Post Magazine: Is This the Face of Shakespeare?

Sally Jenkins
Monday, August 31, 2009; 12:00 PM

For more than 250 years, the Cobbe portrait was a nameless head hanging obscurely in an Anglo-Irish country house outside of Dublin. Now, a fierce debate rages about the identity of the man in it. Is this the true face of William Shakespeare?

Post staff writer Sally Jenkins took questions Monday, August 31 on her Post Magazine cover story, "Waiting for William." The transcript is below.


Sally Jenkins: Hello all, and welcome to the odd spectacle of a sports writer discussing Bill Shakespeare. Let's hope I don't committ any terrible whoppers. Thanks very much for reading the Sunday magazine piece, which was a great adventure for me, and let me start by saying how much fun it is to spend a Monday talking about Shakespeare instead of Little League or the Redskins!


Beaufort, SC: I just finished reading your article and enjoyed it very much. Bardolatry is an endlessly fascinating subject. Your contribution helps keep interest alive in these sad and trying times.

Sally Jenkins: How very nice. Thank you. The aim of the piece was not so much to reach a verdict on the Cobbe, as to show that Bardolatry in all its forms is not about musty scholarship, but a rip roaring adventure that anyone can become interested in.


Deerfield, Massachusetts: Is it too much to ask that the alleged profusion of documentary evidence for the Stratford man's authorship include a single instance of his being able to spell his own name twice the same way, let alone being literate?

Sally Jenkins: Ahhhh! An anti-Stratfordian! Welcome. For those who don't know, the reader is referring to the fact that in the various signatures of Shakespeare on record, he continually spells his name differently, such as Shaxpere, or Shakspere, etc. Skeptics of Shakespeare as author of the plays present this as evidence in favor of an alternate author. The current favorite is Edward De Vere, the Earl of Oxford. Mainstream Shakespeare scholars would respond that in Shakespeare's day lots of people spelled their names inconsistently, and would point to a sheaf of firm documentary evidence associating the glover's son from Stratford with the plays.

Sally Jenkins: I should also add that as far as literacy, most of the great playwrights of Shakespeare's era came from the same sorts of middle class backgrounds, the sons of crafstmen. Ben Jonson was the son of a bricklayer. Thomas Kyd was the son of a scrivener. Christopher Marlowe was the son of a shoemaker. The contextual evidence suggests Shakespeare was surely literate -- and received an excellent education at the local grammar school at Stratford, where he was instructed by brilliant young men from Oxford. His mother was also literate, apparently. Someone did an interesting examination of his mother's mark, and found that it was done in a continuous motion, which suggests she was familiar with the use of a quill pen.


Phoenix, AZ: Great article. Pix of the Bard are like pix of Christ - no matter the style, painter, medium etc. we always recognize the visage. The question is, of course, are we seeing the created myth or a true depiction?

Sally Jenkins: This is a great comment, and one that the wonderful scholar Jonathan Bate, who is quoted in the piece, would agree with. Bate compares Bardolatry to the intensity of religion. When Shakespeare became a God in the 18th century, he says, along came the fixation on portraiture and the authorship controversies. (By the way, it's interesting that no one seriously questioned Shakespeare's authorship until 1852.) As for myth versus true depiction, art of the Cobbe's era is very difficult. While the paitings are meant to be truthful, the artists doing the work in a lot of cases weren't very deft at anatomy yet, which is why they can look so stiff. And most painters were craftsmen rather than artists, who didn't sign their work, so it's difficult to track them and their subjects. Finally, the portraits were somewhat idealized, though not altogether. You don't see warts, wrinkles, scars, acne, black teeth, etc.. The Cobbe is a particularly beautiful, lively painting -- at least to me it seems to have been done by a real artist instead of a craftsman -- but it's difficult to know exactly how representative it is of the subject. One more complicating factor: portraits of gentlemen in this era tended to look a lot alike. They wore much the same fashions, and had the same close beards.


Miami, Fla.: Which of the Shakespeare biographies do you recommend for someone who wants to learn more on Shakespeare?

Sally Jenkins: Boy, it's hard to settle on one, because they all have such different takes. James Shapiro's 1599: A Year in the Life of Shakespeare is a sublime book, and one that all scholars seem to respect equally. It's immensely readable, a great adventure in time travel, and it gives you a good sketch of his life, as well as of the contemporary theater. Charles Nicholl's The Lodger Shakespeare might bring him literally to life better than any other book. Stephen Greenblatt's Will in the World is an exuberant, gorgeously written book, but some scholars feel it's too speculative. My own feeling is that readers are smart enough to sort speculations out for themselves, and I highly recommend it. Jonathan Bate's The Genius of Shakespeare and The Soul of the Age give you a deep feeling for Shakespeare's mind, and his time, that you can't get from anyone else. Park Honan's book is really valuable for a straightforward biographical account and a thorough rundown of the evidence. Katharine Duncan Jones' Ungentle Shakespeare gives you an alternate and more grity, realistic view of who Shakespeare must have been based on the crowds he moved in. I recommend them all. Once you read one, I bet you'll find yourself hooked and move on to the others.


