Portraits of Shakespeare

Within four decades of its foundation in 1856, upwards of 60 portraits were offered for sale to the National Portrait Gallery purporting to be of William Shakespeare, but there are only two definitively accepted as portraying him, both of which are posthumous. One is the engraving that appears on the cover of the First Folio (1623) and the other is the sculpture that adorns his memorial in Stratford upon Avon, which dates from before 1623. However, several paintings from the period have also been argued to represent him.

There is no concrete evidence that Shakespeare ever commissioned a portrait, and there is no written description of his physical appearance. However, it is thought that portraits of him did circulate during his lifetime because of a reference to one in the anonymous play Return from Parnassus (c. 1601), in which a character says "O sweet Mr Shakespeare! I'll have his picture in my study at the court."

After his death, as Shakespeare's reputation grew, artists created portraits and narrative paintings depicting him, most of which were based on earlier images, but some of which were purely imaginative. He was also increasingly commemorated in Shakespeare memorial sculptures, initially in Britain, and later elsewhere around the world. At the same time, the clamour for authentic portraits fed a market for fakes and misidentifications.