Exclusive! Shakespeare & The Dragonfly

It’s not every day that an undiscovered portrait of William Shakespeare is brought to your attention.  But having spent many an hour scrutinising images of Shakespeare for my book, Who Killed William Shakespeare? (The History Press, 2013) I was very excited to be contacted about a painting which might be an authentic portrait of the Bard.

shakespeareThe iconic painting of the Bard, William Shakespeare.

Source: npr.org

As with so much else involving William Shakespeare, what he actually looked like is a contentious subject.  Many commentators assume that there must have been a portrait of Shakespeare, painted during his lifetime, which formed the model for subsequent images.

I’m not convinced that any such portrait exists – not least of all because, if there was a genuine portrait of the living Shakespeare we might expect the subsequent images to present a uniform likeness.  When we line up a selection of the more familiar Shakespeare portraits, however, we find something rather odd.

The portraits don’t look alike.  That said, though, when we get in close and study certain distinctive features we find a remarkable degree of correspondence.

The “Wadlow” portrait – as we might call it – proves this point.  At first glance, it does not seem terribly similar to such images of Shakespeare as the Droeshout engraving from the First Folio (1623), the effigy which forms part of Shakespeare’s funerary monument in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon, the “Chandos” portrait (National Portrait Gallery) or the “Cobbe” portrait, which was identified as Shakespeare as recently as 2009.

Wadlow Jan 2014 001_edited (1)The Wadlow Portrait

Source: Image courtesy of Simon Stirling

But when we look a little more closely, we find those distinctive features which make it very likely that the “Wadlow” portrait is indeed of William Shakespeare.

The wall-eye is one giveaway.  As are the various dents and depressions in the forehead – especially, an oval-shaped depression very near the top of the frontal bone, along with hints of a raised, wavy line running up the forehead from the left side of the skull, which appears to suggest an imperfect fusion of the skull bones around the coronal suture.

Some of these distinctive details were probably present throughout Shakespeare’s life.  Sustained study of the depressions in the forehead has made me wonder whether they were made by the midwife who gripped his head when pulling him from his mother’s womb.

Shakespeare Wadlow ChandosA merge of the Wadlow and Chandos portraits.

Source: Image courtesy of Simon Stirling

Other features probably indicate injuries which occurred later in life.  In Who Killed William Shakespeare? I investigated the story of Shakespeare’s “stolen” skull, which was rediscovered in the 19th century in a crypt beneath the church in Beoley, Worcestershire.  One expert of my acquaintance has pointed out that the left eyebrow of the skull indicates an absence of fatty tissue over half of that eyebrow, which would suggest the presence of scarring.  The “Wadlow” portrait not only shows us the drooping eyelid which we find in other Shakespeare images but even indicates a scar running immediately above the left eyebrow.

Some of the features, however, are unlikely to have predated Shakespeare’s death.  The skull and the portraits all bear clues which suggest that a sharp-pointed instrument was driven into Shakespeare’s left eye socket.

Shakespeare Wadlow CobbeA merge of the Wadlow and Cobbe portraits.

Source: Image courtesy of Simon Stirling

A plaster of Paris death mask, discovered in the 1840s and now held in Darmstadt, Germany, was identified as Shakespeare’s death mask in the 19th century.  This death mask – rather than an earlier portrait – was probably the real model for the portraits of Shakespeare; it shows that the left eye has been forced forwards in its socket, probably by the pointed weapon which pierced the eye socket.  This may be why portrait artists later portrayed Shakespeare with a lazy left eye.

One feature of the “Wadlow” portrait is of particular interest.  The subject wears a lace collar and a dark-coloured doublet which has been “pinked” to show the blood-red satin underneath.  A knotted bow protrudes through the doublet.  Everyone I know who has examined the “Wadlow” portrait has remarked that the bow resembles a dragonfly.

Wadlow dragonfly bow detail (1)The dragonfly bow.

Source: Image courtesy of Simon Stirling

We might find dragonflies rather charming, these days, but in former times they were seen as something sinister.  Colloquial names for the dragonfly reflected its elongated body-shape: it was known as the Devil’s Needle (Aiguille du Diable) in France, the Shooting Needle or Arrow (Spillebold) in Germany, and the Devil’s Darning Needle in England.  Even more alarming names for the dragonfly included “Eye-Sticker” (German, French, Norwegian, Portuguese), “Shoot Poison into the Eye” (French) and “To Cut the Face” (Italian).  A Dazzle of Dragonflies by Forrest Mitchell and James Lasswell contains an extensive list of these colloquial names, many of which harp on the insect’s supposed propensity for attacking the face.

The “dragonfly” bow poking through the slashed doublet in the “Wadlow” portrait is such an unusual feature that it seems like a deliberate attempt on the part of the artist to draw our attention.  The dragonfly motif represents nothing so much as a sharp, pointed instrument – a “bodkin” or poniard – and its presence in the midst of the blood-red slash marks of the doublet hints strongly at the violent attack which resulted in the death of William Shakespeare.

In other words, the remarkable “Wadlow” portrait – which dates from around the very time of Shakespeare’s death – not only shows us the face of the Bard in exemplary detail, but it also provides a striking clue as to how Shakespeare met his end.

He was the victim of a “Devil’s Agent”, a “Judas” who, armed with an “Eye-Sticker”, drove a “Devil’s Darning Needle” into Shakespeare’s left eye socket.

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