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William Shakespeare, influential English poet and playwright, was a man of several mysteries. Due to gaps in his timeline, Shakespeare’s life is a topic prone to questioning and speculation within the historian community. The lack of evidence left behind from Shakespeare’s life has prompted skeptics to question his work, portraits, and authenticity. Several unsolved mysteries of Shakespeare surrounding his life and work are still explored today.
Doubts of Shakespeare’s portraits stemmed from the knowledge that the painting were not made in his lifetime.
The recent technology has aided researchers and scientists in discovering the truth about the paintings. There are three main paintings: Chandos portrait, Cobbe portrait, and Droeshout portrait. First off, the Chandos portrait origin and painting style indicate Shakespeare’s time. However, there is no solid evidence that the man in the chair is truly Shakespeare. Most importantly, it is the only known portrait of Shakespeare to have been made during his lifetime. Furthermore, the most popular depictions show Shakespeare to be balding.
However, the Cobbe portrait shows Shakespeare with a full head of hair, despite the fact that it was painted six years before his death. The Cobbe portrait was also speculated to have been of Sir Thomas Overbury by cause of the striking facial similarities. “In fact, some historians have suggested that the Cobbe portrait is actually Sir Thomas Overbury, a poet born in 1581. Verified images of Overbury closely resemble the Cobbe figure, and… the painting doesn’t match the best existing image of Shakespeare from the same period, which was actually a bust.
” (Hunt). Lastly, the Droeshout portrait was another popular depiction of the mysterious Shakespeare. It was made to be the front cover of the First Folio Collections of Shakespeare’s plays, published in 1623. The weak modeling and lack of relationship between the head and the body rose suspicion within historians. By combining the engraved image with the images of Francis Bacon, Earl of Oxford, and Queen Elizabeth, skeptics noted strong similarities in facial features.
The lack of evidence that Shakespeare left behind has caused immense doubt of his authenticity and identity alike. According to James Shapiro in his book Contested Will, an Oxford scholar named James Wilmot searched for evidence of Shakespeare’s authorship, and found little to no evidence. Skeptics of his authorship, referred to as Anti-Stratfordians, point out the important fact: no solid evidence exists linking Shakespeare to his work. They point out many valuable arguments that has driven the doubt. First of all, his only signatures to survive are six messy signatures, each spelling differing from the others. “Moreover, they argue, William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon may have been barely literate. The few signatures in his own handwriting—including the one on his last will and testament—are shaky, and his name is spelled in various ways.” (Carnagie). In addition, authors in Shakespeare’s time mentioned him in their writings, but only as an actor and never clearly as a playwright. It is a widely accepted fact that Shakespeare was indeed an actor, with only the playwright role being questioned. Lastly, Shakespeare’s personal experiences and the experiences mentioned in his writing are drastically different. “So does the quality of Shakespeare’s first plays: it is hard to believe that even Shakespeare could have shown such mastery without several years of apprenticeship.” (William Shakespeare). The difference in experiences led to speculation of likely candidates that had experienced the events in Shakespeare’s plays.
As Shakespeare’s authorship was questioned, many alternate author theories were made that surrounded figures with more knowledge of the experiences explored in Shakespeare’s plays. “As the Declaration says, ‘scholars know nothing about how he acquired the breadth and depth of knowledge displayed in the works.’ And so doubting scholars look to well-traveled writers and aristocrats—essayist Francis Bacon; poet and playwright Christopher Marlowe; theater patron Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford—as the more likely candidates.” (Farouky). Each reason is different as to why each man is theorized to have been Shakespeare, ranging from being a fellow playwright, to having similar experiences to the plays. “Believers of the alternative authorship theory often argue that William Shakespeare lacked the education, aristocratic sensibility and familiarity with the royal courts which is clearly evident in his works.” (Why the Shakespeare authorship…). Likewise, numerous suspects had experience in the royal court and happened to be aristocrats. Along with the alternate author theory, the theory surrounding the new meaning of the plays was also risen by skeptics. Skeptics explore the option that the meanings of the writings may vary between authors, and fairly so. Each author had their own beliefs, beliefs that could change the meanings of the influential and famous plays that continue to affect modern day life.
William Shakespeare was a famous playwright credited with numerous famous plays and sonnets. In spite of the many unsolved mysteries surrounding his paintings, identity, and authorship, Shakespeare’s work will continue to have a profound influence on various aspects of life. His authorship, portraits, and authenticity may continue to be questioned, but the lessons that his writing has taught and his influence on literature and language will never change.
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