To be or not to be, Shakespeare?

Shakespeare portrait claimed in illustration John Gerard The Herball

George Sumner is an environmental impressionist painter, specializing in ocean scenes. 20 years ago you would have found his work in galleries across America including Hawaii. In fact, 20 years ago, you couldn’t have visited the island chain without tripping over a painting or lithograph of his. His popularity has waned over the years and now his work is limited to Northern California.

My mother fell in love with his work during the height of his popularity. She had a condo in Hawaii that was decorated with his lithographs. An art dealer, sensing a true patron, got her in touch with Somner’s ex-wife. The ex had a painting of his for sale. It was a painting that wasn’t cataloged as he had painted for his wife, now ex-wife. My mother jumped at the chance to own a one of a kind piece of work. A piece that was never reprinted for sale; very few people know it even exists. After my mother tired of it (it’s huge and doesn’t fit in her scaled down lifestyle) she sold it to another collector who was also happy to have a one of a kind piece.

Now, let’s say that collector keeps it in the family for several generations, and in, let’s say 100 years from now, Sumner is popular once again. Can you imagine the thrill the art world would feel if the owner of the piece comes forward with this unknown painting? The origin story makes the piece all that more interesting.

These things happen. Just recently there’s been a discovery of a previously unknown Van Gogh. A Rembrandt scholar thinks he has found 70 misidentified paintings. Who knows how many unknown or misidentified works of art are waiting to be found? How many are actually hidden in plain sight?

According to the latest edition of Country Magazine, a botanist found a book that contains a picture of Shakespeare hidden in plain sight. The article in Country Magazine makes the claim that what they have, reveals an astonishing new image of William Shakespeare, the first and only known demonstrably authentic portrait of the world’s greatest writer made in his lifetime.

The go to explain:

Botanist and historian Mark Griffiths reveals in this week’s issue of Country Life magazine, how he cracked a many-layered Tudor code and revealed the living face of Shakespeare for the first time, on the title page of The Herball by John Gerard, a 16th century book on plants, 400 years after it was first published.

Upon reading this my first thought was, “Oh great, another code cracker. Had Griffiths read one too many Dan Brown novels?” But of course I had to keep an open mind, so I spent a few hours reading the various takes on what Country Magazine calls “the find of the century”.


Griffiths claims that while studying the life of John Gerard, he started researching the title page of The Herball in order to determine who the four figures are that make up the edges of the page. He noticed some Latin under each of them and after doing some Robert Langdon style deciphering, came up with a theory that they are Gerard himself, the Flemish botanist Rembert Dodoens, Queen Elizabeth’s chief minister Lord Burghley, who was Gerard’s patron, and the man dressed in a Togo, William Shakespeare. “At first, I found it hard to believe that anyone so famous, so universally sought, could have hidden in plain sight for so long,” Griffiths said. But he is convinced that this is only reasonable explanation for this figure. I’m still trying to find a reasonable explanation for the code. Ready? Here is it as spelled out by Telegraph newspaper:

The number four + the letter ‘E’ – translating in Latin as ‘quater-e’, meaning ‘to shake’

The letters ‘OR’ – the heraldic term for gold, a reference to the Shakespeare family coat of arms

The code can also be read from left to right, top to bottom, as ‘quat-e-or’, a Renaissance spelling of ‘quatior’, meaning ‘I shake’

A rebus representing a spear – put together these say ‘shake-spear’

A letter ‘W’ to represent William

He goes on to suggest, the man in the portrait is holding an ear of sweetcorn, a fleur-de-lys and a fritillary (a flower of the lily family) in references to Titus Andronicus, Henry VI Part I and Venus and Adonis respectively.

Now that’s some code! No wonder no one else in 400 years has pointed to this as Shakespeare. It makes me wonder what Mr. Botanist smokes in his spare time. Just for fun I consulted a couple of my Latin dictionaries to see if indeed quatere translates into “to shake”. I found out that there are several Latin words that translate into shake, depending on the context, but only one that means “to shake”; Exhorresco. Quarter translates into 4. But my dictionaries could be wrong….

