The Future of History

Sunday, 12 June 2016

Scars in their Eyes

In my last blog post, I provided a link to a new website which provides a wealth of information in support of the likelihood that the "Wadlow" portrait (detail, left) is a genuine portrait of William Shakespeare.

I believe it is, and in this blog post I shall point to just one of the features which helps to identify the sitter.

We'll be concentrating on the left eye (the sitter's left, that is) and, in particular, a distinctive scar immediately above the left eye.  It's clearly visible on the "Wadlow", cutting down from above the eyebrow to slice through the outer end of it.  Just in case, I'll provide another detail of the portrait, which brings us in a little closer.


There, see?  The scar comes down over the left forehead, meeting the left eyebrow about halfway across.  Something similar can be seen in the "Chandos" portrait of Shakespeare at the National Portrait Gallery:


It might look a little clearer in this detail of the above:


This scar was, apparently, something that Shakespeare bore for much of his life.  The evidence for this, I would suggest, is visible on the contested skull of Shakespeare at Beoley in Worcestershire (detail of photo by Richard Peach for The Village magazine):


A photo of the Beoley skull, taken at around the time of the Second World War, shows the scar over the left eyebrow very clearly:


Just in case, here's a detail of the same, showing the left eye socket and the scar above it:


So, Shakespeare had a scar over his left eye, cutting down over his left eyebrow, which is precisely what we see on the "Wadlow" portrait.

But, wait - what's that you say?  The Beoley skull was "proven" to have belonged to a mysterious, unknown female in her seventies and can't, therefore, have been Shakespeare?

Hmmnn ... tell you what: let's check one more image.


This is a detail from a facial reconstruction of the contested Shakespeare Death Mask in Darmstadt, Germany.  There it is, just above the left eyebrow - a scar which runs down to meet the eyebrow about halfway across.  The same reconstruction of Shakespeare's face from the death mask, only taken at a different angle, shows this scar very clearly:


And, for comparison, the scar on the death mask facial reconstruction alongside the scar on the Beoley skull:



They look pretty much the same, don't they?

Well, here's the odd thing.  That facial reconstruction of the death mask was done by Dr Caroline Wilkinson - the same expert who claimed that the Beoley skull was that of a woman in her seventies!

Admittedly, the Channel 4 Shakespeare's Tomb documentary, shown earlier this year, did rather railroad Dr Wilkinson into making that statement ... but maybe if Caroline Wilkinson had compared the skull with her own facial reconstructions of Shakespeare, she might have been less certain in her analysis.

The scar - on portraits, death mask, facial reconstructions and the Beoley skull - is one of Shakespeare's distinguishing features.

That, or a massive coincidence, requiring us to believe that the only skull to have been identified as the "veritable skull of William Shakespeare" actually belonged to an unknown septuagenarian, even thought it has exactly the same scar as Shakespeare had!

Friday, 3 June 2016

Is This William Shakespeare?

Apologies, first of all, for my absence from the blog for a little while.  Things have been busy on a number of fronts.

My very good friend Steve Wadlow has created an excellent website around the painting in his family's possession.  Regular readers of this blog will know that I have been working with Steve for over two-and-a-half years now, examining this remarkable portrait.

It is, as far as I'm concerned, a particularly good, near-contemporary portrait of William Shakespeare.  For more information, please visit Steve's Is This William Shakespeare? website.

One of the pages of the website - entitled "TECHNICAL" - shows some images created by Lumiere Technologie in Paris.  Of those, one clearly shows the "touching up" which had been done, at a later date, to cover up the visible damage to the left eye socket.

Another image, which is presented in the same animated graphic, shows a clear line running down the left cheek of the portrait from the outside of the left eye.

These lines are a feature of Shakespeare portraiture.  If you can find an image of the Shakespeare portrait which now hangs in the old schoolroom at King Edward VI Grammar School in Stratford-upon-Avon (where Shakespeare is presumed to have gone to school), you'll see a very similar line to that made visible on the Wadlow portrait by the technological wizardry of Lumiere.

One day, when the ultra-conservative mafia is no longer in a position to dictate what is known, and what is not allowed to be known, about Shakespeare, the Wadlow portrait will be recognised for what it is - the face of Shakespeare.

And maybe - just maybe - that time isn't so far away.

Do check out Steve's website.  It really is very good indeed.

Thursday, 21 April 2016

Then They Fight You

A lovely morning in Oxford, on Tuesday.  I was there to be filmed by Alex Iszatt for a That's Oxfordshire piece on Oxford's community Freeview channel.

Alex interviewed me in the courtyard between what used to be the Davenants' Taverne on Cornmarket and the Cross Inn next door (seen here in an old photo).  I spoke about Sir William Davenant, and why I'd written my book about him.  No one, I pointed out, had ever taken the trouble to ask whether or not the rumours surrounding Davenant's paternity - was he the product of a liaison between William Shakespeare and Jane, the comely mistress of the Taverne? - might be true, so I had done so.

We then went for a walk around Oxford, Alex filming me as we wandered past Christ Church and back up to Lincoln College, where Davenant studied as a young man, before he moved to London.

The piece goes out this Friday and will then be put up on YouTube.  I'll do my best to remember to post the link.

I got back home to hear that there will be some sort of review or mention of my book, Shakespeare's Bastard, in the Oxford Times this week.  So - today, Oxford; tomorrow, the world!

Still, there had to be a backlash, didn't there?  And it came this morning, in the form of a piece in the Spectator.

I'm not all that familiar with the Spectator, but apparently the magazine has a regular column referred to as "The Heckler".  It would seem to be a slightly schizophrenic column.  Only last May, Lloyd Evans, writing as "The Heckler", decreed that "Shakespeare's duds should be struck from the canon".  Lloyd Evans professed to "love Shakespeare.  But when he pulls on his wellies and hikes into the forest I yearn for the exit."  Consequently, Evans felt, "Winter's Tale, Twelfth Night, As You Like It, even Midsummer Night's Dream deserve to sink".

Evidently, by writing about the Woodland he came from, the old Forest of Arden with which he so identified, being half-Arden himself, Shakespeare let himself down.

Well, this week's "Heckler" column comes to us courtesy of Kate Maltby, who frets that "the Shakespeare anniversary has stripped the Bard of his beauty".  I give you her opening paragraph:

"The feeding frenzy over the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare's death has reached its peak.  Recently we've had Shakespeare's complete works performed through the puppetry of kitchenware.  On books pages, you can read about everything from Edward Wilson-Lee's Shakespeare in Swahililand (surprisingly beguiling) to Simon Andrew Stirling's Shakespeare's Bastard: The Life of Sir William Davenant (he wasn't)."

Now, grateful as I am for the name check, I can only assume that Kate Maltby, or someone she knows, was actually present at the conception of Sir William Davenant and therefore capable of signing an affidavit stating that John and Jane Davenant were exclusively concerned in the act.  Failing that, only a DNA test could say for certain whether or not Sir William was a little closer to Shakespeare than a mere "godson", as Oxford remembered him.

Ah, but I forget.  The fact that no one had previously looked into the possibility that Davenant was (as he apparently claimed to be) Shakespeare's son is ipso facto proof that "he wasn't".  The very avoidance of an investigation is evidence of there being no need for an investigation.  We shouldn't consider the possibility because nobody else has.

