by Dr Barry R. Clarke
On 20 May 2015, Country Life magazine published an article claiming that historian Dr Mark Griffiths had discovered a portrait of William Shakespeare (see above) in the 1597 edition of ‘The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes’ by John Gerard. On the title page are four figures, the fourth of which stands on a plinth dressed in Roman toga. Below him, engraved on the plinth is a rebus puzzle which has hitherto been taken to be John Norton’s printer’s mark who receives credit on the same page. The meaning of the symbols in this mark have so far remained obscure but Dr Griffiths claims that it is no printers mark but instead conceals a coded reference to William Shakespeare who he identifies as the fourth figure.
The difficulties I have with Dr Griffith’s rebus explanation are several (see figure below). First, its non-direct (even strained) use of Latin to try to make it work: the ‘4’ as ‘quattuor’ which needs to be abbreviated to ‘quat.’. Adding the ‘E’ then makes ‘quate’ which is ‘shake’. The need for abbreviation when other possibilities accrue (e.g. not abbreviating) immediately removes the advantage of directness from this solution. Also, to me, there is a very clear ‘N’ in this rebus. Why has it been omitted from consideration? Why do the ‘O’ and ‘R’ not play a direct part in this solution? The vertical rule through the ‘4’ makes, to Dr Griffith’s mind, a spear even though the triangular top is asymmetrical and the bottom of the ‘spear’ is curiously bent to the right. I would love to see this spear fly! The 4-with-vertical-rule appears in another mark such as that by William Middleton (Typographical Antiquities, 1749) albeit without the right oblique line descending from the top of the ‘4’, and presumably not as part of a spear. Even if Dr Griffith’s explanation as ‘shake’ and ‘spear’ were the intended one, an alternative interpretation is still possible, that the rebus refers to Pallas Athena the spear shaker, Goddess of Wisdom. The generic figure on the plinth could simply be ‘wise’.
I now suggest an alternative solution, one which demonstrates a greater theoretical economy. Since the ‘4’-with-vertical-rule had previous use in printers’ marks (e.g. Julian Notary, William Middleton) then the most likely solution is that it IS a printers mark (this is not a new idea). It is certainly a credible solution since the 1597 edition of ‘The herball’ credits the printer as ‘John Norton’ (see below). We now make full use of the ‘N’, ‘O’, ‘R’ and the three ‘XXX’ in the rebus which, in keeping with the Roman theme, are ‘tens’ to make ‘NORtens’ (this IS a new idea).
William and John Norton had previously used a mark where the letters ‘nor’ were set on a barrel ‘tun’ to make ‘nortun’ (see figure below). The present case also splits off the letters ‘NOR’ from the rest of the name so there is consistency of design.
Dr Griffiths has suggested (Country Life blog) that no printer could change his mark (although the Nortons had used several previous variations), and any symbol (e.g. ‘XXX’) that had been used by other printers had to retain its previous meaning. These are not necessary rules of rebus design. Some explanation is required for the broken ‘E’. I suggest that John Norton, who was (or was at least promoting himself as) the Queen’s printer, was inserting a reference to Elizabeth, and I suggest that part of the function of the oblique line descending to the right from the top of the ‘4’ is to direct attention to that (see figure below, from Henry Lemoine, ed., Typographical Antiquities, London, S. Fisher, (1797), p.75).
I judge that this explanation is far less strained than that given by Dr Griffiths, makes better use of all the letters, and avoids the assumption that a then relatively unknown Shakespeare, who in 1597 was still waiting to see his name on a play quarto, was being afforded Roman God status on a plinth in a book on gardening!