John Overholt, a Harvard scholar says, not so fast. This same “code” or device is nothing more than a printer’s mark. He has found the same code listed as a printer’s mark in the William and John Norton Compendium of Printer’s Stamps, published in 1749. Oxford Professor Edward Wilson, who backs up Griffiths’ claim, quipped back that the Nortons must have made an error in judgment in saying that this is a printer’s mark. Easy to say when the men in question have been dead for over 300 years and can’t defend themselves.

Many Shakespeare scholars think that what Griffiths has come up with is utter nonsense. Micheal Dobbs and Paul Edmonson both laugh at the idea. While I want to keep an open mind, I am on the side of scholars for a couple of reasons.

If this is a code, it’s a pretty far-reaching one. If this truly is supposed to be Shakespeare, why go to such lengths to hide it? Why not make it obvious for all to see?

Second, even if this is a depiction of Shakespeare, it isn’t self evident that this is a true to life likeness. For all we know it may be the artist’s interpretation of what he thinks the great poet is supposed to look like. It is a big leap to say this might be a nod to Shakespeare and a monumental leap to say this is the only known demonstrably authentic portrait of the world’s greatest writer made in his lifetime, as Country Life is claiming.

We aren’t exactly sure what Shakespeare looked like. The only known authentic likenesses of Shakespeare are found in the First Folio and on the effigy on his monument at Holy Trinity church in Stratford-upon-Avon. Both of these were commissioned posthumously. Ah, and there’s the rub. Is this to be or not to be a realistic picture of the young playwright? We may never know. But, I am betting against it, as Country Life has made a far greater claim, one that should have been the lead story. Next week they are going to present us with a newly discovered play penned by non-other than Shakespeare!

I smell a book deal in the works.


Country Life, Shakespeare His true likeness reveled at last

The Guardian Shakespeare: writer claims discovery of only portrait made during his lifetime

Charles Murry Latin to English Dictionary

John Stone, Latin for the illiterati

The Telegraph, William Shakespeare: Newly-discovered image revealed

So, you think you’re smarter than Shakespeare?


My long time followers know two things about me. I love listening to podcasts and am in the middle of earing my master’s in humanities, ever hopeful to teach my favorite subject Shakespeare. So when one of my favorite podcasts Strange Frequencies Radio (SFR) decided to do a show about the Shakespeare authorship debate I eagerly joined in the live chat room.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Shakespeare authorship debate let me explain.  Critics of Shakespeare as an author believe that William Shakespeare the actor did not write the plays and poems attributed to him. This idea is not widely held by most scholars, but those who do are rather vocal about their views. This was shown to be true during the live broadcast of SFR Sunday afternoon. Wow the Oxfordians in the chat room were almost shouting! FYI they call themselves Oxfordians because they believe the 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward De Vere, is the true author. The “evidence” for this is comprehensive, ranging from De Vere’s aristocratic knowledge of the upper classes through to his education and the similarities between his poetry and Shakespeare’s (there isn’t any). As regards to the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets, it is believed by the Oxfordians that Edward wrote these under the pseudonym of Shakespeare, both to avoid breaking a voluntary convention against aristocrats publishing poetry (there wasn’t one) and plays and to escape the consequences of the subject matter he was writing about.  It is suggested that the character of Polonius bears a striking resemblance to De Vere’s father-in-law. Anyone who has either read the play or watched it probably thinks Polonius bears a striking resemblance his or her father-in-law or at least we all have that one uncle…

Professor and humanities skeptic (I want that title!)Eve Siebert was SFR’s guest. She was on to debunk the arguments for someone else as being the author of the works of Shakespeare. No sooner had she started talking when someone in the chat room rudely typed “Wrong!” over and over again. He then rudely suggested the hosts “get a real scholar” on the show. Not only was this extremely rude and disrespectful it was obvious he could not handle his beliefs being debunked and wanted to only hear from someone whose believes were the same as his. I have to hand it to Bobby, one of the hosts of SFR, for he not only called out those in the chat room who were typing rude remarks, he dared them to call in after Professor Siebert was finished so they could tell their side. And to the doubters credit a “real Oxfordian scholar “did call in. As expected his arguments were weak; he talked about the relationship between De Vere and his father-in-law. As he rambled on his voice became angry not because anyone was arguing with him, but because the two hosts were asking follow up questions.

