Digging up Shakespeare by Stanley Wells

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On Sunday, after greeting Premier Wen of China on his private visit to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, I went to the Television Centre in Birmingham to do a short broadcast on the Middle Eastern network, Aljazeera English TV.  They wanted to interview me about the report that the Institute for Human Evolution in Johannesburg is asking the Church of England authorities for permission to exhume Shakespeare’s body, or at least to use modern technology in the attempt to examine whatever remains there may be in the attempt to discover the cause of his death. They are also, it appears, revisiting the notion that he may have smoked cannabis and other drugs.

I first heard this story in 1999 when Professor Francis Thackeray, of the University of the Transvaal, was said to have analysed remains of clay pipes found in Stratford, some of which showed traces of drugs. There was of course no evidence that the pipes had belonged to Shakespeare himself. Even if they were found on the site of his home, New Place, and supposing that they could be accurately dated, they could have been used for example by members of Shakespeare’s household or by people working in the garden or visiting the house.

Thackeray bolstered his claim by quoting the phrase ‘invention in a noted weed’ (Sonnet 76), supposing that ‘weed’ could have meant a plant, whereas of course here it clearly means ‘costume’, or ‘garment’, as in our current phrase ‘widow’s weeds’. Shakespeare also uses it in this sense in The Winter’s Tale, ‘These your unusual weeds.’ ( 4.4.1).

After a flurry of publicity it all fizzled out without any action being taken. Now a fresh attempt is being made. In the broadcast I was asked to clarify my position, so let me try to do so here too.

This is not the first time someone has wanted to open the grave. Notoriously Delia Bacon tried to summon up the courage to do so in 1856, but lost her nerve after a late-night vigil. She was hoping to find evidence that Shakespeare of Stratford was not the author of the works attributed to him, a vain pursuit which has preoccupied many people since her time and which is coming into the news again because it is a theme of Roland Emmerich’s forthcoming film Anonymous, due to be released in September. Statements about the grave are often muddied by use of the term ‘tomb’. In fact what we have is a grave slab, not, as the word ‘tomb’ might imply, a stone coffin lying above the surface. Although the slab has been supposed to mark Shakespeare’s burial place since early in the seventeenth century, there is no external evidence that it does so. It lies in the chancel of the church, second left from the wall where his monument, with the well-known bust, is displayed. Immediately under the monument lies the slab which is clearly identified as that of Shakespeare’s widow, the former Anne Hathaway. Curiously the Shakespeare slab is some eighteen inches shorter than those on each side of it. All that is engraved on it is the well-known curse:


Good friend, for Jesus’ sake forbear

To dig the dust enclosèd here.

Blest be the man that spares these stones,

And curst be he that moves my bones.

There is nothing to indicate Shakespeare wrote this himself and wished it to be placed on his grave. It is probably designed to deter the sexton from moving the bones after an interval into the charnel house that adjoined the church, and may be traditional.. The nineteenth-century scholar James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps claimed to have found a similar epitaph on a baker in a manuscript of about 1630:

For Jesus Christ his sake forbear

To dig the bones under this bier.

Blessed is he who loves my dust,

But damned be he who moves this crust.

So it may have followed a traditional formula.

Exactly where Shakespeare lies buried is in doubt. The stone does not necessarily lie immediately about the coffin. When I talked to the verger about it all, he told me that there is a crypt, and that it lies underneath the nave, some distance from the slab. Presumably it includes a number of coffins.  It could be in a poor state of repair, possibly even crumbling away. Crypts were meant to be opened, at the very least for the addition of further coffins, so I see no reason why this one should not be. Whether it would be legitimate to go any further in order to examine any physical remains that may exist is a matter of personal taste. I fully respect the views of anyone who feels that this would be irreverent. On the other hand I can see several good reasons for doing so. If it would tell us what Shakespeare died of it would put an end to a lot of fruitless speculation. Pretty well all biographies recite a number of theories, including the idea that he suffered from syphilis and/or typhoid. Also it would put an end to the idea that the grave includes evidence about authorship – a completely crazy notion in my view, but one that I should like to see nailed forever. So personally I’m all for it.


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Author:Stanley Wells

Stanley Wells is Honorary President and a Life Trustee of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Emeritus Professor of Shakespeare Studies of the University of Birmingham, Honorary Emeritus Governor of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Follow Stanley on twitter @stanley_wells or visit his website
  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Annie-Martirosyan/100000005026549 Annie Martirosyan

    Once the grave is opened, there will be re-openings, exhibits, shows and
    hateful pomp! All for personal snobbery, not for Shakespeare’s sake!

    May the curse fully work on any grave-thirsty beast that dares touch his tools on the sacred grave!

  • Anonymous

    I’m not all for it, for a couple of reasons. Firstly the curse itself, which was reported as being in place only a few years after Shakespeare’s death so can be assumed to have had the approval of his family. Surely we should be sensitive to people’s final wishes where possible? None of the reasons suggested are convincing.
    If opening the grave resulted in finding no remains, there would be further requests to open graves elsewhere in the church, or to open the crypt (if it exists), which would lead to further speculation about identification. Once one university has gained permission, others would want to do the same. All would suggest their techniques were more sophisticated than the last and rather than nailing the question once and for all it would massively prolong it.
    The professor has concentrated on the spurious question of whether Shakespeare took drugs, guaranteed to get a lot of press attention. In 1999-2000 no cannabis residues were found in the pipes he analysed, and in any case there is no way the pipes could be linked to Shakespeare himself. As Professor Wells points out, and as I mentioned in my recent post on this subject at http://www.theshakespeareblog.com, the phrase “noted weed” which he takes to refer to cannabis, means nothing of the sort.
    Such shoddy research confirms that there is no real interest in uncovering anything of value about Shakespeare. By focusing on the sensational it demonstrates its real aim which is to raise the profile of the professor, his department and the university.

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