Perhaps, if Kate Maltby had read my book, she'd have noticed that I tackle this argument in my opening pages.  For years, it was widely rumoured - and seemingly accepted - that Sir William Davenant was Shakespeare's illegitimate son.  A close examination of his life and career certainly suggests that Davenant modelled himself on his celebrated godfather, and almost certainly believed - or liked to believe - that he was the bastard son of Shakespeare.

And didn't Shakespeare use the word "godson" just once in all of his known works - in King Lear, a play obsessed with bastards, illegitimacy, adultery and female sexuality, which was written at about the same time as William Davenant was born?

Why bother with any of this, though, when all one has to do is ignore it?  Just because one pesky author dared to ask "Might Davenant have been Shakespeare's son?" and set out to explore the possibility, doesn't mean we have to take a look at his results.  Those who have never asked themselves the question or looked into the possibility have been saying for years that Davenant wasn't Shakespeare's son (the absence of any evidence to support this statement being irrelevant, apparently) and, hey, why break with tradition?

Kate Maltby's full piece can be read here.  I found it slightly odd, in that it seemed to be saying that we can only preserve the "beauty" of Shakespeare if we try not to think of him as a real person.  In fact, let's forget that he ever existed and just concentrate on the plays (presumably, if Lloyd Evans has anything to do with it, not those Shakespeare plays which involve trees).

The upshot being that even to commemorate the 400th anniversary of his death is an act of cultural desecration, almost as bad as wondering if our second-ever poet laureate was telling the truth about his relationship to his godfather.

Of course, what Kate Maltby is really calling for is a kind of censorship.  It's an old trick: if we ignore Shakespeare and just concentrate on the words he left behind, we can construe those words in pretty much any way we choose.  We can tell other people what we want them to believe about Shakespeare (who didn't really exist, other than as a sort of disembodied quill).  We can continue to cover up what was going on in England when he was writing his masterpieces.

There is one aspect of Maltby's piece I agree with: I've long argued that what the major Shakespeare organisations are flogging is a brand.  Not Shakespeare per se, but an unhistorical idea of what they want Shakespeare to have been.  And in recent months we have seen the extraordinary lengths to which organisations will go to protect and preserve their rather false image of Shakespeare.  It's a cash cow, no doubt, and the tourists seem to love it.  But it's not Shakespeare.

However, Kate Maltby's solution is even more alarming (though not quite as alarming as "The Heckler's" previous call to expunge Shakespeare's more arboreal works).  It's also regressive.  For years, scholars tried to argue that Shakespeare's writings were no guide whatsoever to what he might have thought or believed.  As arguments go, that one is utter nonsense.  Dramatists write in character, but they draw their inspiration from the world around them, and everything that happens in their work is coloured by their outlook, their perspective.

So, once again, it's back to the Dark Ages.  The scientific investigation of Shakespeare's skull was smothered, and now we're told - on no authority whatsoever - that Davenant "wasn't" Shakespeare's bastard.

Long live the Shakespeare who never was!

Or, better still, let's do what nobody seems prepared to tolerate, these days: ask questions, do some research, and little by little feel our way towards an understanding of the man who wrote those glorious works.  There's little if any reward in this, but it's better than claiming to admire the "beauty" of the Bard while trying not to know anything about him.

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Sneaky Leaks and Press Releases

Can anyone out there help me?

You see, I'm intrigued and somewhat mystified.  Let me take you back a bit.

Something rather odd happened around the start of November 2015.  I didn't know it, but I had just been written out of the Arrow Media/Channel 4 documentary, Shakespeare's Tomb.

In between a message being left on my phone by the director, explaining that she wanted to bring me up to date on the project, and an actual phone conversation with the director, in which she informed me that I was no longer involved with the documentary (or, rather, she didn't tell me - it was another three weeks before I found out), a story appeared out of the blue in the Telegraph.

The story - Could Shakespeare's skull have been found? Why church ruling means we may never know - seemed rather bizarre from the outset.  For a start, it appeared on the Telegraph website on a Sunday evening.  The reporter who wrote the piece generally writes on energy and climate change issues.  And the story was eight months old.

The Telegraph article sparked a rash of copycat pieces in the world's press, most of which took the slant that a rather potty rural vicar had been chasing up a bit of folklore but had been slapped down by the Chancellor of the Diocese, who dismissed the original story as "a piece of Gothic fiction".

There were some inaccuracies in the article: "The author of [How Shakespeare's Skull was Stolen and Found, published in 1879 and 1884] is not known but is thought may have [been] Rev C J Langston, vicar of Beoley from 1881 to 1889."

Langston identified himself as the "compiler" of How Shakespeare's Skull was Stolen in a letter he wrote from "Beoley Vicarage" to C.M. Ingleby on 2 January 1884.  In 1881, though, he was still Rector of Sevington in Kent.  By 1889, he had moved to the City of Bath.

The article quoted Rev Richard Clark, "Team Rector at Holy Trinity Redditch, overseeing the parish including Beoley", who seemed disappointed at the decision not to allow DNA testing of the mysterious skull in the crypt at Beoley to go ahead: "the problem for us now is that the failure to conduct a detailed investigation will result in a higher level of uniformed speculation".

Nobody at the time seemed to know how the Telegraph had got hold of this story.  The Chancellor's judgement on the matter had been delivered in March 2015.  Suddenly, out of nowhere, on a Sunday in November the story was presented to a table full of journalists, and a young energy/climate change reporter offered to cover it.

Flash forward, now, to 27 March 2016 - another Sunday.  Channel 4 broadcast the Shakespeare's Tomb documentary the previous evening.  With admirable speed and efficiency, the BBC News website published an article, Shakespeare's skull: New chapter in hunt for missing head.

Rev Richard Clark was quoted again (although diligent readers of this blog might have noticed the comment under my previous post, which indicates that the quotation was "a paraphrase" of what Rev Clark had actually said).  As were Kevin Colls, the archaeologist on the documentary project, Chris Laoutaris, of the University of Birmingham's Shakespeare Institute (based in Stratford-upon-Avon), and John Hogg, who has run the Stratford Town Walk with his wife Helen since 2002.

The article referenced the earlier report in the Telegraph: "Clergymen had previously applied to the Consistory Court to use DNA testing to discover the identity of the skull - but had the application thrown out, the Daily Telegraph reported in November 2015."

The last two people quoted - Rev Richard Clark and John Hogg - poured cold water over the whole thing, although we now know that Rev Clark did not, in fact, say "We've discovered that the story of the removal of his [Shakespeare's] skull and reburial at St Leonard's [Beoley] is rubbish", although that was what he was quoted as saying in the BBC piece.

Now, here's my problem.  I emailed Rebecca Wood, the BBC journalist (and weather person) who wrote up the article, asking if she could tell me who sent out the press release which quoted - and, indeed, misquoted - four individuals on the documentary screened the previous evening, but I've had no reply.

So what I'd like to know is this: who's been leaking stories to the press on Sundays?  Why, at the very time I was being dropped from the Channel 4 documentary, did a story magically appear in the Telegraph, scoffing at the very idea that we should be investigating the Beoley skull and quoting the words of Prof Stanley Wells (Shakespeare Birthplace Trust) - "Gothic fiction" - as if that was the term coined by Charles Mynors, Chancellor of the Diocese of Worcester.

Why did the BBC feel the need to remind readers of its website of that peculiar story which appeared in the Telegraph, and for which no one has been prepared to take the credit?

