Ludwig Becker’s Shakespeare

  • Ian DonaldsonEmail author
Part of the Early Modern Literature in History book series (EMLH)


This essay looks at two supposed likenesses of William Shakespeare—the one, a death-mask, and the other, a miniature deathbed portrait—that aroused world-wide interest when first discovered in Germany in the 1840s. The discoverer of these objects was the German-born artist, geologist, ethnographer and polymath Ludwig Becker, who was later to migrate to Australia, where he achieved another kind of fame as the official artist accompanying the doomed expedition of Robert O’Hara Burke and William John Wills that attempted to cross the eastern part of the continent from south to north. Becker perished in the course of this ill-fated journey, as did all other members of the party but one, though his superb scientific drawings made during the expedition survive. So too do the ‘Shakespearean’ death mask and miniature deathbed portrait that Becker had found in Germany, and had left in the custody of the British Museum before leaving for Australia. This paper focuses on the authenticity or otherwise of the deathbed portrait, arguing that the figure it depicts is neither Shakespeare, as Becker and many of his contemporaries confidently believed, or Ben Jonson, as is nowadays widely asserted, but Nicholas Ferrar, leader of the religious community at Little Gidding, immortalized in modern times by T.S. Eliot in Four Quartets. It ponders some of the ironies associated with memorializing art and the notion of cultural ‘loss’.


Ludwig Becker Shakespeare death mask Deathbed portraiture Ben Jonson Nicholas Ferrar Cultural loss 

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of MelbourneMelbourneAustralia

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