The Future of History

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Shakespeare's Face (2)

A bit frazzled today, after yesterday's splendid hootenanny launching Who Killed William Shakespeare? at Waterstones Stratford-upon-Avon (of which I'll write more soon; for now, just the biggest thanks to Josie and the wonderful team at Waterstones, who were quite simply brilliant, and to everyone who came from far and wide to support us.  Thank you, guys!)

We're currently considering the Cobbe Portrait and its alleged depiction of one William Shakespeare, master poet, playwright and murder victim.  We're doing this by comparing specific details of the portrait - where there seems to be something a trifle unusual going on - with the same details from established Shakespeare portraiture, including a death mask and a skull (for more details of these items, buy the book!)

Let's keep it fairly simple today by just looking at the left cheek in the portrait.

Look closely at this detail of the left cheek from the Cobbe Portrait.  There appear to be two faint lines running down the cheek - a rather jagged one which crosses the cheek bone and descends to the corner of the mouth, and another a little further to the right.  Are these strange lines replicated on the other Shakespeare images?  Well, yes they are:
Here's the same part of the face, taken from the Chandos Portrait of Shakespeare (No 1 in the National Portrait Gallery's collection).  The lines are even more noticeable here - although, to the best of my knowledge, nobody has ever mentioned them before.  So what are they?  They don't look like scar tissue ...
The terracotta Davenant Bust of Shakespeare (Garrick Club, London) also seems to have something going on here - very similar thin lines running down the left cheek.  And if we look at what is probably the most famous image of the Bard:
... do we not also see hints of a line or lines running down the left cheek on the Droeshout engraving from the First Folio of 1623?  Evidently, this is a rarely acknowledged feature of the Shakespeare portraiture: a thin, jagged line, or more than one line, following a roughly perpendicular path across the cheek area, from below the left eye to the side of the mouth.
The death mask of Shakespeare, now in Darmstadt Castle, does appear to have something similar running down the left cheek:
What this might be, exactly, is unclear, but if we examine the same part of the face in the 3-D computer-generated model from the University of Dundee, which was based on the death mask:

... we certainly get the impression of a thin, jagged line running down the cheek, beneath the eye, and another, just to the right, across the hollow of the cheek itself.

So what are we looking at here?  As I pointed out, these do not seem to be scars, but they do seem to be present, one way or another, in the Shakespeare portraits and, indeed, on the Cobbe Portrait.  Let's assume, then, that all of the images we've considered so far had a common source, that source almost certainly being the death mask of Shakespeare.  Those lines being visible on the death mask, they were quite properly reproduced in the portraiture.
The skull at Beoley offers a clue as to what those lines might have been:
The zygomatic (cheek) bones of the skull are missing.  The maxilla (upper jaw) bone has been snapped, with the outside part of the maxilla also missing.  This gives the cheek area of the skull a pronounced jagged outline comparable with the lines on the portraiture which can be traced down from the eye socket to the corner of Shakespeare's mouth.
The older photo of the skull (taken in circa 1939) also shows the jagged outline of the broken maxilla.  Inevitably, if the maxilla had snapped, then it would have existed in two parts before the skin tissue decomposed and the broken off section of the maxilla bone became detached.
By the time the death mask was made (some 24-48 hours after death), the skin tissue of the face had relaxed, so that the outline of the broken maxilla became faintly visible.  The missing section of the maxilla would also have created an outline on the death mask, and this would have been slightly to the side of - and roughly parallel with - the jagged line made by the existing piece of upper jaw.
In other words, we would expect there to be two lines on the death mask if the maxilla was broken before or at around the time of death, and the two sections had separated under the tissues of the cheek.  Such breakages are a common feature of certain kinds of cranio-facial injury.
The Shakespeare portraits - including, it would seem, the Cobbe Portrait - replicate these vague lines running down the left cheek, which I suggest were formed by the jagged edges of the broken maxilla showing through the relaxed skin tissues as seen on the death mask.
Over the next few days, we'll look a some other striking features of the portraits, the death mask and the skull.

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