Why would Channel 4 issue a press release on a Sunday, just a few hours after Shakespeare's Tomb aired on the Saturday evening, giving the immediate responses of individuals all connected to Stratford-upon-Avon, including a tour guide they'd probably never heard of?  Or was it the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust who issued the press release, quoting the same Rev Richard Clark who was quoted in the leaked story to the Telegraph, in an attempt to bury the skull story once and for all.

If it was the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, wouldn't that suggest that someone at the SBT had come to see the documentary, and its questionable findings, not as Channel 4's, but as their own.  Someone, perhaps, who had already done their utmost to stop the investigation in its tracks when they gave evidence at the Consistory Court hearing?  Someone who doesn't want anyone to know that they've been steering the media throughout?

Somebody out there must know who leaked the story to the Telegraph on a Sunday in November and sent a press release to the BBC on a Sunday in March - in both instances, seeking to do maximum damage to the ongoing investigation into the Beoley skull and Rev C.J. Langston's accounts.

And if anyone does know who is responsible, could they please email me: art-and-will@hotmail.co.uk?


Friday, 8 April 2016

A Bit of Balance

It's been standard practice for some years now, in certain quarters of the British media, to strive for journalistic "balance".

So that, for example, if BBC Newsnight do a piece on climate change, they are obliged to wheel in some corporate shill who receives money from the fossil fuels lobby to pretend that there's no such thing as climate change.

Balance, geddit?

Well, the requirement for balance doesn't apply to all of the media.  Channel 4's Shakespeare's Tomb went out of its way to avoid any form of balance, which meant that the vast majority of the available evidence in the matter was ignored and only those with a certain point-of-view were featured.  Similarly, press coverage in advance of the documentary, and in response to it, was equally one-sided (see below).

Thank heavens, then, for Ben Russell, who wrote this piece for the Bromsgrove Advertiser and its sister papers, including the Redditch & Alcester Advertiser, this week.  Ben was genuinely interested in the background to the story and the way the documentary team mishandled it.  The result - a piece which allows another perspective to be heard.

So thank you, Ben.  I'll post a link to the article when I can find one.

Otherwise, as I say, the media really just parroted whatever came their way in a press release.  This is an interesting example.  It appeared on the BBC News Online website the day after the C4 documentary was broadcast.  I've been trying - with little success - to find out if the copy and quotations were all supplied to the BBC in a press release, which is how things tend to happen these days, and if so, who issued the press release.

I doubt it was Channel Four, who probably don't know much about the Stratford tour guide who is quoted in the piece.  The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, however, do know him.  Could it be the SBT, then, that got its press release out to the BBC ready to be published within hours of the broadcast?  The mention in the BBC article of the thwarted attempt to secure permission to study the skull properly sounds like an authentic SBT touch, given that it was the two top guys at the SBT who successfully shot down that application.

And why, we might ask, is nobody telling tales about this outside of school (so to speak)?  I've emailed the Church of England Team Leader responsible for Beoley church, who is quoted in the article, partly to find out if he really did say that the story of the skull at Beoley is "rubbish", but I've received no reply.

Where's the balance, then?  One side of the argument, if we can call it that, has direct access to the media.  That same side took control of the Channel 4 documentary and kept all other voices out of it.  They scotched the investigation, then co-opted the production.

It was quite a surprise, then, to find this piece on the curious Cult of Weird website.  I know nothing about the site, or who runs it, but they'd obviously done their homework - far more so than the mainstream media - because for once, my work gets a mention.

It's going to take a long, long time, and an awful lot of hard work, to combat the misinformation broadcast to the world by Channel 4 in Shakespeare's Tomb and uncritically taken up by the press, left, right and centre.  The very fact that there are still journalists and commentators who are prepared to look a little deeper, and to present the other side of the story, is verily a welcome relief.

Monday, 4 April 2016

The Mind's Construction in the Face


In a phone conversation on Thursday 26 November 2015, the director of the Channel Four documentary Shakespeare's Tomb tried very hard to assure me that the programme would not be spending very much time at Beoley, was not terribly interested in the skull, and didn't expect to discover much about the mysterious "veritable skull of William Shakespeare."

The director seemed startled when I mentioned Dr Caroline Wilkinson, who I already knew was involved.  No, I was told, Caroline Wilkinson probably wasn't going to be doing much with the skull - at most, maybe coming up with some thoughts about possible age and gender - and she almost certainly wouldn't be doing any sort of facial reconstruction from the skull or anything like that at all.

I'm still at a loss to explain why the director told me all that, unless it was to throw me off the scent.  Given that I had only just been made aware of the fact that I was no longer involved with the documentary, I can imagine that she was trying to mollify my (i.e. "No, don't worry, we won't be doing anything that directly concerns you and your work") or, to put it another way, I was being fobbed off and kept in the dark.

Anyway, surprise-surprise, Dr Wilkinson did do something of a facial reconstruction from the skull after all.  Maybe she had a bit of time on her hands, I don't know, or maybe that was the plan all along but the director didn't want me to know about it.  The image above is partly that of Dr Wilkinson's reconstruction, made under the apprehension that the skull is that of an "unknown woman in her seventies".  Obviously, for copyright reasons, I haven't reproduced the whole image.

Something about the eyes in the reconstruction reminded me of an early 17th-century portrait in the royal collection.  This portrait of an unknown man was flagged up by Lee Durkee on his fascinating Lost Shakespeare Portraits blog.  Lee Durkee knows his stuff, and when he suggests that the "unknown man" in the portrait might be Shakespeare, I'm inclined to think he might be onto something.

So the image of an "unknown female" you see at the top of the blog has been merged with the features of the "unknown man" from the portrait in the royal collection.  Look closely: it's difficult to see where the "unknown man" ends and the "unknown female" begins.

Now to the reproduction image proper.  For some bizarre reason, the forehead reproduced from the skull has been blurred.  This has the effect of focusing attention on the central features of the face - eyes, nose and mouth.  It is unfortunate, because (as those who follow my work will know) many of the identifying features of the skull which also show up, with a remarkable degree of consistency, in the Shakespeare portraiture, are to be found on the forehead.  Which, in the image taken from the Shakespeare's Tomb documentary, has been blurred.

Moreover, the forehead is one of the best-preserved parts of the skull.  It is pretty much intact.  The face of the skull has been smashed to bits (much of that damage, I believe, done at around the time of death).  Which means that much of what we see most clearly of the face in the reconstruction is not actually taken from the skull, because those parts don't actually exist.  Where it is most in focus, then, the reconstruction is based on a reconstruction.

You have a laser scan of a damaged skull, onto which have been projected (we must assume) the missing parts of the structure (cheekbones, maxilla, lower jaw).  In other words, the facial reconstruction shown in the programme is based on another reconstruction - the conjectural reconstruction of the missing parts of the skull - which is itself based, not on the original skull, but on a laser scan thereof.

Complicated, isn't it?  But the point to be made here is that those parts of the skull which do exist, and which we ought to be able to see very clearly in the facial reconstruction, have been largely blurred, while those parts of the skull which don't exist, and therefore had to be speculatively reconstructed, have been rendered rather clearly.

Odd, hunh?  Even so, the image yields some interesting surprises.  Let me concentrate on the left eye, temple and forehead as shown in the facial reconstruction (part of which is blurred) for the Channel Four programme:


Let's start with the forehead.  Blurred though it is - so as not to give the game away - some features can still be made out.  Looking up from the outside half of the eye, it is quite clear that there are a couple of grooves or indentations, running down from the hairline, with something resembling a raised area in between.

