The Future of History

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Shakespeare "Not a Very Tall Man"

Between delivering your manuscript and seeing your book in print, there's a gap.  In the case of Who Killed William Shakespeare? that gap was about ten months.

It's a tricky period because, mentally, you're still writing your book.  Is there something you've missed, something you need to put in, something that could be better expressed? 

One of the little things I fussed about and mulled over endlessly, while waiting for the proofs of my book to arrive, was whether to address the issue of Shakespeare's height.  Not a common problem, perhaps; it doesn't seem to have bothered many of his biographers.  But it bothered me.  Because I had this sneaking feeling that Shakespeare was probably quite short.

The idea that Will was not exactly a giant had grown, slowly, fed by the odd hint here and there.  It also came from the fact that the skull in the Sheldon family crypt at Beoley church (which as regular readers, or those blessed souls who have read Who Killed William Shakespeare? will know, was probably Shakespeare's skull) was described in the 19th century as "undersized".  More recently, a former churchwarden of Beoley, who has both seen and photographed the skull, told me that it was "small" - as if it were a woman's skull, or the skull of a child.

Of course, if you've read the book you'll know that parts of the skull are missing.  But it still seems to have struck observers as being small.  Rev. Charles Jones Langston, writing his account of How Shakespeare's Skull was Stolen and Found in 1884, made the point twice.  And yet he was convinced that the skull was Shakespeare's.

I ummed and ahhed about mentioning Shakespeare's height in the book because I had picked up on a few hints, a few references, which could be interpreted as indicating that Will was a little on the short side.  In Sonnet 80, he compared himself unfavourably with Sir Walter Raleigh, who was about six feet tall; Raleigh, the "Rival Poet", was "of tall building and of goodly pride", and Will's "saucy barque" was "inferior far to his".

Other hints came in Ben Jonson's An Execration Upon Vulcan.  Jonson's library had just gone up in smoke, a mere month before the publication of the First Folio of Shakespeare's works.  Ben Jonson thought back to the burning of the Globe theatre, ten years earlier, and I suspect that just as he appears to have blamed Shakespeare for the fire at the Globe, so he saw Shakespeare's influence behind his own catastrophic fire (even though Shakespeare had been dead for more than seven years when Ben's study went up in flames).

The traditional story of the Globe fire holds that it was caused by the firing of two cannons.  Ben Jonson suggested otherwise:

Nay, sigh’d, ah Sister ’twas the Nun, Kate ArdenGifford's edition reads; 'Nay, sighed a sister,  Venus' nun, Kate Arden,'
Kindled the Fire! But, then did one return,
No Fool would his own harvest spoil, or burn!
If that were so, thou rather would’st advance
The Place, that was thy Wives Inheritance.

In this strange passage, the "Nun", Kate Arden, magically transforms into a "Fool" who wouldn't - surely he wouldn't! - wreck his own nest egg.  The Arden surname points at Shakespeare.  The word "kate" or "cate" could be interpreted in two ways: either as a "picklock", a tool for breaking into a locked building, or as something "small" and "dainty".

I held back, however, on tentatively advancing my notion that Shakespeare might have been of modest stature.  But maybe I was right.

Two portraits of Shakespeare have recently been unveiled by Professor Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel.  These portraits are reproduced above (images courtesy of Discovery News).  Neither is an original.  Rather, the one is a photo of a portrait that went missing during the Second World War, the other being an engraving published in 1824.

However, the engraving - or "Boaden" portrait - would appear to have been modelled on an original portrait, now lost.  Those facial features (wonky left eye, damaged or drooping left eyebrow, depressions high up in forehead) which I have come to see as authentically Shakespearean are present and correct.  It is based, then, on a genuine likeness of Shakespeare.

But here's the really exciting bit: the "Boaden" portrait is unique in showing Shakespeare's whole body.  And as Professor Hammerschmidt-Hummel was moved to remark about the "Boaden" - "We can see he wasn't a very tall man."

So maybe I was right: maybe Shakespeare was small and dainty (a "cate"), and "undersized", as is the skull at Beoley.

(There's something else about the "Boaden" portrait - anyone who's read my recent article on the Historical Honey website will know that another, and I believe more interesting, portrait has an unusual detail in the form of a dragonfly-shaped knot or bow poking through the doublet; that detail is so unusual that a professional period costume expert admitted she'd never seen a bow poking through a doublet like that before.  Take a look at the detail from the "Boaden" portrait, above; there's another bow.)

Anyway, I think we can begin to think of Shakespeare as being rather delicately formed.  He "wasn't a very tall man", which only adds extra weight to the possibility that the skull at Beoley church is his.

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