Washington, DC: What do you think of the Sanders portrait discovered in Canada in 2001, and why does Shakespeare there look like such a commoner compared to the Cobbes portrait?

Sally Jenkins: The Sanders portrait is a really interesting picture, and one that deserves more attention. I know the folks at the Folger are interested in it, though I am not as familiar with the strength of the specific case for it. There's a wonderful book called Shakespeare's Face by Stephanie Nolen about it, which also takes a broader look at Shakespeare scholarship. Actually analysts of The Sanders portrait think it's not of a commoner but of a very fashionable young man, and so tend to be similarly skeptical of it. Costume historian Aileen Ribeiro of the Courthault Institute actually thinks he's too chic to have been Shakespeare. But Jonathan Bate theorizes that The Sanders is actually of John Fletcher. The Sanders certainly is another fascinating topic of discussion, and in addition to a book, there is a terrific documentary about it by a filmmaker Anne Henderson making the rounds, though it hasn't yet appeared on American TV. I wish it would.


Albany, NY: Sally, your recent projects show that you are more than "just a sportswriter." But I'm interested in how you got to this story. How did you go from the Carlisle Indians to the State of Jones to Shakespeare's portrait? I'm hoping it's more interesting than "Shroder called me."

Sally Jenkins: Thank you for the comment. The long answer is that all journalists are by nature untrained historians. As our former publisher Phil Graham said, journalism is "the first draft of history." It's no accident that some of the best recent history has been written by Washington Post veterans: Rick Atkinson on World War II, David Maraniss on Bill Clinton as well as the Vietnam War and the Rome Olympics, David Von Drehle on the Triangle shirtwaist fire, Steve Coll on Afghanistan, Tom Ricks and Rajiv Chandrasekaran on Iraq...the list goes on and on. That's the company you fall into in our news room, and it tends to excite you into trying it yourself. The Real All Americans was a toe dipped in the water, it was about the birth of American football and the role Native Americans played in its development via great Carlisle teams. And that led to an opportunity to work with the great Harvard and literature professor John Stauffer on The State of Jones, which came out in June and is about an episode of Civil War history in Mississippi. The Cobbe portrait was an excuse to learn more about Shakespeare, a subject I'd read about as a casual interest for years. Most history writers would tell you they're really exorcising a longtime interest or obsession. You write about things because you'd like to know more about them.


Charlottesville, Va.: Fascinating article, Sally! How did you come to write it?

The question of Shakespeare's relationship with Southampton was danced around a bit, wasn't it? Do scholars have theories about these two?

Sally Jenkins: Thanks! The piece started when I saw the news story in our paper about the unveiling of the Cobbe portrait by Stanley Wells, and the controversy it stirred up. The face in thee portrait is fascinating, no matter who you think it was, and so is the connection with the Folger Library, which gave it a Washington connection, and made it a good story whether it's ever proved to be Shakespeare or not...The question of the relationship to Southampton is debated constantly by scholars. It's hard to say anything definitive about it, except that they had some sort of relationship. Beyond that scholars disagree fiercely. The intimacy of the dedication of The Rape of Lucrece is really breathtaking if you read it cold, for the first time. But some experts say such language doesn't necessarily mean anything. The Arden sonnets editor Katherine Duncan Jones has a really interesting observation, she notes that most poets in Shakespeare's day dedicated their work to female patrons. Shakespeare never did, which suggests to her that his most intense relations were with men. Even more, she speculates that Southampton was actually the main motivating force behind Shakespeare's social climbing and encouraged him in pursueing a coat of arms and gentleman status.


Washington, D.C.: I haven't had a chance to read the article yet, but I can't imagine that this image could be taken for Shakespeare. That era had very strict sumptuary laws and the collar and doublet definitely appear to belong to the nobility. There are accepted portraits of Richard Burbage, Ben Jonson, and various members of Shakespeare's troupe. All are depicted with much humbler attire. A person of Shakespeare's position would much more likely be portrayed in a manner such as the Chandos portrait.

