questions, please reach out.

Welcome to Episode #63 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare. 

The bard has his own bobble head figurines and his likeness has even been made into emojis and memes here in the 21st century, but how much of this likeness is real and what has posterity simple made up? From the famous Chandos Portrait that was the founding acquisition of England’s National Portrait Gallery, to the Droeshout portrait that graced the front cover of the First Folio in 1623, how many portraits do we have of William Shakespeare and can we really tell what he looked like?

Here to help us get a fresh glimpse into what William Shakespeare looked like is our guest Rachel Dankert. Rachel is the Learning and Engagement Librarian at Folger Shakespeare Library where she helps researchers dig through archives to find just the right artifact to support their work.  have Her work takes her into vast worlds of historical preservation, special collections  research, and archives at the Folger Shakespeare Library where she helps take care of many of the Shakespeare portraits on file there at The Folger as part of their collections. 

Rachel joins us today to help us unpack the portraits of William Shakespeare to explain just what was the role of pictures and paintings of individuals in the bard’s lifetime, and what can we learn about Shakespeare from these historic paintings.

The opinions expressed in this episode belong to Rachel Dankert, and do not necessarily reflect those of the Folger Shakespeare Library.

Join the conversation below.

Itunes | Stitcher | TuneIn | GooglePlay | iHeartRadio

Rachel Dankert is the Learning and Engagement Librarian at Folger Shakespeare Library where she helps researchers dig through archives to find just the right artifact to support their work.  have Her work takes her into vast worlds of historical preservation, special collections  research, and archives at the Folger Shakespeare Library where she helps take care of many of the Shakespeare portraits on file there at The Folger as part of their collections. Learn more about Rachel here.


In this episode, I’ll be asking Rachel about :

  • Why were portraits done in the 16th century?

  • Does it make sense with what we know of Shakespeare's life and status that he would have sat for a formal portrait?

  • How many verifiable portraits of Shakespeare exist today?

    … and more!

It will be short; the interim is mine, 
And a man's life is no more than to say ‘one.' 
But I am very sorry, good Horatio, 
That to Laertes I forgot myself, 
For by the image of my cause I see 
The portraiture of his. I'll court his favours. 
But sure the bravery of his grief did put me 
Into a tow'ring passion.

Hamlet, V.2

Title page of the First Folio, by William Shakespeare, with copper engraving of the author by Martin Droeshout. Image courtesy of the Elizabethan Club and the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University. Source

The Droeshout Portrait


There were two Martin Droeshouts, one elder and one younger. It is unclear from just the name “Martin Droeshout” as to which man painted the engraving on the front of Shakespeare's first folio, but we do know it is attributed to one of them. It was normal for folios like this one to have an engraving on the front, and in that sense Shakespeare's First Folio is quite typical for the time period.

As Rachel points out for us in this week's episode, what is funny about the Droeshout portrait is that it has been altered a couple of times to make Shakespeare appear more “like Shakespeare” ( an irony to be sure, and an example of how history is susceptible to our interpretations of facts.)

There are two version of this portrait, one is considered the first of the two and it exists only in four places. There are several other copies of the second version, with it's minor changes and increased darkness on the portrait, that is perhaps the most circulated portrait of William Shakespeare. Ben Jonson wrote in To the Reader, that he believed this portrait was a good likeness of the poet. Jonson wrote, 

This Figure, that thou here feest put,
It was for gentle Shakespeare cut:
Wherein the Grauer had a strife
with Naure, to out-doo the life:
O, could he but haue dravvne his vvit
As vvell in frasse, as he hath hit
Hisface; the Print vvould then surpasse
All, that vvas euer in frasse.
But, since he cannot, Reader, looke
Not on his picture, but his Booke.

 As quoted by Shakespeare Online here.

19th century writer Abraham Weivell concurred with Jonson (though this Shakespearen is most inclined to be swayed by first person accounts), and for the modern scholar,the Cheif Curator at the National Portrait Gallery in London, Tanya Cooper, additionally added merit to Jonson's claim by saying “it is the only portrait that definitely provides us with a reasonable idea of Shakespeare's appearance.” (Tarnya Cooper, Searching for Shakespeare, National Portrait Gallery; Yale Center for British Art, p. 48.)

All of these reasons, and more, are the source of why the Droeshout portrait is the most popular version of Shakespeare's likeness circulated today. Learn more about this portrait here.


What's here? the portrait of a blinking idiot…

Prince of Arragon

Merchant of Venice, II.9

This was long thought to be the only portrait of William Shakespeare that had any claim to have been painted from life, until another possible life portrait, the Cobbe Portrait, was revealed in 2009. The portrait is known as the Chandos Portrait, after a previous owner, James Brydges, 1st Duke of Chandos. It was the first portrait to be acquired by the National Portrait Gallery in 1856,Given by Francis Egerton, 1st Earl of Ellesmere, 1856, and is on display in Room 4 at the NPG. The artist may be by a painter called John Taylor who was an important member of the Painter-Stainers' Company. Source

The Chandos Portrait


The Chandos Portrait is unique because it is thought to have been painted from life, meaning William Shakespeare sat for the portrait to be done on purpose. Interestingly, it is also the only portrait of William Shakespeare readily available in the public domain, so when you see portraits of Shakespeare online, this is the one most bloggers and social media users will choose since it's free from any license. 

