A Tale of Discovery or, A Discovery of Tales

Every so often the newspapers record a new ‘literary discovery’, these fall into three categories;

Real discoveries like previously unknown letters (these are very rare).

Something that had been known for years, but the ‘discoverer’ wasn’t as well read as he or she thought (these are quite common).

Complete and utter twaddle (the great majority).

A few days ago it was announced that the first ‘contemporary portrait of Shakespeare’ had been discovered. The initial publication was made through the unusual medium of the magazine Country Life (for those outside the UK this is a very upmarket countryside magazine {and I mean upmarket – the house adverts at the front of the magazine rarely include properties going for less than one million pounds}) .



I am afraid that I think that the theory falls into the third category.

The portrait is one of four on the title page of the first edition of The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes by John Gerard, this is one of the most important botanical works ever published, and is a still a wonderful read. The identification is based on the discovery of various clues and ciphers in the picture, but the discoverer gives no good reason why Shakespeare should be on the cover of a book about plants. I tend to agree with the head of the Shakespeare Birthday Trust in doubting any combination of Shakespeare and hidden ciphers, these are the favourite sources of ‘evidence’ for those who think that Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare, but someone else did.

On the other hand if someone had said they found evidence that Shakespeare had read Gerard’s Herbal, I wouldn’t be at all surprised. Shakespeare clearly loved plants and his works are full of references to them. Indeed some of his references to plants provide additional evidence that William Shakespeare (or at least someone who had spent a long time in the countryside of the West Midlands) wrote Shakespeare.

For example Honey Stalks for clover is found in Titus Andronicus, whilst outside the play it has only ever been recorded once, in the late nineteenth century, in Warwickshire. Whilst the beautiful couplet from Cymbeline;

Golden lads and girls all must,

As chimney-sweepers, come to dust

Makes sense when one knows that in Warwickshire and Gloucestershire a Dandelion flower was known as a Golden Lad and the seed head was a Chimney Sweeper.

          Featured image         A Golden Lad

Featured image

Three Chimney Sweepers


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8 responses to “A Tale of Discovery or, A Discovery of Tales

  1. Autism Mom

    I love this idea that Shakespeare was the cover boy for a gardening reference!


  2. so if Will loved plans and Gerard was your go to man on all things floral why wouldn’t a well known chappie like Shakespeare appear n the frontispiece


    • First Shakespeare was reasonably well known as a poet, less so as a playwright, not a botanist or gardener.
      Secondly the other three people illustrated are almost certainly people who were involved with the production of the Herbal, the author, the author’s patron who paid for the publication and a Dutch botanist whose work was the starting point for Gerard’s book.
      Finally the person illustrated is shown in Classical costume, not in contemporary dress which suggests that it is not supposed to represent a
      sixteenth century man, rather someone from antiquity. I think it is probably supposed to be the Roman writer Dioscorides who is quoted frequently throughout the Herbal.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. It’s a nice thought though!


  4. “Complete and utter twaddle (the great majority).” Ha ha, laughed out loud! The portrait news must’ve come on what Bob Newhart called “a slow noos day” (The U.S.S. Codfish). Love those old Herballs. Thanks!


  5. Love the title of this blog! Just perfect!


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