Sally Jenkins: Thanks for your comment, and point about laws regulating attire, although Stanley Wells would say that by 1610 those laws were more relaxed, and middle elites like Shakespeare were demonstrating enormous social flexibility. He would also point out that Shakespeare's contemporary John Fletcher had himself painted in far richer attire, festooned with gold chains, a portrait which can be viewed at London's National Portrait Gallery. Still, one of the quesitons raised in the piece is whether Shakespeare would have posed so presumptuously. One of the people I spoke to for the story was a wonderful costume historian named Aileen Ribeiro at the Courthault Institute, who looked closely at the doublet, and she too finds it too rich to be Shakespeare, an observation which unfortunately was edited out of the piece for space. Ribeiro also observes an sort of enigmatic style in the dress, a controlled chic. On the other hand, Stephen Greenblatt at Harvard would say that the aura of the Cobbe is exactly what Shakespeare would have wanted to project. He devoted a great deal of time and energy to pursuing gentleman-status and in fact he technically was elevated to the status of minor courtier by James I. If you subscribe to the view that these things were hugely important to Shakespeare, that he was that much of a social climber, then the costume doesn't bother you. If you subsscribe to the view that he was a much more canny, subdued character, then the dress bothers you.


King Claudius, FedEx Castle: O, my offensive line is rank, it smells to heaven!

Sally Jenkins: Excellent comment!!!!!


Alexandria, Va.: A lovely piece, Sally. You did a great job of explaining the controversies surrounding Shakespeare's identity and appearance. I imagine you've been told many times what a lively writer you are. Your profile of Sarah Palin is the only thing I've read about her that made me think it would be interesting to meet her.

Can you tell us how you happened to get imvolved in this topic? Palin's Strengths Rooted in Alaska (Post, Oct. 2, 2008)

Sally Jenkins: Thank you. Balance is the ultimate compliment. Hopefully the question of how I got involved in the piece has been answered. The short answer, as opposed to the long, is that I proposed it to the editors simply because I wanted to know more about it myself. It was sheer curiosity.


Anonymous: What's wrong with the pix in the First Folio? He saw it, and must have approved it as being approximinate to his likeness. Why go to these stretches of saying somone else's pix is that of Shakespeare when it looks nothing like the printed version he approved himself. This is really silly.

Sally Jenkins: Certainly a view held by many. Thanks for writing in. One objection I heard from Tarnya Cooper of the National Portrait Gallerry in London, who is very skeptical of the Cobbe, is that the man in the picture simply looks younger than 46. It's a good point, and one that was trimmed from the story for lack of space, unfortunately. I think if anyone really wants to know what Shakespeare looked like, they can look at the Droueshout engraving or the funeral bust. That is who he was, at least at the end of his life, a portly, balding man.


Olney, Md.: To me, Shakespeare will always look like Joseph Fiennes (and Queen Elizabeth like Cate Blanchett)!

Sally Jenkins: Everyone has their own Shakespeare, and what matters most is that we have the work. Better to have that than his picture, right. And there's nothing wrong with thinking he was good looking as a young man. He was after all a good charismatic actor, and there are accounts that suggest he was a "handsome, well shapt man" and even a pin-up.


Anonymous: Ms. Jenkins, thanks for taking my question about the Sanders portrait. Here's a link to a fairly cogent argument that the Sanders portrait is actually Edward de Vere:

Also, here's what Mark Anderson (author of "Shakespeare By Another Name") has to say about your piece:

Sally Jenkins: Thank you. For those who would like to know more about the argument that Edward De Vere, the Earl of Oxford, is the real author of the plays attributed to William Shakespeare, here are some links to websites that argue in his favor, and against the Post magazine piece. By the way, the Oxford proponents include Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens.


Bethesda, MD: Sally,

An Oxfordian here. To perpetuate the idea in 2009 that Will Shakspere was the definitive author of the single greatest literary canon in the English language, when a growing body of scholarship is proving otherwise, is unfortunate.

Readers interested in learning about the leading contender to the Shakespeare works should try Mark Anderson's "Shakespeare By Another Name: The Life Of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, The Man Who Was Shakespeare" (audio link at

At this point, we shouldn't be comparing portraits; we should be comparing lives.

Love your Sports columns!

Sally Jenkins: And another Oxfordian! Welcome, thanks for reading, and for posting.


Anonymous: Do you really think a commoner would be taking the position of a medieval noble in so many of his plays? And how could a commoner be so familiar with the law, and royal pursuits such as falconry and the hunt? Surely when one reads Hamlet, we hear the flowery language of a courtier, steeped in ancient tradition, a "living embodiment of the state"? Isn't the work of Shakespeare an "interior view" of Elizabeth's court? Common sense seems to fly out the window when discussing the fantastic supposition that someone without an education or royal access wrote these highly elevated works, does it not?

Sally Jenkins: This is a point raised a lot: how could Shakespeare have known so much about court life, falconry, seagoing, etc., when he was a middle class son from Stratford. The best answer is another question: how could Steven Speilberg make movies about World War II, or shark fishing, when he was never a soldier, and isn't a fisherman? Geniuses are wild flowers, and great writers have the ability to become their subjects.


