The Future of History

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.