What’s in a name… Or a Painting? Exploring Which Portraits Show the Real Shakespeare

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.

Thomas Phillips. The Stratford memorial bust. Oil on panel, ca. 1816. Folger Shakespeare Library.