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Letter: Portrait accompanying stories on Shakespeare is not him

In the last couple of weeks, the Anchorage Daily News has published two articles about Shakespeare: one about the Alaska Chamber Singers all-Shakespeare spring concert; the other about Shakespeare as, apparently, a ruthless businessman. On both occasions, the stories have been accompanied by a small photo of a portrait of Shakespeare. This portrait (the so-called Cobbe portrait after the family that has owned it for hundreds of years) is likely not of Shakespeare, although it may have been altered in the 1770s to look more like him. There are only two known likenesses of the Bard: one is the Droeshout engraving, the frontispiece of the 1623 Folio (the so-called “First Folio”); the other is the Shakespeare memorial bust in Holy Trinity Church in Stratford. The Cobbe portrait resembles these about as much as Caerphilly cheese looks like Stilton.

Why does this matter? Well, Shakespeare is important to many for complicated reasons, but beyond that, the supposed portrait of Shakespeare makes him look a lot more aristocratic than he was in real life. He became rich through his talent; he was granted the right to a family coat of arms, but he was fundamentally middle class nonetheless. Of course, the Cobbe portrait could be of the Earl of Oxford, but I won’t go there.

— Toby Widdicombe