|The Sculptor of the Stratford Bust before the Finished Work(1857) by Henry Wallis in which Ben Jonson shows Shakespeare's death mask to the sculptor. Through the window is seen the River Avon and Holy Trinity Church.|
Shakespeare died on his fifty second birthday 26 April 1616. The exact cause and circumstances of his death are unknown, unless, that is, you accept the evidence of Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel, professor of English literature at Mainz University in Germany, who believes that a Plaster of Paris cast of a face, which at the time of her investigation was residing in a museum in Darmstadt (Germany), is, in fact, the death mask of William Shakespeare, and the key to the poet's death.
Nothing is known of the whereabouts of the mask until 1775 when a German nobleman purchased it in London. In 1842 it was auctioned as part of the nobleman's possessions, and in 1860, Ludwig Becker***, a court painter in Darmstadt, found it in a junk shop and sold it to the local municipality.
Dr. Hammerschmidt-Hummel asked the Bundeskriminalamt, the criminal investigation department of the German police, to compare the mask with the two authentic portraits of Shakespeare: the copperplate engraving of Martin Droeshout used in the First Folio of 1623, and the limestone bust in Holy Trinity Church in Stratford. After forensic examination, the scientists concluded that they found a "perfect" match, with many points of "facial feature agreement".
They also used a technique which slices in half video images of faces and then uses a computer program to analyse them, and once again good matches were found.
Dr. Hammerschmidt-Hummel also noticed a swelling above the left eye on the mask and the two portraits, and asked Walter Lerche, head of the Horst-Schmidt eye clinic in Wiesbaden, to investigate. He diagnosed Mikulicz syndrome, a potentially fatal lymphoma of the tear glands, suggesting death by eye cancer.
A report on Dr. Hammerschmidt-Hummel's findings first appeared in the internationally renowned British publication New Scientist [19 October 1995].
The authenticity of the death mask has not met with the universal approval of Shakespeare academics, among them Professor Stanley Wells, Honorary President and a Life Trustee of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford upon Avon, who said: "To my mind it might just as well be a stray drop of plaster".
Dr. Hammerschmidt-Hummel has also provoked controversy over the Flower Portrait of Shakespeare, which she claims is an authentic likeness produced during the dramatist's lifetime. This directly conflicts with an investigation carried out by the National Portrait Gallery (London) which concluded that the portrait was a fake dating back to the early 19th century. They examined the portrait using a combination of x-rays, ultraviolet, paint sampling and microphotography, and found, among other things, that paint dating from around 1814 was embedded in the portrait. Dr. Hammerschmidt-Hummel countered by claiming that the picture examined by the National Portrait Gallery was not the original but a copy. She cited 'expert' evidence of her own to prove that the 'original' portrait, which allegedly has been missing since about 1999, is genuine.
The death mask is now part of the William Ramsay Henderson Collection at the University of Edinburgh and is due to have a permanent home in the University's Anatomy Museum.
*** In 1849 Ludwig Becker took a miniature painting of a corpse crowned with a laurel wreath to the British Museum in the belief that it depicted Shakespeare. However, the miniature appeared to have been painted in 1637, which is the year that Ben Jonson died, and was therefore more likely to be him than Shakespeare, who died in 1616. Mr Becker suggested that the painting was probably a copy which had been made in 1637. When he later produced the cast which he claimed was Shakespeare's death mask it surprisingly had the date 1616 on it, which for many suggested that the date had been added to bolster its claim to authenticity.