More matter for a May morning: Gerarde’s Herball and Shakespeare

Detail from the 1597 title page of Gerarde's Herball

Detail from the 1597 title page of Gerarde’s Herball

After a few days away out of reach of the internet I returned home to find a new Shakespeare controversy had erupted. Country Life, not normally known for its Shakespeare content, had published a “Special Historic Edition” on 20 May 2015. An article by historian Mark Griffiths proposes that the title page of John Gerarde’s Herball dating from 1597 contains a portrait of William Shakespeare.

Country Life regularly contains articles about gardening, books, and art, so this isn’t completely out of their usual subject area. But the editor must know that there’s nothing like a story claiming to have discovered something new about Shakespeare, particularly if it includes the solving of a four-hundred-year-old mystery by the unpicking of clues and ciphers.

Now I haven’t read the full article, though I have read several accounts of it from The Guardian on 19 May, 20 May, and 22 May, and Country Life itself has published three online articles over the past few days. The first contains a video explaining the article, the second puts forward more evidence, and the third includes extra details. Each of these articles contain many comments on the claims of the article and, often, further explanation by Mark Griffiths.

Reactions have been predictable. Shakespearean experts have been patronising and often downright rude towards Mr Griffiths, who has spent years researching this subject. His articles, and the responses to comments received online show that although he may not be an academic he has examined in considerable detail many title pages of books, printers’ marks and other early modern works. Oxfordians and traditionalists are having their own arguments about the subject, ignoring Mr Griffiths’ protestation that the portrait is definitely not the Earl of Oxford.

The title page of Gerarde's Herball, 1597

The title page of Gerarde’s Herball, 1597

So what is all this about? Mark Griffiths has been working on a biography of John Gerarde, whose Herball is one of the best-known of botanical works. The first edition, published in London, bears a richly ornamental allegorical title page dated 1597 and Mark Griffiths decided to try to unravel the meaning of this page including the identity of the four male figures on it. One of these, he believes, is an early portrait of Shakespeare. He links the plants held by this figure, his Roman costume, his laurel wreath, and the cipher beneath him, to Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis and Titus Andronicus, and to his own name.

It would be lovely to believe that Shakespeare did work with Gerarde: the book is largely a translation of an earlier book by Dodoens and Griffiths suggests he might have helped translate it into English. It would fit with Shakespeare’s love of plants, and we could imagine Shakespeare visiting the older man at the College of Physicians’ physic garden in Chelsea or at his garden in Holborn.

A later title page, supposed to be identical to that from Dodoens, 1583

A later title page, supposed to be identical to that from Dodoens, 1583

But without any evidence for this relationship, there’s no explanation for the existence of a portrait of Shakespeare on this title page. Griffiths has suggested that all the evidence points towards Shakespeare, and only Shakespeare, but many of the comments posted on the Country Life site have suggested alternatives. The solution may have been suggested by James Wallace: ” Gerard’s source, the 1583 Antwerp Latin translation of Dodoens, provides a clear, labelled identification for each man”, and he quotes this description, though I’m not sure of its source: “This ornate title-frame depicts the biblical figures of Adam and Solomon (famous for naming plants), and, at their feet, the most famous ancient botanists: Theophrastus and Dioscorides… The title-frame had been bought by Plantin from the widow of the Antwerp printer Jan van Loe and had initially been used by Plantin for Rembert Dodoens’ Stirpium historiae pemptades sex, sive libri XXX published at Antwerp in 1583”. Other commentators are currently trying to verify this description: if nothing else this story shows how effective (and annoying) the internet can be as a tool for researchers.

The story isn’t over yet. This week’s issue, due out on 27 May, will contain another article by Mark Griffiths revealing a new play by Shakespeare. More bumpy rides lie ahead, and whatever the outcome Country Life‘s circulation, encouraged by their prominent half-price subscription offer, must have rocketed.

PS Many thanks to eagle-eyed Mairi Macdonald who has alerted me to Stanley Wells’ article in the Spectator suggesting an alternative for the bearded fourth man on the Gerarde title page.

AND Matthew Lyons’ excellent blog also considers this article: Matthew’s book on Ralegh, The Favourite, gives him particular insight into this title page.


This entry was posted in Legacy, Shakespeare's World and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.