I've blogged about this feature before: in Call ye Midwife I suggested that, along with a defining depression high up in the forehead, just left of centre, they were the result of the rushed and insanitary midwifery practices of the day, while in Shakespeare's Face (3) I used them as part of my evidence to indicate that the somewhat controversial Cobbe portrait is indeed of William Shakespeare.

Basically, that double groove running down the left side of the forehead is a fairly consistent feature of the Shakespeare portraiture.  And, let's remember, it's there on the skull - one of the remaining parts of the skull - from which Dr Wilkinson made her reconstruction.

Moving down a bit, there seems to be evidence of a scar running across the top of the left eyebrow.  I examined this in my 2014 paper for Goldsmiths University, The Faces of Shakespeare.  Again, the skull concurs with the portraiture, the scar being especially visible on the Wadlow portrait.

The outside of the left eye shows what appear to be two lines descending to meet in a sort of V-shape immediately to the left of the eye.  I have written about this extensively, describing and illustrating this feature in Who Killed William Shakespeare? and elsewhere.  It is another defining feature of Shakespeare portraiture and is caused by the breakage of the end of the facial bone and the lower edge of the orbit showing through the skin.  The crease which comes round from the left, just under the eye, in the reconstruction is also a feature of Shakespeare portraiture, clearly visible in the Droeshout engraving (First Folio, 1623) and the Chandos portrait (National Portrait Gallery).

The damage to the lower part of the eye socket shows up both in the Shakespeare portraiture (often as a faint, thin, bluish or greyish line, as in the Wadlow portrait) and is replicated in the facial reconstruction as a sort of puffy, saggy, bags-under-the-eyes look.  Indeed, a forensic archaeologist and biological anthropologist who studied the photos of the skull told me that the "guttering" at the bottom of the eye sockets would produce just such a look in the portraits.

Just inside the eye, alongside the nose, there is shading and a minor blemish, consistent with the portraits (the Cobbe shows this as a sort of bluish tinge with what a friend, who has seen the Cobbe portrait at Hatchlands Park in Surrey, described as a "slight boil or deformity on the nose side of the left eye orbit").  This is where a pointed instrument, a stabbing weapon such a poignard, was jabbed into the eye socket, puncturing the inner medial wall of the left eye.  This forced the eyeball forwards, and slightly to the left, as we see in the death mask and the "wall-eyed" look of the portraits.  The death mask shows the scar made by this weapon.  The portraits, and the facial reconstruction, reflect the damage that was done to the inner eye socket by this stabbing weapon (for more on this, see my paper for Goldsmiths and my Historical Honey article, Shakespeare and the Dragonfly.)

Finally, the cheek.  First of all, there appears to be something of a swelling, a raised area, where the (missing) cheekbone should be - and curiously enough, something very similar appears in much the same place on Dr Wilkinson's facial reconstruction of the Darmstadt death mask (Shakespeare, again). 

Look more closely at the facial reconstruction and you'll see a thin line meandering slightly as it runs down the left cheek, from just beneath the eye to just to the side of the mouth.  That really is a giveaway: you'll find it in the portraits, too, especially the Chandos, where I first noticed it - a thin grey slightly wavy line running own the left cheek, with another, fainter but similar, immediately to the left of it.

That's the outline of the broken maxilla (upper jaw).

So - even though they did their best to misinterpret certain features of the skull and to obscure the others, the facial reconstruction which Dr Wilkinson apparently wasn't going to do but then went ahead and did anyway does, in fact, confirm that the Beoley skull matches the portraiture of William Shakespeare.

How much longer, I ask you, must we allow the cover-up to go unchallenged and the world to remain in the dark about the true identity of the owner of the Beoley skull?

Sunday, 3 April 2016

Shakespeare's Skull: The Eyebrow Test

This is a still from the Channel Four documentary, Shakespeare's Tomb.  Dr Caroline Wilkinson is analysing the laser scan made of the rogue skull in the ossuary at Beoley church.  What she's saying is this:

"In male skulls you tend to see a bulge just where the eyebrows sit, and you can see on this skull that we don't have a bulge of bone."

Ergo, we hear, the skull is probably female.

And, yes, Dr Wilkinson has a point: the skull really doesn't show much in the way of eyebrow bulges:


One might even suggest that the right eyebrow ridge (the one she's pointing to on the laser scan) looks somewhat damaged.  An earlier photo of the skull shows this quite clearly:


So we're agreed.  Eyebrow bulges not much to write home about.  But what's interesting is that, in the TV documentary, Dr Wilkinson had just been shown lining up the laser scan of the skull with two of the most familiar images of Shakespeare, the Droeshout engraving and the Chandos portrait.  Let's look first at the Droeshout:


Well, that's odd.  No real eyebrow bulges there, and especially not in the area indicated by Dr Wilkinson on the laser scan of the skull.  What about the Chandos, then?


Hmmnn.  You know what?  There aren't really any eyebrow bulges there, either.  And what's so strange about this is that Dr Wilkinson had been looking at both of the above images, apparently, before she told Kevin Colls and Dr Helen Castor that the absence of eyebrow bulges on the skull suggested that the skull might be female.

Funny, though, that she didn't think to mention the comparable absence of eyebrow bulges in the most famous images of Shakespeare, given that she'd just been looking at them.  Surely she can't imagine that the face in the Droeshout and the Chandos is female?

Okay.  Let's try some others.  How about that fond favourite of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, the Cobbe portrait:


Well, whaddya know?  A remarkable lack of eyebrow bulges.  And what about the latest contender in the world of Shakespeare portraiture, the Wadlow?


Nope.  Same again - no visible bulging in the eyebrow area.  The Wadlow, of course, is interesting because it helped me to propose the theory that Shakespeare had a condition known as eyebrow ptosis (which he passed on to his illegitimate son, Sir William Davenant).  I came to that theory by way of the Beoley skull and the observation, made by a research student in forensic archaeology and biological anthropology, that the left eyebrow of the skull appears "bumpier" than the right, probably because the fatty deposits of the eyebrow were missing.  They had, it would seem, slipped.  As can be seen in the Wadlow.  That's eyebrow ptosis.

The Wadlow also shows a scar, immediately above the left eyebrow, which also shows up in the same place on the skull.

Now, either all of these portraits are actually of females, or the skull isn't necessarily female at all.  That, or portrait artists didn't understand eyebrows when the above portraits were made.  So let's look at this another way.


The above diagram comes from An Anthropological Study of some Portraits of Shakespeare and of Burns by Professor Arthur Keith, Conservator of the Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons, who gave his paper on this subject on 20 February 1914.  The outside line of the diagram shows the profile of the Shakespeare effigy in the funerary monument in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon.  The inner image is a drawing of a Bronze Age skull (enlarged 10%).

Look at the outline of the profile of the Shakespeare effigy.  No noticeable eyebrow bulge, is there?  This effigy was looking down on the programme makers when William Shakespeare's grave was being scanned - and yet no one looked up and noticed that the effigy has no significant bulges where the eyebrows sit:


Must be female, then.

Tell you what - just one more (though there are many I could choose from).  Look for the eyebrow bulges:


Now, what's interesting about this one is that we do see, quite clearly, certain features that also visible on the skull - the scar over the left eyebrow, the discoloured and depressed region over the right eyebrow, the damage to the lower edges of the eye sockets, and the loss of fatty deposits about halfway across the left eyebrow, which I described above in connection with the eyebrow ptosis.  What we don't really see is any major eyebrow bulges.  Some fatty deposits, yes, because we can also see where they're missing, but bulges in the bone?  Not many.

