A great deal of fuss has been made about a supposed ‘newly discovered portrait of Shakespeare’ found on the title page engraving of sixteenth century botany book. The editor of UK lifestyle magazine Country Life, in which the discovery was announced, declared it “The Literary Discovery of the Century”. The story was dutifully picked up by BBC News Online and such is the clout of the BBC that by yesterday all major news outlets were excitedly repeating the story, leading it to trend across social media. The botanist who made the discovery quickly morphed into a ‘historian’ and NBC news even multiplied him into ‘historians’ to add a little weight to the theory.
But the portrait is not a portrait of Shakespeare. There were one or two knowledgeable people explaining in the comments sections of various news items yesterday who it was and why, but since their explanations seem to have been drowned out by a slew of ‘hipster facial hair’ comments and breathless speculation, I thought I’d set them down here, in the hope that the madness might be stopped.
The engraving, on the frontispiece of John Gerard’s The Herbal or General History of Plants is a representation of Dioscorides, a Greek doctor from the time of the Roman emperor Nero. His book on herbal medicine had been the standard text on the subject for 1,500 years. In other words, he was considered something of an authority on the subject of the book, and was depicted there to give it his seal of approval. For being the top writer in his subject, he gets a laurel wreath on his head. For those who are arguing that the laurel crown suggests the subject is a poet (which now, includes, disappointingly, Stanley Wells), you didn’t have to be a poet to be depicted with a crown of bay laurel. You just had to be so good at something that your name might live forever. Here is Francis 1 of France, not a poet. Here is the ‘Meistersinger’, a master singer but not a poet. What a laurel wreath symobolises in this wider sense is the Crown of Immortality, which Dioscorides had earned through writing a book that helped him cheat physical death by keeping his name alive for one and a half millenia. The Roman army toga is a bit of a clue, for Dioscorides was a physician in the Roman army. Why Shakespeare would be depicted in a toga is anyone’s guess. Yes of course, this is how an Elizabethan actor might have been dressed in a Roman play. But we have no evidence that Shakespeare was ever seen on stage in a toga, and since many other actors were seen in togas, this would hardly identify him as Shakespeare. If you want to do that, at least put a quill in his hand.
We can be sure that the picture is meant to be Dioscorides because when the book was updated and reprinted in 1633, he was helpfully labelled. You can compare the two images for yourself. Here he is (lower right hand figure) in the first edition of 1597. And here is the same guy — same facial hair, same toga, same footwear — as the lower right hand figure in the second edition of 1633, on a plinth that says ‘Dioscorides’. Just in case someone thought he was Shakespeare, or Francis Drake, or someone else with a fancy moustache.
Country Life’s gardening expert, Mark Griffiths, makes a great deal of the fact that in the first edition the figure is holding a snake’s head fritillary. In Ovid’s version of the story which Shakespeare used for his long poem Venus and Adonis, Adonis was transformed into an anemone. Shakespeare referred to the flower only as ‘the purple flower… chequr’d with white’, which one scholar has suggested might be either a fritillary or a variegated tulip. But just because Shakespeare (possibly) referred to a fritillary, and even if he was the only poet of the period to do so, that doesn’t make any chap holding a fritillary into Shakespeare. And here’s something else. It was only in 2014 that anyone suggested that Shakespeare’s ‘purple flower… chequr’d with white’ was a fritillary.(1) We have no evidence that a single Elizabethan, or anyone before Miriam Jacobson, ever made that connection. We have no evidence that Gerard ever read Venus and Adonis. Nor has any plausible explanation been offered as to why Gerard would depict Shakespeare on the cover of his Herbal. Shakespeare wasn’t even particularly famous in 1597. Two long poems had been published with his name upon them, but the only Shakespeare plays that had been published (including Titus Andronicus) had been published anonymously. Plays at this time, like films now, were strongly associated with their playing companies: the actors who acted in them. Until his name began appearing on plays the following year, only business insiders and other writers would be likely to know who had written the plays we now know as Shakespeare’s.
Griffiths claims that the maize (corn on the cob) in the figure’s other hand is a reference to Titus Andronicus. But the ‘corn’ mentioned in Titus Andronicus is very clearly wheat, not the newly imported American plant maize. We know it is wheat because it is thrashed (“first thrash the corn, then burn the straw” – 2.3.123) and gathered into sheaves (“This scattered corn into one mutual sheaf” – 5.3.70). You do not do this with corn on the cob. ‘Corn’ in Elizabethan England denoted any kind of grain, and according to the Oxford English Dictionary, maize was not referred to as ‘corn’ without a modifier (in the early days ‘Turkey’, and later ‘Indian’) before 1809. For those who are struggling with the difference, here is wheat, the ‘corn’ in Titus Andronicus, the type that can be thrashed and gathered into sheaves.
Here is maize, known to Elizabethans ‘Indian corn’ and in this book, Gerard’s Herbal, as ‘Turkey corn’: one large head of which the figure on the lower right (‘Shakespeare’/Dioscorides) is holding in his hand.
The ‘corn’ in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus is the first kind, not the second kind. Shakespeare did not write about the second kind (maize) in his works. This removes any argument that it might be Shakespeare who is holding the maize.
The frontispiece show Dioscorides holding these new plants to make that point that Gerard’s book is bang up to date. The picture represents the ancient authority (Dioscorides) being updated with Gerard’s new knowledge. It is an attempt to establish Gerard as the new authority in the subject.
