The Playwrights

During the late 16th and early 17th centuries, some of the greatest dramatists in the English language were at work in the London theatres. William Shakespeare wasn’t the only writer to see his plays come to life on the stage, yet today his fame vastly overshadows his contemporaries, and names such as Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher are (unfairly, to many minds) less familiar to the modern ear.

We may have heard of some of their works, such as The Knight of the Burning Pestle (Beaumont), or Doctor Faustus (Marlowe), but what did they themselves look like? An endless debate rages on over the true face of Shakespeare, with only a handful of portraits generally accepted as probably of the Bard. The most famous of these is known as the Chandos portrait, after a previous owner.

ShakespeareChandos
Produced around 1600-1610, it is claimed to have been painted from life, and may be by an artist named John Taylor, an important member of the Painter-Stainers’ Company. An interesting fact for your next pub quiz: this was the first picture purchased by the National Portrait Gallery in London, after it was founded in 1856. The portrait bears the record number NPG1.

The next most recognised and studied of the early playwrights must be Christopher “Kit” Marlowe, whose mysterious life and death often threaten to steal the dramatic thunder from the stories he produced on stage. Although he doesn’t quite fit the remit of a 17th century blog, having died a few years earlier in 1593, I think he warrants a mention as he was a close contemporary and professional influence on the early Jacobean theatrical circle.

Kit Marlowe
This anonymous portrait is said to be of Marlowe, although as with Shakespeare’s images, there is fierce disagreement as to the true identity of the sitter. The picture is owned by Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, where Marlowe was a student. It dates from c.1585, and is the only known painting with any arguable claim on his likeness.

John Fletcher (1579-1625) was one of the most important and prolific playwrights in Jacobean London, having written numerous plays in his own name, and in famed collaboration with Francis Beaumont. He is known to have also worked with Shakespeare and others. John Fletcher
This anonymous portrait of Fletcher was painted around 1620, and is the only known portrait taken from life. It is painted in oil on oak panel. It is on display at the National Portrait Gallery.

The supposed face of Francis Beaumont (1584-1616) is known mainly from this line engraving by George Vertue, the earliest surviving version dating from 1712 (©National Portrait Gallery). It was presumably copied from a lost – or hopefully just misplaced! – earlier portrait in oils.

Francis Beaumont

Finally, but by no means least in importance, we have Ben Jonson (1572-1637), the writer, poet, actor and literary critic, whose influence on  poetry and theatre since the 17th century means he is generally regarded as the most important English dramatist after Shakespeare.  The below portrait, painted c.1617 can be found at (yes, you guessed it!) the NPG in London. The artist is Abraham Blyenberch.

Ben Jonson

Other names that deserve a mention include Thomas Dekker, John Webster and Thomas Middleton, but I was unable to find good pictures or engravings of them. Suggestions welcome!

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1 Comment

  1. What always strikes me looking at Jonson’s portrait is how Tom Baker resembles him …

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