And this is where things get a little weird, because the image above is a detail from a 3-D computer reconstruction of the face of the Darmstadt death mask of Shakespeare.  It was made by ... Dr Caroline Wilkinson.

Who apparently had no idea that Shakespeare's eyebrows were remarkably and noticeably not very bulgy.  Even though she had been looking at his portraits and had previously done a facial reconstruction from his death mask.

But then, maybe she did realise that.  And the programme makers didn't want her to mention it.  Maybe careful editing made sure no one got to hear that the skull displays the same characteristics as the Shakespeare portraiture. 

Because let's be clear: in no way was Channel Four's Shakespeare's Tomb the serious scientific investigation it made itself out to be.  That would have left certain people with egg on their faces.

It would also have let the viewers know what they deserved to know.  That the Beoley skull probably isn't an "unknown woman in her seventies" and probably is what Rev C.J. Langston said it was - the "veritable skull of William Shakespeare."





Monday, 28 March 2016

Confirmation Bias

It's a fair point.

A journalist has put it to me that "it was not in the interests of [the Channel 4/Arrow Media] documentary makers to debunk the Beoley skull.  It would have been a much better story for them if they had found a skull that could be Shakespeare's."

I wholeheartedly agree.  It would have been a much better programme if proper consideration had been given to the Beoley skull.

Here's why I think that didn't happen.

Stage 1: Cognitive Dissonance

We all have our own sets of prejudices and firmly held ideas about the world, based on what we've been taught and told, our cultural background, political and religious beliefs, and so on.  When someone comes along with evidence that challenges one or other of those firmly held ideas, some if not all of us can react pretty strongly, as if we were under physical attack.  The fight-or-flight instinct kicks in.  The person goes into a state of denial.  They cannot accept this new evidence because it clashes with what they already believe, and to engage with it might throw their entire world-view into crisis.

Example: when I met with the documentary director, she surprised me somewhat by saying, "You don't believe the skull is Shakespeare's."  I told her that I was uncomfortable with the concept of belief, in these circumstances, but that I was roundabout 98.9% convinced that it is.

Why did she assume that I didn't believe that the skull might be Shakespeare's?  Hadn't she been briefed on who I was, what I'd written and published, how I'd been involved in the process so far?

When I showed her some of the evidence, including the graphic illustrations in my Who Killed William Shakespeare? book highlighting the specific comparisons between the Beoley skull and the Shakespeare portraiture, she said "I can't see it."

Small wonder, then, that having told me they'd want to film me going down into the vault ("How do you think you'll feel, seeing the skull for the first time?") and giving a potted account of Langston's story, they later decided to dispense with my services and film somebody else going down into the vault and describing Langston's story ... someone who doesn't think that the skull is Shakespeare's.

Because as far as the director was concerned, the skull couldn't be Shakespeare's.  The idea was too radical.  It challenged her firmly-held set of beliefs about life, the universe and everything.

Stage 2: Confirmation Bias

Having decided that the Beoley skull couldn't be - mustn't be - Shakespeare's, the documentary was prepped along those very lines.

Let's say you've heard or read something which challenges your deeply-held convictions, triggering cognitive dissonance.  You want to fight back, to reassure yourself, to put your previous ideas back together and be comfortable with them again.  So you go hunting for evidence.

Not any old evidence, of course.  You look for the evidence that supports your point-of-view.  Any other evidence, especially anything that confirms the thing you didn't like hearing, has to be ignored, denied, mocked or destroyed.  What you want - what you need to overcome that uncomfortable feeling of cognitive dissonance - is anything that agrees with what you want to believe.

Anything else has to go.

So, in comes the reassuring Shakespeare expert who told the church court hearing into the application to remove the skull for analysis that the Rev C.J. Langston's account of How Shakespeare's Skull was Stolen and Found was nothing but "Gothic fiction".

Out goes the guy who provided you with evidence that the story was written by someone who knew what he was on about.

The original plan, to have an actor present the programme, is ditched.  An actor might ask awkward questions.  Instead, a historian is hired - one less likely to challenge the consensus - so as to give the show an air of irreproachable authority.

A facial reconstruction expert who had previously commented on the photos of the skull - and then denied ever having seen them - is approached with a laser scan of the Beoley skull.  Though she is briefly glimpsed superimposing the scan of the skull over the Droeshout engraving of Shakespeare from the First Folio of 1623, this will not be discussed or commented upon in the show.

(Before the crypt was opened and the scan was made, and before Dr Caroline Wilkinson had seen it, the director tried to convince me that Beoley and the skull would not form a significant part of the programme, that they weren't expecting any results, and when - shock horror! - I mentioned Dr Wilkinson, that she wouldn't be doing any facial reconstruction or anything else with the skull, for that matter.  Would I mind signing a form and promising not to mention her name?)

The expert offers a tentative opinion based on insufficient evidence, and that is pounced on.  PROOF, ladies and gentlemen!  The proof we've all been waiting for!  Everything we previously believed was true!  The Beoley skull story was just a myth!

(Except that, having scanned Shakespeare's grave in Stratford, Kevin Colls, archaeologist, began to suspect that the first half of Langston's story might, in fact, be true.  He has vowed to keep looking for the missing skull.  And good luck to him.  He could spend the rest of his life doing that, now that the Beoley skull business has been kicked into the long grass.  So, nothing to worry our pretty little heads about there, then.)

I have very little doubt that, within a week or two of the director being appointed to oversee the making of the documentary, any hope that the skull would be properly examined had gone right out of the window.  From that point on, the programme was essentially biased in one particular direction.  The Beoley skull theory must be disproved, even if it means surrounding ourselves with people who don't believe it, discarding all the available evidence and any uncontrollable witnesses, asking one expert for their opinion, and then misrepresenting what that expert actually said.

Of course, it would have made a better programme if the skull had not been so summarily debunked, and on the basis of hardly any evidence whatsoever.

It would have made a much better programme.  And it would have paved the way for a more intensive and detailed examination of the skull.

But that wouldn't have helped get rid of that nasty sense of cognitive dissonance, would it?  So it didn't happen.

Sunday, 27 March 2016

History Repeats Itself

At the start of Who Killed William Shakespeare? (the contract for which I signed four years ago today) I tried to explain how, in the second half of the 18th century, a metropolitan elite - or what we might now call "The Establishment" - seized control of Shakespeare's memory, rudely dismissing what the locals knew and creating their own version of events.

Significantly, they achieved this partly by losing as much evidence as possible and ignoring or misrepresenting the rest.

Well, old habits die hard, and the net result of last night's Channel 4 documentary seems to have been as damaging, hopeless and borderline-farcical as David Garrick's infamous Shakespeare "Jubilee" of 1769.  Back then, hordes of educated sophisticates descended on Stratford-upon-Avon, much to the alarm and consternation of the natives, who were abused and mocked by the visitors.  Then Garrick went home and produced his own show, which made out that only he and his supporters really knew or cared about Shakespeare, and the locals up in Warwickshire were rustic clowns with no idea about Stratford's most famous son.

