An image claimed to be the first and only contemporary portrait of William Shakespeare has been discovered in a 16th century book about plants.
In what has been hailed as “the literary discovery of the century”, the drawing was identified by botanist and historian Mark Griffiths.
The title page of the book The Herball (Julian Simmonds/The Telegraph)
Griffiths was studying The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes, a 1,484-page volume written in 1598 by the famous botanist John Gerard.
The title page features an image, measuring barely three inches tall, of an unnamed, bearded man with a laurel wreath on his head.
Beneath it is an Elizabethan cipher which Griffiths claims to have cracked – and which he says translates as ‘William Shakespeare’.
The new image, left, compared to the only other confirmed picture of the Bard: the Arundel First Folio – Engraving of William Shakespeare by Martin Droeshout, right
Symbols included in the portrait, in the form of flowers and vegetables, are also said to be coded references to the playwright’s identity.
“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.
The man in the illustration is standing on a plinth that bears a code.
According to Griffiths the code incorporates:
• 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
• the man in the portrait is holding an ear of sweetcorn, a fleur-de-lys and a fritillary (a flower of the lily family) – references to Titus Andronicus, Henry VI Part I and Venus and Adonis respectively. In the latter, Adonis is turned into a purple flower that Griffiths says is identifiable as a snake’s head fritillary
Griffiths said: “It is coded in the style of clever men of the time but it says ‘William Shakespeare’. I dare say plenty of people will say it’s not him, but there is no other construction that can be placed on these facts.
“It is not an assumption that it’s Shakespeare – it’s algebra.”
The discovery, said to depict Shakespeare aged 33, will be featured in Country Life magazine, a publication to which Griffiths is a regular contributor.
The first folio of Shakespeare’s work was published in 1623
Country Life’s editor, Mark Hedges, said: “This is the only verifiable portrait of Shakespeare in his lifetime.
“Two-thirds of the world study Shakespeare, everyone knows Shakespeare, but nobody knows what he looks like. This is the most extraordinary discovery of the century.”
He said the image showed Shakespeare to be a man of “film star good looks” in the prime of his career. By 1598 the playwright had published many of his great works, including Titus Andronicus, Romeo and Juliet, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
The find has been verified by Edward Wilson, Emeritus Fellow of Worcester College, Oxford, who said his academic instinct had been to disprove the theory. But he has concluded that the Shakespeare claim is “absolutely safe, it is sensational, and we do not think anyone is going to disprove it at all”.
However, some Shakespeare scholars were more doubtful.
Dr Paul Edmondson, Head of Learning and Research at The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, said: “I haven’t read the full report but I’m always sceptical about any theory that relies on secret codes being broken.
“When I look at the image, I can’t help just seeing a generalised portrait of a classical poet.”
Prof Michael Dobson, director of the Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham, also poured cold water on the theory.
He said: “It’s a man in a toga holding a little bit of corn on the cob.
“It’s nice that people are so fond of Shakespeare that they see him everywhere, even in a botany textbook. But it’s hallucination.”