The Future of History

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:)

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