Shakespeare's Tomb spent an awful lot of its time showing us pretty pictures of Stratford.  For some reason, a man who had conspired to try to prevent the documentary team from investigating the Beoley skull was given a prominent part in the programme as the authority on all things Shakespearean.

The programme stuck to the party line about the story published by the Rev C.J. Langston in 1879 and 1884 concerning the theft of Shakespeare's skull and its discovery at Beoley.  Even though the programme makers had been given abundant evidence that the Vicar of Beoley had identified himself as the author of the story, and that a surprising number of details in the story are verifiable, that was all ignored.

The skull at Beoley was scanned and then Dr Helen Castor and Kevin Colls sat with Dr Caroline Wilkinson, who showed them the scan on her screen.  The conversation went something like this:

Wilkinson: "This little bit here suggests that it might be dark greyish."

Castor: "So you're saying it's black?"

Wilkinson: "Well, we have to be cautious ..."

Castor: "No - you're saying it's black!"

Cue press release: "Skull is black."

I've altered the wording slightly.  But when an osteoarchaeologist/biological anthropologist tweets: "I'm intrigued #ShakespearesTomb - how did you come to the conclusion it was a 70yr old woman?! Magic new ageing techniques?!" you do have to ask how conclusive the results really were.

And the answer appears to be, not conclusive at all.  But right there, on screen, the expert was cornered and forced to make a definitive statement which, as she had tried to point out, couldn't really be made.  This instantly became a Truth Universally Acknowledged.

Of course, if the programme-makers had bothered to explore the existing research into the similarities between the skull and the Shakespeare portraiture, as well as Rev C.J. Langston and his skull story, we'd have got something more nuanced.  But they didn't want that.  They didn't even want any suggestions from the one and only witness called.  They wanted an Unequivocal Statement indicating that the skull is of no interest whatsoever, so we can all move on.

In the meantime, the folks at Beoley seem to be up in arms over the way they've been treated (see comment under previous blog post).  A geologist informs me that anyone who started a university paper claiming that Shakespeare's skull was stolen from the grave, based on the evidence shown in the programme, would be in very big trouble.  And now I hear from somebody else who helped out with the documentary, but who went unpaid and uncredited.

So what happened - apart from two years wasted (in my case)?

The best I can suggest is that, for a good long while, as the documentary project was being developed, it was all in the hands of an intelligent and amicable person who worked hard to bring all the relevant parties together and to lay the foundations for a genuinely interesting, and potentially startling, investigative programme.

Then a director was hired, along with a couple of producers.  The development producer stepped aside.  From that point on, things quickly began to unravel.

It was as if the "metropolitan elite" had come to town, determined to put the locals back in their place.  Yes, use them for as long as they're useful.  Then dump them.  They're not important.  Their local knowledge and their research are irrelevant.  They might as well be on zero-hours contracts.  We don't need to worry about them.

But the POSH people, the ones who've been on TV before, THEY'RE important.  Better still, they can (by and large) be trusted not to stray from the script.

Remember, we're not here to rock any boats, folks.  Langston's story is anonymous - got it?  The skull at Beoley?  Pah!  Who cares?  Skull, no skull, what's the difference?  Let's have some nice shots of Stratford, talk to some nice people, then back to London as quick as we can.

And if an expert isn't being quite as emphatic as we'd like in denying a very promising lead, we can force her - Inquisition-like - to say what we want her to say, and we can do it on camera, just in case anybody else feels like being properly scientific about all this.  No one will notice.  The press release will already have told everybody what we want them to think.  Now, where's my BAFTA?

It's shocking to realise how much hard work and good will was completely and utterly trashed in such a short space of time, by people who were new to the project, and what an unashamedly wasted opportunity the programme turned out to be.  Our knowledge of Shakespeare and the fate of his skull wasn't advanced one iota.  If anything, we've gone backwards.  And the programme-makers are surely patting themselves on the back for stirring up much ado about nothing and making a very pretty looking documentary that avoided upsetting their sophisticated metropolitan friends.

Meanwhile, the rest of us continue the ongoing work of trying to find out and publicise what really happened to Shakespeare and his skull.

By the way - that subsidence in the chancel at Holy Trinity Church, under Shakespeare's gravestone?  That's Will Shakespeare turning in his grave.






Thursday, 24 March 2016

I've Seen That Face Before

It is with great anticipation that we await the screening of the Channel 4 documentary Shakespeare's Tomb on Saturday evening.  Apparently, said documentary has determined that the Beoley skull is that of an "unknown woman in her seventies" and not William Shakespeare after all.

Obviously, it would be wrong of me to prejudge the documentary without having seen it.  And, for now, we can pass over the multiple similarities between the Beoley skull and the Shakespeare portraiture, which I have published and blogged about ad nauseam.

Instead, allow me to outline one area of concern I have regarding the identification of the skull.

Back in 2012, I was working on the manuscript for my book Who Killed William Shakespeare? in which there was a fair amount of discussion and analysis concerning Shakespeare portraiture, the Beoley skull and the supposed death mask of Shakespeare in Darmstadt.  As well as spending a lot of time studying these images, I also went through the prolonged and costly process of acquiring permissions to reproduce some of those images in my book.

One image I had seen which intrigued me was a computer reconstruction of the face of the subject of the Darmstadt death mask.  This reconstruction had been carried out by Dr Caroline Wilkinson of the Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification at the University of Dundee.  Dr Wilkinson is the media's go-to person for facial reconstruction from human remains.

I wrote to Dr Wilkinson on 20 August 2012, explaining that I was working on my book about Shakespeare and enquiring about the copyright status of the image she had previously created for a History Channel documentary - the reconstruction of the face from the death mask.  In my letter I mentioned the photographs of the Beoley skull, which I had been studying, and offered to forward them to her.  I also explained that I aimed to follow up the publication of my book with a documentary analysing the skull, the death mask and the portraiture, and rather hoped to be able to call upon her services for any such documentary.

I received no reply.

Who Killed William Shakespeare? was published about a year later.  I had succeeded in negotiating the rights to the death mask reconstruction image through an agency - which made it the most expensive image in my book, by far.  Very quickly, Lion Television, a documentary production company, expressed interest in following up the results of my research into the skull.  However, they would need a little more hard evidence before approaching a broadcaster (the rule of thumb being that documentaries don't tend to film these things until they're pretty sure of what they're going to find).

The producer at Lion TV contacted Dr Wilkinson to ask if it were possible for a 3-D reconstruction of the Beoley skull to be made using 2-D photographic images, and if that could then be compared with the 3-D laser scan image she already had of the Darmstadt death mask.  Dr Wilkinson confirmed that this was theoretically possible, and so she was invited to go ahead with the comparisons and Richard Peach's high-quality photos of the Beoley skull were sent up to Dundee.

We had a bit of a wait after that.  The initial findings were positive - Caroline Wilkinson concluded that there were "superficial similarities" between the skull and the death mask.  However, when she and/or her research students measured the orbits of the eye sockets of the death mask and the skull, they determined that there was no obvious match.

A bit of a blow, that, because it meant that the project with Lion TV ground to a halt.  However, I soon made contact, through a research student in biological anthropology, with a research fellow who showed immediate interest in the skull and the comparisons with the Shakespeare portraiture.

At the same time, I discovered that documentary makers from Arrow Media had very recently visited Beoley church in connection with a documentary on Shakespeare that they were developing.  This is the documentary which is due out this Saturday.

