In 1856 this portrait of Shakespeare, called the Chandos portrait after a previous owner, was the first painting to enter the newly formed National Portrait Gallery collection. It is now a very well known image, frequently reproduced in books and theatre programmes across the world. However, is this man really William Shakespeare, as the founders of the Gallery hoped and believed? We may never know for certain, but the evidence, though far from conclusive, points in that direction. The earring is a particularly striking feature of this portrait; recent tests have confirmed that it is original to the painting and not a later addition. Other portraits of this period which show men with earrings suggest that the earring is a token of artistic leanings, as is the shirt unfastened at the neck.
The portrait was probably painted between 1600 and 1610 when Shakespeare would have been between 36 and 46 years old, which fits well with the apparent age of the sitter. It is very likely that Shakespeare, as a highly successful author, would have had his portrait painted during his lifetime.
This would then have provided the source for two other early representations of Shakespeare, the sculpted bust on his tomb in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon, probably made around 1620, and the engraving for the frontispiece of the First Folio, the first printed edition of Shakespeare's plays, published posthumously in 1623.
These two surviving images would definitely have been seen by Shakespeare's family, while Ben Jonson, his fellow playwright, commented on how well the engraving captured Shakespeare's face. Does this show the same man as the Chandos portrait? We cannot be certain, but the fact that the Chandos has been held to be Shakespeare from the 17th century onwards must strengthen its claim.
William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon in April 1564, early in the reign of Elizabeth I. By the late 1580s, he seems to have arrived in London, the popular destination for young men seeking to make their fortunes. London was a rapidly expanding city with an increasing need for all forms of entertainment. The bear-baiting pits that flourished on the south bank of the Thames in Southwark were joined by public playhouses, frequented by rich and poor alike, performing a different play every day.
This demand for drama, met by a growing number of playwrights, offered great possibilities to the newly arrived William Shakespeare.
During the 1590s Shakespeare wrote a string of plays, among which are many of his best-loved works, including Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Merchant of Venice and Richard II. He joined a company of players known as the Lord Chamberlain's Men as both actor and principal dramatist. In 1599, Shakespeare and about eight of his fellow players became partners in the construction and management of the Globe Theatre, on the south side of the river. (The present Globe Theatre stands quite near, but not directly on the original site.) The company also performed at Court, particularly during Christmas festivities, so Shakespeare's plays would have been known to Queen Elizabeth and her courtiers.
With the accession of King James I, Shakespeare's fortunes further improved. The new king took on the patronage of Shakespeare's company, which changed its name to the King's Men. To the early years of the 17th century belong Shakespeare's most powerful tragedies - Hamlet in 1600, followed by Othello, King Lear and Macbeth. In 1611 he wrote his last great play, The Tempest; the magician Prospero's destruction of his magic books in this play has been interpreted as Shakespeare's own farewell to his art.
Five years later he returned to Stratford-upon-Avon, where he died the following year.
How important is it that we know what Shakespeare looked like? Even during his lifetime Shakespeare's genius was recognised, singling him out from other skilled London playwrights. The demand for his image dates from soon after his death, when the sculpted bust was placed in the church where he was buried and the engraving was used as a frontispiece to his collected plays in the First Folio. From then onwards various portraits appeared which have been said to be of Shakespeare. Several are genuine Jacobean paintings of men of about the right age, sometimes altered to mirror the First Folio engraving more closely. Others are later, more imaginary representations, designed to provide an image appropriate to that era of the greatest of all playwrights.
There have, however, always been people who feel that this intense interest in Shakespeare's physical appearance misses the point. One of the earliest and most eloquent of these was Shakespeare's fellow dramatist Ben Jonson, describing him as "the wonder of the stage", who was "not of an age, but for all time". Jonson, in his Preface to the First Folio, addressed anyone who sought to find the real Shakespeare: "... Reader looke Not on his Picture, but his Booke."
Searching for Shakespeare by T Cooper (National Portrait Gallery, 2006)
1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare by JShapiro (Faber and Faber, 2005)
Shakespeare: For All Time by S Wells (Macmillan, 2002)
The Complete Works of Shakespeare, edited by S Wells and G Taylor (Oxford University Press, 2005)
Claire Gittings is education officer at the National Portrait Gallery
JOHN TAYLOR DIED 1651
John Taylor, the possible artist of the Chandos portrait, may have been the same John Taylor who, in his teens, was an actor and a chorister at St Paul's Cathedral. He was a member of the Painter-Stainers' Company, acting as Warden in the 1630s and as Master from 1643-4.
* The Chandos portrait currently features in Searching for Shakespeare, sponsored by Credit Suisse at the National Portrait Gallery until 29 May.
Admission pound;8, concessions pound;5.25, 020 7306 0055
The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue (hardback, pound;35) and a full programme of lectures and events, including introductory slide talks for schools.
For KS2 and above see also www.npg.org.ukshakespearequiz
Using 'Images of an Age' from the QCA scheme of work, compare Shakespeare's portrait with one of Queen Elizabeth I or Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, Shakespeare's patron. Apply knowledge of Elizabethan society to account for similarities and differences between the two images.
Show Shakespeare's portrait and tell children that this man has a wonderful imagination. Focus on imagining being very small - read Ariel's song, "Where the bee sucks..." from The Tempest, Act V, Scene iii, line 88.
Place different mini-beasts in a clear container on an overhead projector and watch them move. Generate words and phrases to create a class poem about being the same size as an insect.
Before the lesson, collect images of a few authors, including Shakespeare, and choose short passages from their work. Read a passage to the class, getting them to describe or draw what they think the writer might look like; then show them the author's picture.
Collect famous quotations from Shakespeare using a dictionary of quotations and quotation websites. How many book and film titles are quotes from Shakespeare?
Do the on-line quotation quiz: www.npg.org.ukshakespearequiz
Book a class visit to the National Portrait Gallery's exhibition, Searching for Shakespeare, with a free introductory slide talk. Alternatively, book either a Tudor gallery session or a Tudor video conference focusing on the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods. Ask pupils to use the visit to research what was happening in Shakespeare's life when he wrote the set play and what was happening in England, particularly in London, at that time. What do they think he would have looked like at that age?