Experts have poured scorn on an historian’s claim to have made the “literary discovery of the century” – uncovering the only portrait of William Shakespeare made in his lifetime.
The image, said to show the Bard “with a film star’s good looks”, was identified by botanist and historian Mark Griffiths in the first edition of a 16th century book on plants, The Herball.
Other likenesses of the playwright are believed to have been created after the dramatist’s death in 1616.
But Mark Hedges, editor of Country Life magazine, which is revealing the claimed new discovery, said: “This is the only known verifiable portrait of the world’s greatest writer in his lifetime.
“It’s an absolutely extraordinary discovery. Until today no-one knew what he looked like in his lifetime.”
He added that the decoding amounted to the “literary discovery of the century”.
Written by pioneering botanist John Gerard, at 1,484 pages The Herball was the largest single volume work on plants published in English.
The engraving – apparently featuring Shakespeare in a Roman outfit – is the work of William Rogers and only around 10 to 15 copies of the book containing the image are thought to exist.
The other three figures in the image are believed to be the book’s author Gerard, Rembert Dodoens, a renowned Flemish botanist, and Queen Elizabeth’s Lord Treasurer, Lord Burghley.
Mr Griffiths, who was working on a biography of Mr Gerard when he “cracked the many-layered Tudor code” to apparently reveal the four figures, said: “At first, I found it hard to believe that anyone so famous, so universally sought, could have hidden in plain sight for so long.”
It had been believed that the figures in the engraving – said to show the poet and playwright holding a fritillary and ear of sweetcorn – were imaginary.
Mr Griffiths believes he has decoded a Latin cipher “of the kind loved by the Elizabethan aristocracy” beneath the man said to be Shakespeare to say William Shakespeare.
The code is said to include a letter ’W’ for William, the letters OR – the heraldic term for gold, said to be a reference to the coat of arms obtained by Shakespeare’s father, the number four combined with E which translates into Latin as “shake” and a spear – together making “shake-spear”.
Other clues in the image are a fritillary and sweetcorn, said to point to Shakespeare’s works Venus and Adonis (1593), and Titus Andronicus (1594). The laurel wreath is said to be a reference to Apollo and the Classical poets he inspired – chiefly, Virgil and Ovid.
But Professor Michael Dobson, director of the Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham, dismissed the theory as one of “hallucination”.
“I’m deeply unconvinced. I haven’t seen the detailed arguments but Country Life is certainly not the first publication to make this sort of claim,” he said.
“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.
“And there’s no evidence that anybody thought that this was Shakespeare at the time.”
He added: “I can’t imagine any reason why Shakespeare would be in a botany textbook. It’s a lovely picture. Everybody is very fond of it. But that doesn’t mean that he had anything to do with it apart from the fact that he read it.
“It’s a man in a toga, holding a little bit of a corn on the cob in one hand and a fritillary in the other.”
He added: “I don’t think very many people are going to take this seriously. I’m not sure Country Life’s reputation will recover.
“It’s nice that people are so fond of Shakespeare that they see him everywhere, even in the pages of a botany textbook. But it’s hallucination.”
Paul Edmondson, head of research and knowledge for the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, was also unconvinced.
“I am always sceptical about any theory which relies on secret codes being broken”, he said.
“I see there a figure who is dressed like a Classical poet, with a green bay on his head, but that doesn’t make him Shakespeare.”
However Edward Wilson, Emeritus Fellow of Worcester College, Oxford, expert in medieval literature, said that he had changed his mind after having initially been sceptical.
Speaking at The Rose Playhouse in London, where Shakespeare performed, he said: “This is the most important contribution to be made to our knowledge of Shakespeare in generations.”
He added: “It is sensational (but) we do not think anyone is going to disprove it at all”.
Country Life also said that its find had led it to attribute a play to Shakespeare, which it would reveal in next week’s issue.