Now to the key part of the new claim; the peculiar ‘cipher’ written on the plinth underneath the figure, which Griffiths ‘decoded’ to arrive at Shakespeare. He sees the first part as a 4 (and also as an arrowhead) (with an ‘E’ stuck to it ). Quoting the Guardian article:
“In Elizabethan times, people would have used the Latin word “quater” as a slang term for a four in dice and cards. Put an e on the end and it becomes quatere, which is the infinitive of the Latin verb quatior, meaning shake. Look closely and the four can be seen as a spear.”
Look closely and you can see almost anything you want to see. In the fascinating world of the Shakespeare authorship question, I witness this kind of thing all the time. Griffiths says the ‘Or’ is because the Shakespeare family had recently been granted a coat of arms with a gold background and the heraldic term for gold is ‘Or’. Below that, he sees a ‘W’ for ‘William’.Case closed!
But this ‘cipher’ was in fact a ‘printer’s mark’ signifying ‘Nortons’. It was noted as the mark of William and John Norton in the 1749 book, Typographical Antiquities. Printer’s marks like this were a standard device of the period, as you can see from this frontispiece on the British Museum Website. And although William Norton was dead by 1597, John Norton (William’s nephew and apprentice) was the printer of the book and as as Griffiths points out ‘the venture was primarily John’s… the [financial] risk was chiefly his’.(2) The Nortons has used a number of different printers marks. Mark Griffiths, defending his ‘decode’ of this mark, lists some known ones here. But none of these elaborate ones would have fitted into the small space available on the plinth. Thus they have opted for an ‘rebus’, a common Elizabethan device that works on the principle of our modern gameshow Catchphrase: ‘say what you see’. An ‘N’ is clearly visible at the top of the device, an ‘OR’ in the middle, and below this, three interlocking ‘X’s: Roman tens; very appropriate given that the figure standing on this plinth is in Roman toga. So say what you see, and the answer to this rebus is ‘NOR’-tens, the normal pronunciation of ‘Nortons’.
Griffiths believes the ‘OR’ of Norton indicates the heraldic gold on Shakespeare’s coat of arms. But many people had gold in their coat of arms. One can only use this to support an answer one has already determined: it is not a necessary part of the puzzle if it is not needed to derive the answer. Similarly, he sees ‘W’ in the lower row, but has no explanation for the multiple crosses. More than that, he does not explain why, if this device is a ‘cipher’ for ‘W Shakespeare’, it needs to be in cipher at all. Why the secret code? Why not ‘Wm. Sh.’? No wonder certain Oxfordians are jumping upon this with glee. And they, of course, are ‘decoding’ the cipher entirely differently, as (not suprisingly) Edward de Vere. For them, the turkey corn (they at least realise there is no maize in Titus Andronicus) is because Vere has ‘turned Turk’ and that the ‘cipher’ contains the words ‘ADON’ and ‘Oxenford’ and ‘EARL’ and the three Ws of ‘Vere Vero nil Verius’ (Vere’s motto) and a ‘shaken speare’ (for the pen name). Clearly, if you have a definite candidate in mind, you can see what you want to see. But if you say what you see, in the tradition of an Elizabethan rebus, you will say ‘NOR-tens’.
What Griffiths correctly identifies as a ‘sign of four‘ but then reads as a both the source of the Latin for ‘shake’ and a depiction of a spear is a traditional element of a merchant’s mark. If you read what is attached to it as an ‘E’ then, suggests Barry Clarke, this might be an E for Elizabeth. John Norton was the queen’s printer according to Henry Lamoines’ Typographical Antiquities (1797, p.75):
There is no documented connection between Shakespeare and Gerard. There is no plausible reason why Gerard would feature Shakespeare (at that time, author of two narrative poems, but not a famous playwright) on the front of his botany book. No explanation as to why he would need to turn the poet’s name into a cipher. And no reason on earth why he would dress him in a toga and depict him carrying a piece of corn on the cob. And even if it were Shakespeare, which it isn’t, where is the evidence for the claim that this depiction is ‘drawn from life’? Nothing about this cartoonish sketch suggests such a thing.
In short, then, as with so many Shakespeare news items that cause near-hysteria in the mainstream media, this is much ado about nothing. It is possible that the story already has enough momentum to become a new ‘truth’, and that future Shakespeare news items will appear under a picture of the Greek physician Dioscorides just as many, thanks to the last of these ‘newly discovered picture of Shakespeare’ stories, now appear under a picture of Sir Thomas Overbury. But I sincerely hope not.
Credit is due to many sources for the information in this article, chiefly Guardian commenter James Wallace (‘MisterJim’), John Overholt, Miriam Jacobson, Tom Reedy, and Barry Clarke.
* 21 May 2015 – Original article
* 23 May 2015 – updated and expanded after feedback from Julie Sandys Bianchi and correspondence from Barry Clarke regarding the rebus solution for the printer’s mark.
* 25 May 2015 – updated with further information from Barry Clarke, and section on the Crown of Immortality.
(1) In Miriam Jacobson’s Barbarous Antiquity: Reorienting the Past in the Poetry of Early Modern England
(2) http://www.countrylife.co.uk/features/the-true-face-of-shakespeare-further-evidence-of-its-authenticity-72418 accessed May 21 2015.