What's in a portrait? Scholars row over Shakespeare
Published 20/05/2015 | 02:30
Experts have poured scorn on an historian's claim to have made the "literary discovery of the century" - uncovering the only portrait of William Shakespeare made in his lifetime.
The image, said to show the Bard "with a film star's good looks", was identified by botanist and historian Mark Griffiths in the first edition of a 16th century book on plants, 'The Herball' by botanist John Gerrard.
Other likenesses of the playwright are believed to have been created after the dramatist's death in 1616.
But Mark Hedges, editor of 'Country Life' magazine, which is revealing the claimed new discovery, said: "This is the only known verifiable portrait of the world's greatest writer in his lifetime. It's an absolutely extraordinary discovery. Until today no one knew what he looked like in his lifetime."
Mr Griffiths, who was working on a biography of Mr Gerard when he "cracked the many-layered Tudor code", said: "At first, I found it hard to believe that anyone so famous, so universally sought, could have hidden in plain sight for so long."
It had been believed that the figure in the engraving - said to show the poet and playwright holding a fritillary and ear of sweetcorn - was imaginary.
Mr Griffiths believes he has decoded a Latin cipher "of the kind loved by the Elizabethan aristocracy".
The code is said to include a letter 'W' for William, the letters OR - the heraldic term for gold - said to be a reference to the coat of arms obtained by Shakespeare's father, the number four combined with E which translates into Latin as "shake" and a spear, together making "shake-spear".
But Professor Michael Dobson, director of the Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham, dismissed the theory as being an "hallucination".
"I'm deeply unconvinced. I haven't seen the detailed arguments but 'Country Life' is certainly not the first publication to make this sort of claim," he said.