Images of William Shakespeare are everywhere–on mugs, t-shirts, posters, books, you name it. His features are among the most recognizable in the modern world. But do we really know what he looked like? Generally, yes. Though likenesses of Shakespeare abound, only three can be considered reliable.
The Chandos Portrait
The Chandos portrait of Shakespeare (above) was painted during Shakespeare’s lifetime though some critics say it is not a portrait of the poet. It is named after the Duke of Chandos, who owned the painting in the eighteenth century. Its provenance before that time is uncertain; some think that Shakespeare’s friend and fellow actor Richard Burbage painted it and gave it to Joseph Taylor (another actor) who later left it to William Davenant, a man who claimed to be Shakespeare’s illegitimate son. In any case, the second Duke of Buckingham and Chandos sold it to the Earl of Ellesmere in 1848, and that earl donated it to England’s National Portrait Gallery in 1856.
The Droeshout Portrait
Named after the English engraver Martin Droeshout, the image above appears on the title page of the First Folio, which was compiled by several of Shakespeare’s friends and published in 1623, seven years after his death. Presumably, the Bard’s friends (and his wife, Anne, who was still alive when the First Folio was published) would have been able to judge whether the image was a reasonable likeness.
The funerary monument
A bust of Shakespeare adorns the wall of the Holy Trinity Church of Stratford-Upon-Avon. Because it was made in 1621 while Anne lived, it is considered a reliable likeness. However, the bust was painted entirely white in 1793, so the present-day colors are not original.
All other images of Shakespeare are either based on the above likenesses or are considered by scholars to be of doubtful provenance (of someone else, for example). Except for that guy, Joseph Fiennes. He’s probably authentic.