Arlington, Va.: How does Jonathan Bate reconcile his vision of Shakespeare with the man who sought, at considerable expense, a coat of arms? Does he think that Shakespeare was a different man after Essex's insurection in 1601.

Sally Jenkins: He does. A great point. Bate believes that after the Essex affair Shakespeare washed his hands smartly of Southampton and courtier intrigues, and spent most of his time in Stratford, perhaps even in disgrace. The Essex episode must have been harrowing.


First Folio: Re: a comment above: Shakespeare himself didn't see the First Folio, it was published posthumously.

Sally Jenkins: The first folio image was published seven years after his death, but was approved by the men who had been his closest friends and actors, and was also called accurate by Ben Jonson.


Dayton, Ohio: What a fascinating article this is! Thank you!

Just a couple of comments: Studies of Elizabethan parish registries by P.E.H. Hair showed rates of premarital pregnancies differed throughout England--ranging from 0 percent to 44 percent with much higher rates in the north. The author concluded that some 20 percent of English brides were pregnant at the time of their weddings. Similar Dutch studies show a 30 percent rate of pregnancies. Is it just because Shakespeare is The Immortal Bard that we feel that his "shot-gun" wedding was somehow a disgrace? Ann wasn't the first or last to be married "with a baby beneath her cloak". And Shakespeare wasn't famous when they married. So why the big deal?

I also wonder if Ann was damaged in childbirth with the twins, so that the couple could no longer live as husband and wife.

Again--thank you for this article. So much food for thought!

Sally Jenkins: Very interesting addition to the discussion, thanks. For more on Anne Hathaway, see Germaine Greer's wonderful book Shakespeare's Wife, which I should have included higher up in the list of biographies. She argues that Shakespeare was more loyal to his bride than he has been given credit for.


Woodbridge, Va: The painting is a wonderful find; how much more material is in other English/Irish homes and government archives? The interest in his image and the continued interest in his writing indicates Shakespeare still matters - maybe there's hope for the World?

The continuing debate over how he (a commoner - Catholic lad) could have written those masterpieces is more a reflection of the exclusivity of the British Blue Bloods. Shakespeare's life is more of an American success story, where anyone can succeed regardless of class. Thanks for the article.

Sally Jenkins: Thanks for the comment. Who knows what treasures are held in Britain's National Trust. They find new things all the time.


Anonymous: There are a plethora of red flags that pop up in the Stratford Man's pretension of having created the Shakespeare canon. You mention none of them. Why is there not a single dedication to Shakespeare? Why not a single link between the works and the man from Stratford until 1623? How could an uneducated man, before public libraries and the first english dictionary, bring 3,000 new words into our language? Surely a highly tutored royal, with time to spare, and experts to hire, would be a more plausibe author, don't you think? read what "amateur" Walt Whitman says on the matter!

Sally Jenkins: A classic statement of anti-man-from-Stratford sentiment. Thanks for writing.


Phoenix AZ: "Bethesda, MD: At this point, we shouldn't be comparing portraits; we should be comparing lives."

One of the many things that makes Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, an unlikely person to have written plays attributed to Shakespeare is that he died several years before some of them were written. Oxfordians have lots of fun arguments about how this could have been managed, but it all seems pretty unlikely.

Someone should do a comparative study of Oxfordians and Birthers...

Sally Jenkins: Thanks for making a critical point. Edward De Vere died in 1604. Some would call death an obstacle that prevented him from writing the plays.


Anonymous: As the 17th Earl of Oxford was a cloaked and disgraced figure, having squandered a fortune on literary and dramatic projects coupled with the libertine life of a royal spendthrift, he was only identified as "Shake-speare" in 1920. Since that time, he's really the only viable candidate, if one believes the E. Brittanica, and Stevens, Blackmun, and Scalia. Surely a near century of being the main candidate makes him something other than the "current" candidate?

Sally Jenkins: More Oxford arguments.


Anonymous: 1852? How about Rev. James Wilmot, who around the year 1700 went to Stratford, and discovered that no one had heard of their famous Will being a poet or dramatist. He told a close friend that the Stratford man was some sort of hoax, and instructed him to burn all his papers on the subject upon his death.

Sally Jenkins: Correction, thanks.


Rockville, Md.: Who is your best guess as the actual Shakespeare? As a novice (student), Mark Anderson's book made sense to me - De Vere

Sally Jenkins: My best guess is that William Shakespeare was the actual Shakespeare.


Sally Jenkins: Okay folks, got to close up. Sorry for the time constraint, and to have left so many questions unanswered. Thanks for reading!


Editor's Note: moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company