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Portraits of William Shakespeare

The 'Old Player' and the Soest portraits of Shakespeare


On the left is the newly discovered 'Old Player' portrait of Shakespeare, named after the reference to 'WS', 'the Old Player' in 'Willobie his Avisa,' published in 1594, about the time this portrait might well have been painted, since it shows its subject around the age of 30, the age Shakespeare reached on 23 April, 1594. The Sonnets are believed to have been written in the period 1592 -1594. It is Dr Wilson's view, (backed by internal evidence presented in his Shakespeare's Dark Lady) that Avisa, the subject of 'Willobie his Avisa', was none other than Lady Penelope Rich, Shakespeare's Dark Lady and, indirectly, the inspiration for Shakespeare's Lucrece.

The 'Old Player' portrait has been 'mirrored' (reversed) here, the better to compare it with the Soest portrait of Shakespeare on the right, which was painted by the Dutch artist Gerard Soest, probably between 1656 and 1665. It has been said that the costume worn by the Bard in this portrait reflects a late seventeenth century view of how early seventeenth century costume looked.

It is evident that the two portraits are linked in some way. As a portrait, the Soest version demonstrates a finer hand. It seems possible that one is a copy of the other, but if that is the case, which came first? And can it be said that the Soest version shows a slightly older Shakespeare, perhaps about five years older?

In Dr Wilson's view, the 'Old Player' portrait is the earlier of the two. This view is based on the fact that it gives the subject disproportionately large eyes, a characteristic of much Elizabethan portraiture which had gone by the time Soest was painting. (It is still evident in the so-called Chandos portrait. See below).

What are the differences between the two portraits, apart from the apparent age of the subject and the size of his eyes? The mouth is perhaps the most obvious difference. Soest's subject has a wider mouth with narrower lips. Both subjects have the same balding brow and the same lock of hair curling at the top. The 'Old Player' portrait has not yet been cleaned, but already it is evident under a magnifying glass that the two costumes resemble each other in their shoulder patterning. Whether this costume design is really incorrect for the 1590's will remain a matter of debate for some time.

It seems possible that Soest copied his Shakespeare from the 'Old Player' portrait or a copy of it (or the 'Old Player' portrait is a copy of the portrait, now lost, on which Soest based his version). When the 'Old Player' portrait has been fully cleaned and restored, perhaps the answers to its origin will become more apparent.


The so-called Chandos portrait of Shakespeare

The so-called Chandos portrait, allegedly of Shakespeare, appears to date from the early sixteenth century and shows its subject around the age of forty. Tradition has it that it is a portrait of Shakespeare painted in his lifetime. If the 'Old Player' portrait (above) is carefully compared with it, it seems not impossible that the subject is one and the same person, and that person Shakespeare if the identification of the 'Old Player' subject with Shakespeare is accepted.


The Janssen bust of Shakespeare

The bust of Shakespeare by Gheerart Janssen beside Shakespeare's tomb in Holy Trinity, Stratford undoubtedly shows a Bard who is plump and arguably bourgeois. This image fits ill with preconceptions of the Bard's appearance, bardolaters preferring to assume that Shakespeare somehow looked slimmer, more intelligent, perhaps more inspiring and inspired. However it is likely to have been sculpted soon after Shakespeare's death in 1616, and arguably, therefore, is not only a fairly accurate image of the playwright, but a more accurate image than Droeshout's. Note the interesting fact that Janssen's Shakespeare has a beard and Droeshout's does not.

It is Dr Wilson's view that of the Janssen and Droeshout images of the Bard, the former is the truer to nature. It is unlikely that Janssen ever met the Bard, but the playwright's family may have had a recent portrait on which the sculptor could model the bust. And this bust is likely to have been created soon after the poet's death (though we do not know when), and not seven years later, as was the Droeshout portrait. It may even have been modelled on a death mask, which might explain the slightly swollen appearance of the face.


The Droeshout Portrait of Shakespeare

The Martin Droeshout portrait of Shakespeare has often been claimed to be the most authentic portrait of the Bard on the grounds that those who knew Shakespeare approved it for publication in the First Folio in 1623, seven years after the Bard's death. Nonetheless, the young Droeshout is unlikely ever to have met Shakespeare and as an artist he was no Holbein or Soest. Thus this portrait is best seen as a caricature. From it, we can be fairly sure that Shakespeare was bald and had a moustache - but not much more.


The 'Grafton' portrait of Shakespeare

The sitter for this portrait is unknown and there is no evidence that this might be Shakespeare other than the date of birth (1563 or 1564) implied by the inscription and an uncanny resemblance to the much maligned Droeshout portrait of the Bard.


If the reader looks carefully at the 'Old Player' portrait, the Soest portrait, the Chandos portrait and finally the Janssen bust, it is possible to conclude that this is plausibly the same subject at different stages in his life. Only the rather 'amateur' Droeshout portrait tells us little about the reality of its subject.

July 2004