Shakespeare's Ever-Expanding Forehead, as Charted in His Portraits

The early forehead of Shakespeare in the Stratford Monument (between 1616 and1623) is unprepossessing in size and shape. It calls to mind a tradesman, and the image of the adjoined playwright does in fact suggest a prosperous butcher. It takes only a little imagination to see an apron down below this forehead instead of the vest shown, a meat cleaver in the pudgy hand rather than the upright quill, and a slab of fatty pork in place of the foolscap. Still, there is an air of studied concentration about the shallow, working-class noggin that portends great things. You go, noggin!

In the Sanders Portrait (1603?), a hairline recedes to reveal a fine, broad forehead, one that signifies depth and intelligence. This forehead of Shakespeare is rakish and witty, and possibly iconoclastic, as is evidenced by the casual dress, unkempt hairstyle, and irrepressible smirk affected by the remainder of the sitter. Here, clearly, is a portrait of the small-town and even countrified forehead beginning to grow in sophistication as it wanders about the city, alighting upon fresh delights at every turn. The forehead hasn't yet begun to swell, swagger and strut as it soon will, but it knows there's no stopping it now.

In the Chandos Portrait (c1610), we find that the Bard's pate has successfully made the transition from small town to big city. Although not yet a bulwark that dominates the entire face, it is still an impressive piece of bone. Indeed, its form isn't much altered from the time of the Sanders sitting, but its manner of life has changed radically. The Chandos forehead is both literary and stylish, and the long hair, silver earring, and not-quite-neglected beard and mustache that adorn the contiguous portions of the head underscore this. The forehead wears a knowing but dissipated look, as if it had just been invited to yet another evening of sex, drugs and bad poetry. Again accentuated by a receding hairline, this forehead might very well be that of an Elizabethan David Crosby.

A forehead physically similar to that in the Chandos Portrait appears in the Souest Portrait of 1681 (?). But this is a sober forehead that has realized the need to get on with the serious business of life without the Falstaffian flagons, lutes and wenches. In addition, the handsome lower area of the playwright's face has removed its earring, and appears pensive and perhaps sorrowful. This fine but not outlandish forehead betokens a sensitive poet who feels the weight of the world, and considers it an obligation to express his feelings.

>In the Hilliard Miniature (1588), we see a successful young forehead accustomed to the best that life has to offer. It insists on hiding beneath a fashionable and costly hat, and perhaps is not overly large, but it clearly has become a brow to reckon with, and one that is welcome in the highest society. What thoughts lurk behind it? The hand of the attached man, Shakespeare, reaches to grasp the hand of a sumptuously dressed lady, and the owner of the hand's own lacy raiment, as well as his reddish, perhaps tinted hair, show that he is every inch the gentleman. Yet for all that, the face of this dandified playwright, and perforce his forehead, betrays an incongruous aloofness and distance from the scene. The forehead is not in the moment, but is timeless, as befits the bean of the author of Lear and Hamlet.

The Droeshout , Marshall, and Flower Portraits, and also the Faithorne Engraving, all from roughly the mid-1600's, show a mature, worldly forehead accustomed to success. The forehead may be puckish and sprightly, as in the Faithorne, but in the three other renderings it is almost somber, perhaps even fatigued, although still radiantly successful. Just as significant, the forehead in all four portrayals has blossomed to an enormous size and taken on a pronounced egg-shape. Improbably imposing, it may have inspired Nabokov, three centuries later, to describe the Shakespearean sconce as a 'beehive of words.' One has the impression that the ruff worn below the forehead in these studies, that so resembles a mortarboard, is a mechanical device that the poor, brainy sonneteer needs to hold up his massy head.

As the name of Shakespeare lives on into modern times, so too does the forehead continue to grow and prosper. In David Levine's sketch in the New York Review of Books from the 1960's, the forehead, now a superstar whose portrait appears alongside those of Jagger and Lennon, has put on weight and become somewhat dissipated, but has lost none of its imposing stature. And on the covers of such recent books as writer Nick Groom and artist Piero's Introducing Shakespeare (September 1, 2001), the forehead has expanded to such an extent that it might be taken for the front end of a pale whale. Impossibly lofty and bulbous, it would indicate hydrocephaly or mutant genes in any other artist. But this forehead is Shakespeare's, and on him it looks good.

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Most of the foreheads can be seen together here: The incredible bulb by Piero is here: A recent book on Will shows his dome cropped: I think cropping this wonderful bone is a copout.