The Future of History

Friday, 23 August 2013

Shakespeare's Face (1)

This is the so-called Cobbe Portrait.  I've been a bit rude about it in the past - not the portrait itself, which is fine, but about the questionable claim that it is a portrait of Shakespeare.

I'm now thinking I might have been a little hasty.

The attribution, which the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford has acccepted gleefully, is troublesome.  For a start, the portrait bears more than a passing resemblance to Sir Walter Raleigh, as I have previously indicated.  And the colour of the (slightly wonky) eyes is not the same as those in the somewhat more famous Chandos Portrait of Shakespeare in the National Portrait Gallery.

Now, I'm not about to have a complete Damascene conversion.  But I have been looking a bit more closely at the Cobbe Portrait, and over the next few posts I shall share some of my observations.  It's too early to be sure, but it would only be scientific to compare the distinguishing features of this image and those of Shakespeare - including his death mask and skull.

We'll start with the left eye and, in particular, the inner edge of the left eye socket, beside the nose.

This is a close up detail of the left inner eye in the Cobbe Portrait.  There's a slightly odd effect going on here.  A bit of a blue blob running down the inside of the eye socket.  And a thin bluish line crossing this blob, running from the bridge of the nose to the corner of the eye.  The unusual shading seems to suggest some kind of defect or deformity to the inner eye socket.
Here's the same region of the death mask (currently in Darmstadt, Germany).  The line running from the bridge of the nose to the eyeball is clearer here, and it traverses what may be a scar on the inside of the eye socket.  The thin grey lateral slit is one of the more intriguing features of the death mask and - as I argue in Who Killed William Shakespeare?- a major clue to the cause of Shakespeare's death.
The scarring on the inside of the eye socket is clearly visible in this 3-D computer reconstruction of Shakespeare's face, based on the death mask, which was created by experts at the University of Dundee for a television documentary a couple of years ago.
The Chandos Portrait of Shakespeare also hints at something rather odd going on in the inner corner of the left eye.  Again, we have those strange dark shadings or markings, representing some form of scarring perhaps on the inside of the eye socket, and something of a dark line stretching from the bridge of the nose to the eyeball.
What could all these unusual markings mean?  The thin grey slit on the death mask - which appears to have been replicated on the Cobbe and Chandos Portraits - begs the question: what is this?  So the best bet is to have a look at the Beoley skull (identified in the 19th century as Shakespeare's) and see what's going on there.
This detail is from a photo of the skull which was taken around the start of the Second World War.  What is shown here is the inner corner of the left eye socket (nose to the left of the photo).  Look closely.  There are at least two puncture marks in the thin medial wall of the eye socket.  Something damaged the skull there, more or less in line with the strange markings or shading visible on the portraiture.
The second image comes from a much more recent photograph of the skull, taken just four years ago.  Again, we're looking at the left eye socket, with the nose on the left of the picture.  Look at the upper part of the inside of the eye socket - an unnatural fracture or aperture can clearly be seen.  This is immediately above the puncture wounds visible on the first image of the skull (above).  Again, we get the distinct impression that damage was inflicted to the inside of the left eye socket by some sort of sharp, pointed instrument.
Now, let's go back to the death mask - with its thin grey slit running between the bridge of the nose and the left eyeball.  This slit appears to have been replicated (as a bluish line) on the Cobbe Portrait and may form part of the dark shading on the Chandos Portrait.  Both portraits also indicate some sort of scarring or abnormality on the inside of the eye socket, in the very region which connects the thin grey slit with the visible damage to the inner wall of the eye socket on the Beoley skull.
These are not naturally occuring features.  Most people do not have blue lines or thin grey slits running from their nose to their eyeball, and the only reason why a skull would show puncture marks, holes and fractures on the inside of the eye socket is because injuries had been inflicted.  Evidently, then, the Cobbe Portrait appears faithfully to replicate an unusual feature present on the Shakespeare portraiture (and death mask) and in line with damage to the skull.
I'll examine other features of the Cobbe Portrait, comparing them with the equivalent features on the other portraiture and relics, over the next few days.  I'll also raise some issues regarding the provenance of the Cobbe Portrait and its beguiling quotation. 
And then, maybe, we can start moving towards a conclusion: is the Cobbe Portrait really another posthumous portrait of Shakespeare, identifiable by the same pathological features which link the skull, the death mask, the Droeshout engraving, the Chandos Portrait and the Davenant Bust?  Was I entirely wrong to criticise the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust for their insistence that the portrait is of Shakespeare?  Did I - in fact - commit the same crime against knowledge as they themselves have been committing, making snap judgements without examining the evidence?
These are questions that you can help me answer as we look more closely at the damage that was done to Shakespeare's face.

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