The painter of this portrait is unknown, though it is thought it might have been done by Richard Burbage, Shakespeare's good friend, his first King Lear, and a known painter. John Taylor was thought to have potentially been the painter because of a document written by George Vertue in the 18th century. Vertue was an English antiquary, writing about British art, and he attributed the painter's authorship to John Taylor. Taylor was a well known painter member of the Painters-Stationers Company, which was an organization dedicated to the nation's painters. 

The National Portrait Gallery did an extensive three year study into the portraits of William Shakespeare and the head of that study, Tarnya Cooper, concluded that the Chandos portrait was, indeed, a likely representation of the bard. She cited the earring as well as the clothing as emblematic of poets, citing a contemporary painting of John Donne featuring similar elements. However, she also acknowledged that proving the painting's authenticity was difficult at best, as the painting was subject to much damage and wear, including adjustments to the hairline.

the power of beauty will sooner transform 
honesty from what it is to a bawd than the force of honesty can 
translate beauty into his likeness


Hamlet, III.1

Cobbe portrait of William Shakespeare, claims to be done of him while he was alive. Source

The Cobbe Portrait

The Cobbe portrait is the newest portrait discovered by historians to purport to represent William Shakespeare. It was presented publicly to the world in 2006, after spending many years in the possession of a family collection. Shakespeare Birthplace Trust (and specifically Stanley Wells) concluded the portrait was done from life and accurately represented William Shakespeare. Many scholars refute this claim and, as you might expect, the Cobbe portrait has been a source of much speculation among historians.

Shakespeare Birthplace Trust held two exhibits which featured the Cobbe portrait, both of which outline the provenance of the painting itself and how they arrived at their conclusion that it was painted from life.

Some of their evidence includes: 

  1. Scientific testing has shown that the portrait is painted on a panel of English oak sometime after 1595; the form of the collar suggests a painting date of around 1610.
  2. The Cobbe portrait is inscribed with the words Principum amicitias!, meaning ‘the alliances of princes!', a quotation from Horace in an ode addressed to a man who was, among other things, a playwright.
    3. The portrait was descended along it's journey in tandem with contemporary portraits of Jannsen and Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, and “the tradition is claimed to date to within living memory of Shakespeare. This is one of the longest Shakespeare traditions attaching to any oil portrait. Furthermore, the existence of so many early copies indicates that the sitter was a man of fame.” (source, and a great place to view the rest of the reasoning behind concluding this is a portrait of Shakespeare)

Shakespeare scholars Stanley Wells, Henry Woudhuysen, Stuart Sillars, and Gregory Droan, chief associate director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and art historians Alastair Laing, curator of paintings and sculpture at the National Trust, and Paul Joannides, professor of Art History at Cambridge all support the conclusion that this portrait is of Shakespeare. Rupert Featherstone at the Hamilton Kerr Institute, University of Cambridge, researched the Cobbe potrait along with the only documented portrait of Overbury in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, and concluded they depict two different sitters.

Notably, Tarnya Cooper, at the National Potrait Gallery, believes the Cobbe portrait is of Sir Thomas Overbury. (Source)

Antiochus, I thank thee, who hath taught 
My frail mortality to know itself, 
And by those fearful objects to prepare 
This body, like to them, to what I must; 
For death remember'd should be like a mirror, 
Who tells us life's but breath, to trust it error. 


Pericles, I.1

Funerary monument to William Shakespeare, above his grave inside Holy Trinity Church in Stratford Upon Avon, England. Public Domain.

The Funerary Monument at Holy Trinity Church

Commissioned by his daughter, Susanna, the funerary monument can be presumed to have met her standard for an acceptable representation of her father at the time of his death in 1616. However, since then, the monument has been subject to considerable vandalism leading many to believe the painted and repainted, even altered, version of Shakespeare which is there today is a caricature at best.

We know it was installed prior to the publication of the First Folio, because the Folio gives reference to “the Stratford monument” which means the monument must have been done before 1623. Most historians believe it was installed near Shakespeare's death, around 1617-1618.

There are two inscriptions on the monument.

The English poem reads:




and the Latin epithaph:




“Squeezed into the small space beneath the poem, a few abbreviated words in Latin tell us that he died in the year of the Lord 1616, in his 53rd year, on 23 April.” Schoenbaum 1987, p.311.

Resources Recommended by Rachel: 

The Morgan Library and Museum, “The Changing Face of William Shakespeare”:

List of Folger paintings and links to images:

Chandos portrait info from NPG:

Four States of Shakespeare: The Droeshout Portrait:

Shakespeare’s Stratford Monument:

Cobbe portrait official landing page:

Books Recommended by Rachel: 

Download This Guide When you Join The Newsletter

Start insulting your friends the Shakespeare way.

Comment and Share

Please consider rating the podcast with 5 stars and leaving a one- or two-sentence review in iTunes or on Stitcher.  Rating the podcast helps tremendously with bringing the podcast to the attention of others.

We encourage you to join the That Shakespeare Girl community on Facebook. It’s a community of professional Shakespeareans and Shakespeare enthusiasts, as well as fans of That Shakespeare Life.

You can tell your friends on Twitter about your love of Shakespeare and our new podcast by simply clicking this link and sharing the tweet you’ll find at the other end.

And, by all means, if you know someone you think would love to learn about the life of William Shakespeare, please spread the word by using the share buttons on this page.

And remember: In order to really know William Shakespeare, you have to go behind the curtain, and into That Shakespeare Life.