Finding Shakespeare's True Face at London Museum For centuries, scholars have argued about what William Shakespeare looked like. London's National Portrait Gallery believes it has determined the portrait that most likely represents his true appearance.
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Finding Shakespeare's True Face at London Museum

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Finding Shakespeare's True Face at London Museum

Finding Shakespeare's True Face at London Museum

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington.

Right now we take you to the National Portrait Gallery in London. Home to an exhibit on the life of William Shakespeare. Among the items on display are six portraits of the Bard, each one quite different from the other. The faces range from a frightened young man to a rakish Bohemian with a ring in his ear. Which one is the real Shakespeare?

After a year and a half of study the National Portrait Gallery believes they know. Joining us now by phone is Sandy Nairne, director of the National Portrait Gallery in London. Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. SANDY NAIRNE (Director, National Portrait Gallery): Not at all. Good evening.

NEARY: So who is the real William Shakespeare?

NEARY: Well, it's very hard to know, but as far as we can tell the one with the earring seems to be the one. Now why is that? The rakish young Bohemian with the ring in his ear?

Mr. NAIRNE: Well, this is the so-called Chandos portrait and it is--there is no definitive proof, but it had a very good provenance, which goes back to very close to Shakespeare's lifetime. It was owned by Samuel William Divalent(ph) who seems to have been his god son. So it's very close to the Bard's life.

NEARY: How did you make this decision? You had these six portraits. How did you go about assessing each one and deciding which one really was the closest?

Mr. NAIRNE: Well, two of them turn out to be portraits from the period or soon after that were clearly had been worked on later. In other words, they'd been turned into images that would appear to look how people wanted Shakespeare to be.

Two others are very interesting portraits from the period. One of them is definitely the same birth date and age as Shakespeare but there's nothing to make it Shakespeare. There's nothing in the evidence that shows it was actually him. And the Chandos is the one, again we can't be certain, but seems to be the one that has the closest connection.

NEARY: And the Chandos portrait is also the first portrait ever presented to the National Gallery is that right?

Mr. NAIRNE: Well, that's right. I mean, we've started the exhibition because it's our 150th anniversary of the Portrait Gallery in London and this was number one, the very first portrait presented.

NEARY: Why do people care so much about what Shakespeare looked like? Why is it so important to know that?

Mr. NAIRNE: Well, that's a very good questions. Because it seems to revolve around the lack of biography. He left no diaries. There are documents that deal with life, but not letters. Of course, the legacy is the wonderful plays, but there's always been a fascination about really who was Shakespeare. And I think with that fascination comes the sense that we'd like to see him, we want to look at him. And I think that's been an intrigue more or less, well soon after he died.

NEARY: Well, I'm curious about what this portrait might reveal about William Shakespeare. Interesting that he has a ring in his ear. Was that common at that time or did that set him apart in some way?

Mr. NAIRNE: Well, the earring was often regarded in the Chandos as being something that must have been added later. It was thought it may have come in in late 18th or 19th century. It had almost been sort of painted on. And it was our research that demonstrated that the paint was original, it was indeed early 17th century paint. And we now know that there were various other actors and those on the stage who also had earrings. And it can't be a definitive element, but it's certainly one of the parts to the idea that this is Shakespeare. That we know that others on the stage had the same affectation if you like.

NEARY: And what does it say about him? Is there anything you can conclude from it?

Mr. NAIRNE: Well, we can't know. He stares out from that portrait. We stare back at him. The clothing and the way in which he's dressed seems to fit with a professional person of that period. There were one or two of these other portraits where the clothing doesn't quite fit with the idea of a professional of his rank. I mean, he was someone who'd come up from not the poorest, but sort of mid-level background in Stratford and had very much made his own way and ended up relatively rich. I mean, he was a very successful man.

NEARY: Yeah. I'm curious, was anybody there disappointed that this was the one that turned out to be the real thing?

Mr. NAIRNE: Ah, well, of course the owners of one or two of the others, in particular, the so-called Flower portrait that belongs to the Royal Shakespeare Company. They had been hoping that theirs really might be the one, but after our research demonstrated that most of the paint was 19th century, I'm afraid they were disappointed. But they still think it's a wonderful image and they're right it is a wonderful image. It just happens to be a copy from much later.

NEARY: All right. Well, thanks so much for joining us today.

Mr. NAIRNE: Not at all. Thank you for your interest. Bye now.

NEARY: Sandy Nairne is the director of the National Portrait Gallery in London. He joined us by telephone from London. And you can see the Chandos portrait and the five other contenders at our Web site,

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