On 19th May 2015 at the Rose Theatre, London, it was announced by botanist and historian Mark Griffiths that he had discovered a new likeness of William Shakespeare that had been hidden in plain sight on the pages of John Gerard’s The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes for over 400 years.
The image Griffiths believes is now the only portrait that exists of Shakespeare that was made whilst he was still alive and he ages Shakespeare at approximately 33 years old. It all seems quite straightforward so far, the next part of the story feels like it has come straight out of ‘The Da Vinci Code’, Griffiths discovered who the portrait was of only after cracking a Tudor cipher!
Griffiths has shared his story exclusively with Country Life. He explains just how he came to the conclusion that the unidentified man on the page is Shakespeare and how he deciphered the hidden code. It was a midsummer’s night when the lightbulb or should I say candle sparked for Griffiths!
Firstly, Griffiths identifies the other three men on the page as John Gerard, the author, Rembert Dodoens and Lord Burghley, Gerard’s patron.
From the cipher Griffiths worked out that the 4 at the top of the cipher can be translated as the Latin ‘quarter’ but if you add the E that is positioned next to it that makes quatere, which is Latin ‘to shake’. If you add the diagonal line into the equation to link the 4 and E together it creates a spear so all together Griffiths claims that this clearly means ‘Shakespeare’. However, it doesn’t end there Griffiths states that at the bottom of the cipher is a W which clearly stands for William. Finally, in the centre is OR, which is the heraldic word for the colour Gold, the colour of John Shakespeare’s coat of arms. With all these added together Griffiths claims that the man stood on the fourth plinth is without a doubt William Shakespeare.
The most obvious objection to all this is that the man in the image is wearing Roman attire, why would William Shakespeare be wearing a Roman toga, holding an ear of corn and wearing a laurel wreath around his head? Well, Griffiths claims that it is homage to Apollo.
Why do all four men from different backgrounds appear on the front page of a botany book? Well according to Griffiths Lord Burghley was not only the patron of John Gerard but also William Shakespeare. He claims that it was Burghley who commissioned Shakespeare’s early poems, such as Venus and Adonis and not the Earl of Southampton. This is purely down to the fact that Burghley was Southampton’s guardian and controlled his finances until Southampton turned 21 in 1594. Therefore Burghley paid Shakespeare to write these poems and dedicate them to his ward urging him to marry, preferably his granddaughter, Elizabeth Vere. By claiming that Burghley was Shakespeare’s patron it disproves any theories that the Earl of Oxford was in fact the play writer as Burghley and his son in law Oxford openly disliked each other.
With revelation after revelation being divulged in this issue of Country Life there is still time for one more that armed with all this new information about Shakespeare Griffiths has been able to identify a new play that he now credits Shakespeare as the author of.
Not everybody has backed these new claims. Professor Michael Dobson, director of the Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham said;
“I haven’t seen the detailed arguments but Country Life is certainly not the first publication to make this sort of claim. One has seen so many claims on Shakespeare based on somebody claiming to crack a code. And nobody else has apparently been able to decipher this for 400 years. There’s no evidence that anybody thought that this was Shakespeare at the time.”
So if it is not William Shakespeare on the page then just who could it be? Firstly, it could be an entirely fictional character made up by the artist who designed the page. It could even be Dioscorides, a Greek physician and herbalist who served the Roman Legions. His book of herbal knowledge dated 1500 years prior to Gerard’s work.
However one suggestion is that the cipher is in fact the ‘sign of four’, a mark that was used by various merchants in the Elizabethan era and in this case by the printer. The sign of four is clearly seen at the top of the cipher but it is what’s below that relates to who it belongs to. In this case it could be William and John Norton. This is further backed up by Joseph Ames in Typographical Antiquities, 1749;
“This curious folio has the mark of William and John Norton together in a cypher”
What about the two images of William Shakespeare that we know for certain are of the man himself? The engraving that accompanies the first folio and the effigy of Shakespeare that overlooks his grave in Stratford upon Avon were both commissioned by friends and family after his death. So they must be a true likeness otherwise they surely would not have allowed them into the public domain to accompany not only his work but his final resting place. Therefore you must assume that if it was Shakespeare on the page of Gerard’s book then someone somewhere would have documented this and as Professor Dobson said why has no one else deciphered the code in 400 years!
Above – Shakespeare’s image in the first folio
Right – Shakespeare’s effigy, Holy Trinity Church, Stratford upon Avon
What about the play that Griffiths is claiming is Shakespeare’s work? It is not so much a play but a piece of Elizabethan political propaganda. Queen Elizabeth I visited Lord Burghley at his home Theobalds, Herfordshire on 10th May 1591. It was widely believed that Burghley, now aged 70, would be retiring from his duties as Lord Treasurer and chief minister. Burghley put on a spectacular display, which Elizabeth was a part of. First she was told that Burghley would not permit her entrance unless she handed over a decree that would allow Burghley to continue in his work. This was all via an unnamed actor who was hired for his role in the entertainment.
During the ten day visit the actor and a colleague appeared to perform in front of the Queen. This according to Griffiths was not only written by but also performed by Shakespeare. The performance consisted of an argument between a mole catcher and a gardener and the possession of a jewelled box. They were both to put their case in front of the Queen over the ownership of the box.
Griffiths believes that this short play was designed around promoting Burghley’s son, Robert Cecil and his suitability to be Sir Francis Walsingham’s replacement as Principal Secretary. The play uses the gardener as a metaphor for Cecil and the garden as England. The mole catcher is a representation of both Burghley and Cecil and the darker side of their roles in terms of espionage. Therefore the play is telling Elizabeth that her country is safe in the hands of the Cecils.
Whether William Shakespeare actually wrote this is unknown, certainly some aspects crop up in later work but as this took place during Shakespeare’s ‘lost years’ we will never know for certain unless some concrete proof is unearthed and not all based around a 400 year old cipher.