Is this the true face of Shakespeare?

WILLIAM Shakespeare died of a rare form of cancer, according to a German academic who claims to have finally proved what the world's most famous playwright actually looked like.

Professor Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel believes she has established that two paintings of the playwright, a death mask and a bust are all authentic after having them forensically analysed to the standard required in a court of law.

And each of the four images shows Shakespeare, who was thought to have drank himself to death aged 52 in 1616, had tell-tale signs of cancerous growths around his eyes that would have killed him.

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But Prof Hammerschmidt-Hummel's findings, reported in today's issue of New Scientist magazine, have sparked a major controversy, as they fly in the face of four years of research carried out by the National Portrait Gallery. The gallery's findings will be presented in an exhibition called Searching for Shakespeare next month.

In her book The True Face of William Shakespeare, which is due to be published in April, Prof Hammerschmidt-Hummel claims to have authenticated the Davenant bust, previously believed to have been made in the 18th century, as a "true likeness" of the playwright dating back to the 17th century.

It was among nine images - five paintings, a copperplate engraving, the death mask and two busts - which were examined using forensic techniques.

Four, including the Davenant bust, the death mask and two paintings, were found to share 17 "identical" features that, Prof Hammerschmidt-Hummel says, prove they were all made of the same person: Shakespeare.

She said: "Apart from the excitement of being able to authenticate the Davenant bust as the true 3-D image of Shakespeare, forensic examination of this sculpture and the other true likenesses - the Chandos and Flower portraits and the Darmstadt death mask - show a growth on the upper left eyelid and a tumour in the nasal corner, revealing signs of the rare cancer that was the most probable cause of the poet's premature death."

Her publishers, Chaucer Press, said: "Each of the authenticated images of Shakespeare shows a growth on the upper left eyelid as well as a tumour in the nasal corner of the left eye, which was verified by Professor Walter Lerch, head of Horst-Schmidt eye clinic, as an abnormality of the tear glands which would have proved fatal: cancer."

The four images appear to show the swellings growing. In the Flower portrait they are twice as big as in the earlier Chandos portrait.

However, Professor Kate McLuskie, the director of the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon, said she was not convinced that Shakespeare died of cancer and suggested a specialist doctor would want more evidence than a picture of a lump to make an accurate diagnosis. "I would like to look at the evidence a lot more closely before I agreed or disagreed," she said.

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Prof McLuskie said comparing images ran the risk of circular logic - one fake image might be confirmed by another that was based on it. "A lot of these portraits tend to be of a generic bald guy with a beard," she said.

However, she added: "The new evidence about the Garrick bust is interesting. She's suggesting the bust is much earlier than we thought. If so, its chances of being an authentic likeness are that much better."

The National Portrait Gallery said Prof Hammerschmidt-Hummel had been in touch "on several occasions" to explain her work. However it added: "In the case of employing measurements of facial features, we do not feel that this methodology can help to confirm the identity of sitters in specific portraits."

And Dr Tarnya Cooper, the gallery's 16th-century curator, said: "Portraits are not, and can never be, forensic evidence of likeness.

Most portraits from this period do tend to look rather alike, which is to do with painting style and similarity in the presentation of sitters."