I worked fairly closely with Arrow Media over a period of about a year and a half, although bizarrely I was not invited to present evidence at the church court held to determine whether or not the Beoley skull should be "exhumed" for laboratory analysis - although I had been called in to help them prepare for the hearing.  The programme makers subsequently told me that Dr Caroline Wilkinson would be brought in to carry out a facial reconstruction of the skull based on a laser scan which would be made in the vault at Beoley.

When the development producer for the programme explained that they would want to bring in experts who had no previous connection with the material, and no way of knowing that we were investigating the possibility that the skull was Shakespeare's, to examine the relevant evidence, I felt it necessary to point out that Dr Wilkinson had already seen the photos of the skull in 2013-14, and would recognise them as part of a Shakespeare-related investigation.  The producer thanked me for letting them know and suggested that they might look instead for an expert in the United States who would be in no way prejudiced about the case.

A short while later, the producer assured me that Caroline Wilkinson had not seen the photos.  She had denied all knowledge of them.

Which struck me as odd.  It meant that, either her earlier statement regarding the skull/death mask mismatch was questionable, because she hadn't actually seen the photos of the skull ... or that she was not being entirely frank with the Arrow Media documentary team.

There's a coda to all this: when I finally discovered that I was no longer to play a part in the Shakespeare's Tomb documentary, the recently-appointed director tried to assure me that Beoley and the skull would not be playing a large part in the documentary, that they weren't spending much time on it, and they didn't expect to be able to reveal any results about it.  I raised the question of what Dr Caroline Wilkinson would be doing then, given that it's a long way to travel, all the way to Dundee (correction: Dr Wilkinson is now at Liverpool John Moores University), just to feature a facial reconstruction expert not doing any facial reconstruction.

The line went rather quiet, and then a bit of stammering happened.  Caroline Wilkinson, I was told, wasn't really going to be doing very much at all in the documentary.  Certainly nothing in the nature of a facial reconstruction.

And then the director rang back.  If I wanted to pop over to Beoley, go down into the vault and see the skull (for the first time) during a break in the filming, I would have to sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement.  Was I prepared to do that?  And if I did, of course, I would not be allowed to mention Caroline Wilkinson to anybody (those were the director's words).

In the end, I did not sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement.  I felt that I had been elbowed out of my own story, after I had spent many hours helping the documentary along, and was now being bribed into silence with the offer of a chance to see the skull - the skull which I had spent more than four years studying.

I raise these matters here because I believe they are germane to the issue of the skull and the (provisional?) identification of the skull as that of an "unknown woman in her seventies".  Presumably, that is based on the opinion of an expert who had already seen and passed judgement on the photos of the skull, and whom I was asked not to talk about.

No other evidence was considered - including the rather extensive body of evidence which I have marshalled over the past four years, and which I have published and talked about in illustrated lectures.

Is it just me, or does something seem not-quite-right about all this?

(PS: viewers of the programme would have seen Dr Wilkinson offer opinions about possible age and gender of skull, only to have those magically transformed ON SCREEN into incontrovertible statements of fact by a historian.  That's not how science works - or history, for that matter.  Worse, a genuine investigation with abundant research already on its side has now been set back by an irresponsible and woefully inaccurate documentary, though hopefully not irremediably.  Ed.)




Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Shakespeare's Tomb

Well, the wait is nearly over.  Channel 4 TV started showing a trailer, this evening, for the forthcoming documentary, Shakespeare's Tomb.  You can view the trailer here.

So a tense few days lie ahead.  What do we know?  Well, judging by the trailer, the team from Arrow Media and the University of Staffordshire spent quite a bit of time in the vault beneath the Sheldon Chapel at Beoley, and then working with Caroline Wilkinson (University of Dundee) on some sort of analysis of the laser scan that was made of the skull when the team were in the vault.

(Incidentally, the documentary producer tried to convince me that they really weren't devoting much time or attention to the Beoley skull, and I was asked to sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement to stop me mentioning that Caroline Wilkinson was involved in the programme.)

Elsewhere, the Telegraph recently revealed that Shakespeare's grave is to be subjected to a high-tech laser scan - apparently, a follow-up to the scan performed last year, the results of which will be revealed in the Channel 4 documentary (one instantly wonders what the "initial" scan failed to reveal).  So something's afoot.

Anyway, the Shakespeare's Tomb documentary will be aired in the UK this Saturday - 26 March 2016 - at 8.00pm.  Regular readers of this blog will recognise the skull in the vault at Beoley, and will probably have some idea of the background to the documentary.  More background to the story is currently being researched - and some interesting things have already been found. 

But for those who don't know much about the background, and why the only researcher ever to have studied the skull and published his findings was excluded from the Channel 4 documentary, allow me to include this link to an interview I did with Julia Robb in Texas, which lifts the lid on some rather shifty behaviour.

Watch this space ...

(PS: just in case link to the trailer does not work, here's another one.)

Monday, 14 March 2016

Historical Honey is Back!

Those wonderful honeys have relaunched their Historical Honey website. 

First up, a piece by yours truly, flagging up a rather interesting development concerning a certain disarticulated human skull, an archaeologist from the University of Staffordshire, and a forthcoming Channel 4 documentary.

Read all about it here.

Thursday, 25 February 2016

Research or Resistance? My History Press Blog Piece

Well, it's been an interesting couple of weeks, with a lot more excitement to come.

For now, allow me to post a link to a piece I wrote for the History Press blog, entitled: "Why is Shakespeare's real life (and his death) so undebatable?"

It kind of looks at some of my experiences while researching various aspects of Shakespeare's life (and death) and wonders why so many historians haven't done that research.

Happy reading!

Thursday, 18 February 2016

Two Wills, Two Brows

It all kicked off in The Times on Monday, with a piece entitled "Lowbrow clue that poet was Shakespeare's secret son".  Not entirely a surprise: Dominic Kennedy, Investigations Editor, had already been in touch with me, and rather charmingly said, "I really enjoyed this book [Shakespeare's Bastard: The Life of Sir William Davenant] and congratulate you on your research."

And then, the story went everywhere.  And, predictably, the backlash started straightaway.

Out of a book of some 95,000 words, Dominic Kennedy had zeroed in on two key issues.  One is Shakespeare's Sonnet 126, "O Thou my lovely Boy", which I suggest might have been written to the infant William Davenant, Shakespeare's "godson" and, in all probability, his actual son.

The other is the matter of the drooping eyebrow.  Both Sir William Davenant and William Shakespeare appear to have had left eyebrows which drooped.  As this condition, known as ptosis, can be inherited, I had included the information in Shakespeare's Bastard, albeit in all of about three sentences.

If I was a little taken aback that the eyebrow comparisons should have attracted so much attention, I have been even more surprised that a largely unknown portrait, said to be of Davenant as a young man, should have been given so much exposure.  The portrait (above, photographed by Keith Barnes) hangs in the Fellows' Common Room at Davenant's old Oxford college, Lincoln, and was all but forgotten.  The only accepted image of Davenant was the engraving by William Faithorne, based on a lost portrait, which adorned the title page of Davenant's Works, published in 1673:


Frankly, I prefer the Lincoln College portrait, even if the provenance is uncertain.  But it's worth returning to the Faithorne engraving because, as it focuses on the left side of Davenant's face, the misshapen left eyebrow is more clearly visible than it is in the portrait:


Okay, so let's go back to Shakespeare.  The subject of Shakespeare's left eye had much preoccupied me while writing Who Killed William Shakespeare? (The History Press, 2013).  One thing that is clear from such portraits as the Chandos (National Portrait Gallery) and the Droeshout engraving from the First Folio is that there was something wrong with the outside corner of Shakespeare's left eye socket:

(* An x-ray of the Chandos portrait, reproduced at the bottom of this piece, illustrates the peculiarity of the left eye, the shading indicating some sort of abnormality in the left eyebrow.)

