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Shakespeare’s Death Mask | Shakespeare in Scotland

By April 30, 2015 No Comments

This is part of an on-going series of regional Shakespeare coverage. This is Laura here this week with the latest in Shakespeare news from Scotland.

On Thursday 23rd of April, many people across the world celebrated Shakespeare’s 451st birthday. As most of you will know, however, the 23rd of April is also the day on which Shakespeare died, in 1616, aged 52. In recognition of this fact, I’d like to talk a little bit about Shakespeare’s death mask. The mask is currently held as part of the University of Edinburgh’s Anatomical Museum’s vast range of life and death masks, a collection which also includes masks of Julius Caesar, Sir Isaac Newton and Sir William Scott.

As the name suggests, a death mask is a mask that has been made of someone’s face either from wax or from plaster cast following their death. Death masks were popular in the nineteenth century when many people believed that the size and shape of a person’s skull could help explain their mind and behaviour in a practice known as phrenology. Whether Shakespeare’s death mask is at all genuine, however, is a matter of controversy. Although it was first discovered in London in 1775, Professor Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel of Mainz University brought the death mask into the limelight with her book The True Face of William Shakespeare, published in 2006. In her book, based on forensic evidence, she claims that the death mask matches perfectly with the facial features of other portraits and busts of Shakespeare.

Much has been written about the death mask and, if you are interested, you can find more information  here or here. Even better, the Anatomical Museum is open to the public on the last Saturday of every month (though unfortunately not in June, July or December). If you happen to be around Edinburgh at that time, you can give the museum a visit and see what you think about the mask for yourself!

You can find the website of the anatomical museum here. And you’ll find a blog post about visiting the anatomical museum here.

Laura Beattie

Author Laura Beattie

Laura is currently undertaking a PhD in Shakespeare studies at the University of Edinburgh.

More posts by Laura Beattie

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