This post is not a case for Shakespeare, though in the future if you want I will talk about the various claims made by the Oxfordians, yet I feel compelled to talk about one. The one that all doubters of Shakespeare point to; that an uneducated actor could not have possibly written such great works. This, to me, is a disrespectful and ugly argument. It has always bothered me when those without degrees are looked upon as some how not as smart as those with degrees.

But before I do I want to share a couple of thoughts I had during the show.

  1. It is no secret that those who shout or become rude during a conversation debate always have the weaker argument and they know it. We see this all the time when listening to conspiracy theorists. What happened Sunday afternoon was no different from other conspiracy debates.
  2. There are those who feel the need to make themselves seem superior to their fellow men. In this case there are those who feel that if they could prove Shakespeare was not a great writer they would not only be intellectually superior to mainstream Shakespeare scholars, they would prove that only someone with a college education could have written the works of Shakespeare. In a way they would be proving that they are smarter than William Shakespeare. Which leads me to my intended post. Using myself as an example I’m going to show you just how easy it is for an “uneducated” person to come up with an idea and then run with it.

For years I felt inadequate because I lacked a college degree. I made up for it by being well read. I collected and read books on a wide range of subjects. I felt by reading I was making up for what I lacked in an education. Perhaps Shakespeare felt the same way. After all many playwrights of his day were college educated. Perhaps Shakespeare was also well read. After all, books come in real handy when doing any kind of research, as I am about to prove.

This last spring I wrote a paper titled What happens in the woods stays in the woods. It was a critical look at the play A midsummer night’s dream. In the paper I compared Greek mythology to the characters found in the play. I wasn’t sure what my hook would be until I did some research on centaurs. I wanted to see if I could figure out why the character of Bottom was depicted as having an ass’s head/ male body instead of the usual horse body/male head. My research paid off. I found out that Chiron, the wisest of the centaurs, is described as “having thoughts too great for man”. Does this sound familiar? It should if you have seen or read the play.

After Bottom is once again transformed into a man he declares ““I have had a dream past the wit of man to say what it was”. “ The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man that not seen, the hand of man is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart what my dream was”. It would seem Bottom also had thoughts too great for man. Bottom couldn’t even explain them with any clarity (he was an ass not an centaur after all).

It was clear the playwright had Chiron’s wisdom in mind when he created the character of Bottom. In fact the majority of the action in the play requires that all of the characters believe they are acting wisely thought the opposite is true. I found my hook within 15 minutes of doing research and did so using books I collected before I earned a degree.

So what does this have to do with Shakespeare? Well, let’s say instead of writing a paper I decided to write a play and said play was to be based in ancient Athens because I just happened to love Greek mythology having studied it in grammar school. How would I go about it? Perhaps I would pick up Arthur Golding’s 1567 translation of Ovid’s The Metamorphoses and look for inspiration and find it in section Six titled, The Less Important Myths. Why this book? Because it was widely regarded during Shakespeare’s day and because this is where I found the mention of Chiron and his being wiser than men. It took my only 15 minutes, but perhaps Shakespeare had this in mind the whole time when he sat down to write. Maybe it didn’t even take him 15 minutes. The idea may have been planted in childhood.

It would not have taken a college education to write this play, just a natural talent for writing, love of Greek mythology and memories of being taught about them in grammar school.


D L Johanyak, Shakespeare’s World

Ovid, The Metamorphoses

George Puttenham ,The Arte of English Poesie

William Shakespeare, A midsummer night’s dream

If you don’t believe William Shakespeare was a writer, go ahead, give it your best shot. Show me your proof. But remember, I have reference books and am not afraid to use them!

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