cover of book

Portraits of Shakespeare
by Katherine Duncan-Jones
Bodleian Library Publishing, 2015
Paper: 978-1-85124-405-8
Library of Congress Classification PR2929.D86 2015

Most of us can recall with clarity a favorite scene from Shakespeare. But call to mind the playwright’s appearance and there are many depictions to choose from with few widely accepted. Shakespeare himself left no description of his appearance nor can any evidence be found that he commissioned a portrait.

With Portraits of Shakespeare, Katherine Duncan-Jones poses a series of questions about the mysterious physical appearance of the brilliant writer of plays, poems, and sonnets: Why is it so difficult to find images of Shakespeare that were made during his lifetime? Which images are most likely to have been made by those close to the writer? And why do newly discovered images emerge with such startling regularity? With an eye toward answering these questions, the book begins with a broad analysis of the tradition of the “author portrait” before, during, and after Shakespeare’s lifetime. Duncan-Jones provides a detailed critique of three of the most widely accepted portraits: the engraving facing the First Folio’s title page; the sculptured stone bust that adorns Shakespeare’s funerary monument at Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon; and the “Chandos portrait,” an early seventeenth-century painting on canvas which is widely recognized as the best image. Through a painstaking historical analysis of the painting’s early history and provenance, Duncan-Jones arrives at a plausible new identification of both the artist and the artist’s personal connections with Shakespeare. Finally, taking the book into the present, she considers the afterlife of all three images in memorials, advertising, and in graphic art—all evidence of a continuing desire to put a face to one of literature’s most famous names.
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