Every few years it seems, a newly discovered portrait of Shakespeare emerges, only to be discredited by scholars after the obligatory media maelstrom. Many observers have noted that the cyclical nature of these announcements and the intense excitement that accompanies them point to a keen public interest in knowing what Shakespeare looked like, to put a face to a name with which we are so intimately familiar, yet about whom we have so few biographical details.
In this Shakespeare Unlimited episode, Oxford University professor Katherine Duncan-Jones offers her theories about why we don’t have many images of the world’s most famous playwright and tells us what’s known about the images that we do have and how they came to be.
Duncan-Jones selects three Shakespeare portraits—an engraving, a painting, and a bust—that she argues were almost certainly created by people who had seen Shakespeare and knew what he looked like. Of course, whether they still look like Shakespeare, as in the case of the Stratford memorial bust and its multiple restorations, is another question she considers in this episode.
Duncan-Jones is the author of Portraits of Shakespeare (Bodleian Library, 2015).
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What did Shakespeare really look like? Here are some of the ways artists have portrayed him over the centuries. These images can all be found in the Folger Shakespeare Library collection, and the colorful bust of Shakespeare (modeled after the memorial bust of Shakespeare in Stratford) resides in the Paster Reading Room.