William Shakespeare's name and works have now reached a legendary status all around the world, and although his various plays and poems have been analyzed and reimagined time and time again, the man himself still remains somewhat of an enigma.
Perhaps the biggest mystery of all is what Shakespeare actually looked like. Now is actually entirely sure, until now perhaps? This week, a botanist and historian has claimed he was found an image of the young Shakespeare hidden in one of the most famous books about plants.
Mark Griffiths claims he was cracked an "ingenious cipher" which was hiding the true identity of a figure present in an engraving in the 16th century book on botany. John Gerard's (1545-1612), The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes, is considered the bible of early botany - with the 1,484 page book still holding the record as the largest single volume work on plants in English.
The first edition contained an engraving made by William Rogers which featured four figures surrounded by heraldic figures, plants and other clues. Elizabethan England was rather fond of mysterious codes, references and allusions in their artwork, and so it is not uncommon for books to use decorative devices to hide deeper meanings. Three of the figures have been identified, they are the author Gerard, Rembert Dodoens, a renowned Flemish botanist, and Queen Elizabeth's Lord Treasurer, Lord Burghley. But now Griffiths is claiming the fourth is none other than a 33-year old Shakespeare. Take a look at him below:
According to Griffiths, the laurel leaves on the head are the dead giveaway of a poet, while the plant he is holding - the newly discovered snake's head fritillary - more specifically identifies the Romeo and Juliet playwright. Shakespeare often used references to plants in his work, and the snake's head fritillary appears in one of his most famous poems, Venus and Adonis.
Griffiths told the BBC:
This is what Shakespeare looked like, drawn from life and in the prime of life. He's written Midsummer Night's Dream and he's shortly to write Hamlet. He has a film star's good looks.
Although some dispute the claim that this is indeed Shakespeare, it seems few are arguing with this second point. Until now, the only official portrait known to be painted during Shakespeare's life isn't exactly the most flattering, in fact he looks a bit like a 16th century 'neckbeard' type. This new image, however, adds a bit of a beardy-hipster twist to the poet.
The discovery of Shakespeare also has an interesting side-effect. His possible presence beside Lord Burghley - Queen Elizabeth's chief lord and spymaster - means Shakespeare may have been present at the heart of English politics at the time.
Unfortunately, not everyone is ready to accept this is Shakespeare just yet. For example, Professor Michael Dobson, director of the Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham, said he was "deeply unconvinced" by the theory, adding:
One has seen so many claims on Shakespeare based on somebody claiming to crack a code. And nobody else has apparently been able to decipher this for 400 years. And there's no evidence that anybody thought that this was Shakespeare at the time.
Indeed, this certainly isn't the first time. In 2009, a painting known as the Cobbe portrait was placed on display Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon. The group claimed it was a previously unseen portrait of the bard, although many experts remained unconvinced.
Although there are critics, Griffiths is convinced he has uncovered ol' Shakey, telling the Guardian:
For me it is not about doubt or supposition. I'm faced with a series of facts that I can't gainsay, as much as I try. This is what these facts are, these are what the plants are, this is what they signify, this is what the symbol decodes as. All of that adds up to Shakespeare. I can't make that – and believe me I've tried – add up to anybody else but Shakespeare.
One thing is for sure, if you squint your eyes a lot, he does almost look like Joseph Fiennes in Shakespeare in Love. Almost.
Do you think this is William Shakespeare?