Close inspection of those images, and comparison with the Beoley skull - which will soon hit the world's media, by way of a Channel 4 documentary - suggested that the extreme corner of Shakespeare's left eye socket was damaged, probably very shortly before his death.  However, that does not necessarily explain the oddity of Shakespeare's left eye as it appears in many portraits.

In several portraits thought to be of Shakespeare, the artists appear to have struggled with the left eye, making it look lower than the right eye, as if the shape of the eyebrow demanded an adjustment to the placing of the left eye - as below, in the Grafton, Janssen, and Coblitz portraits:

If these portraits appear to "drop" the left eye, in order to accommodate the deformed left eyebrow, the Soest portrait takes a different approach, squashing the left eye somewhat:


Two portraits which arguably do a better job of representing the swollen "droop" or overhang of Shakespeare's left eyebrow are the Cobbe and the Wadlow:


The fold of the overhanging left eyebrow is surely unmistakable in these images, the first trumpeted by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust as Shakespeare, the second identified by yours truly as a portrait of Shakespeare in my paper for Goldsmiths, The Faces of Shakespeare.

The question of what was going on with Shakespeare's left eyebrow was first raised for me by a research student in biological anthropology.  Perusing the images I had of the Beoley skull and assorted Shakespeare busts and portraits, including the Darmstadt death mask, the student noticed something:

... if you look at both temples on the skull, you may notice that the left temple is more "bumpy" than the right.  This happens in areas where the bone needs to hold on to the soft tissue more than it normally would.  If there was scar tissue in that area, that would explain why the temple bone is "bumpy" on the left and not the right.  The scar tissue need not be on the skin, it could be in the muscle or facia (the stuff that holds the muscle on to the bone ...)  Scar tissue often makes a depressed area in the skin so that would explain the depression behind the left eye in the portraiture.  There are also a few ways this can occur developmentally with essentially the same results.


"And interestingly," she added, "the Davenant Bust has fatty deposits (we all have them) across all of his right eyebrow, only half of his left (near facial midline).  If this is true, it would fit.  Fatty tissue often doesn't grow in regions where there is scar tissue."


Evidently, seen through the eyes of a biological anthropologist, the "bumpy" texture of the bone above the left eye of the Beoley skull (above, from a photo by Richard Peach, 2009) corresponds with the imbalance of the fatty tissue of the eyebrows, visible on the Davenant Bust of Shakespeare (Garrick Club).  A significant amount of the fatty tissue above Shakespeare's left eye was, apparently, missing, causing the bone to become "bumpy" as it sought to hold on to the skin.

The clue seemed to be the presence of a scar, clearly visible in a photo of the Beoley skull taken in about 1939, and also on the portraiture (the Wadlow replicates this scar exactly):
So, it appeared at first that a scar above Shakespeare's left eyebrow might have displaced the fatty tissue, causing the bone to become "bumpy" and the eyebrow to "droop" (it might have been this scar that the poet Ted Hughes had in mind when he wrote in a letter to Nicholas Hagger, "But what do you think of the deep scar on Shake's left temple (in the Chandos, & on the [death] mask)." - I'm grateful to Deivis Garcia of Jersey City for pointing that out to me).  Obviously, this scar had been a long-term feature of Shakespeare's appearance, because the bone of the skull had adapted to the lack of fatty tissue, and was therefore unrelated to the manner of his death.

The problem came when I was analysing the Davenant portraits.  The Rector of Lincoln College, Oxford - who, along with the Fellows, was kind enough to give me permission to reproduce the portrait in Shakespeare's Bastard - was unconvinced that the portrait at Lincoln was of Davenant.  Comparing the portrait with the Faithorne engraving (the latter post-dating the syphilis which ravaged Davenant's nose), I became fairly convinced that the chin, lips and cheekbones offered a pretty good match:



But what to make of that slightly odd fold over the left eye in the Faithorne engraving?  Although the left eye is less visible in the Lincoln College portrait, the left eyebrow does seem to descend at a rather steep angle, apparently matching the swollen or drooping left eyebrow seen in the engraving.

If Shakespeare's eyebrow was made to droop by a wound, the scar from which caused the fatty deposits of the eyebrow to slip, then that feature could not have been inherited.  Whereas, if the drooping left eyebrow was caused by something else - one of the other ways that the loss or displacement of the fatty tissue could occur developmentally - then perhaps it was an inherited feature.

Such a drooping of the eyebrow as can be seen in the Davenant and Shakespeare portraiture is known as "ptosis".  It can be an autosomal dominant inheritance, meaning that a single copy of the relevant gene is enough to cause the defect.  Even if the mother had no such mutation, the fact that the father had it would mean that it was passed on to the child.

Hence my remark, in Shakespeare's Bastard, concerning the line in Ben Jonson's 1623 poem to Shakespeare in the First Folio: "Looke how the fathers face / Lives in his issue ..."  When Ben Jonson wrote those words, William Davenant was already settled in London and working for the sister-in-law of Ben Jonson's patron. 

Might not Davenant's drooping left eyebrow have produced in Ben Jonson a shock of recognition, that the father's face had lived on in his issue - given that Ben would have been familiar with the unusual shape of Shakespeare's left eyebrow caused, it would seem, by congenital ptosis?

(* X-ray of the Chandos portrait:)












Thursday, 28 January 2016

Breaking my Silence

Hi, folks!

Julia Robb is a Texas-based writer.  I've known her - online - for a while now, and have reviewed a couple of her books, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

She's passionate about Shakespeare and has been very interested in developments since Who Killed William Shakespeare? was published in 2013.

Now she's interviewed me for her website/blog about Shakespeare, the Beoley skull, and the forthcoming Channel 4 documentary which will feature the skull.  It's a pretty free and frank, no-holds-barred interview, and you can read it here:

Skull-Duggery - Julia Robb interview with Simon Stirling

So I'm no longer biting my tongue, and the truth is out there.

Meanwhile, my very first copy of Shakespeare's Bastard: The Life of Sir William Davenant is on its way to me from The History Press.

All in all, it's going to be an interesting time ...

Monday, 18 January 2016

2016: Year of the Skull and the Bastard

Belated New Year greetings!

You know, I've a feeling that it's going to be quite a year.  Come April, we'll be hearing a lot about Shakespeare, it being the 400th anniversary of his death.

Before then, my latest book - Shakespeare's Bastard: The Life of Sir William Davenant - will be published by The History Press.  And we can also look forward to a documentary, to be broadcast on Channel 4 here in the UK, which will show the very skull, hidden in a crypt under St Leonard's Church, Beoley, which might well be Shakespeare's (long time followers of this blog will know something about this skull already, as will anyone who's read Who Killed William Shakespeare?).  So there's a lot to look forward to in just the first four months of this year.

In anticipation of which, I take great pleasure in linking the reader to a fascinating and colourful infographic on the subject of "Shakespeare in Pop Culture".  This was sent to me, a little while ago now, by Roslyn Willson, and it is with great thanks to Roslyn that I include the link here.

Enjoy!