The most famous playwright of all time, William Shakespeare (26 April 1564-23 April 1616), is widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language. His works consist of some 39 plays and 154 sonnets, as well as long narrative poems and other verses. His work has been translated into every living language, and is performed more than any other playwright.
However, while ‘the Bard’ is known for the life he led, the circumstances of his death and the tomb where his body lies remain shrouded in mystery. A dramatist through and through, Shakespeare had his grave at the Church of the Holy Trinity in Stratford-Upon-Avon topped with a damning curse, warning “cursed be he that moves my bones”.
So what is the curse upon Shakespeare’s tomb, and more to the point, has it been respected?
It is unclear why Shakespeare died
Contrary to popular belief, Shakespeare probably didn’t die on his birthday: instead, historians think he died on 23 April 1616, aged 52. He died within a month of signing his will, in which he describes himself as being in ‘perfect health’, and no sources remain which indicate why he died.
The vicar of Stratford provides the only clue, writing in his notebook that “Shakespeare, Drayton, and Ben Jonson had a merry meeting and, it seems, drank too hard, for Shakespeare died of a fever there contracted”.
Of his death, a fellow author wrote, “we wondered, Shakespeare, that thou went’st so soon / From the world’s stage to the grave’s tiring room.” Shakespeare was buried two days after his death in the chancel of the Holy Trinity Church, Stratford.
Shakespeare himself likely wrote the curse
The curse upon Shakespeare’s grave reads:
“Good friend for Jesus sake forbeare, To dig the dust enclosed here.
Blessed be the man that spares these stones, And cursed be he that moves my bones.”
It’s thought that he wrote it himself. His concerns about having his grave disturbed weren’t misplaced: at the time of his death, it was common for bodies to be exhumed for research purposes or to make more space for other burials. Until recently, it appeared that the warning had worked: builders conducting repairs in 2008 didn’t move the stones so as to respect the inscription.
There are other strange features about his grave
Shakespeare’s grave is peculiar for other reasons, too. Firstly, there is no name. Of the family members buried next to Shakespeare, his is the only ledger stone that doesn’t have a name inscribed upon it. However, sometime before 1623, a funerary monument featuring a half-effigy of Shakespeare in the act of writing was erected on the nearby north wall to commemorate him.
Moreover, the grave is short, at less than a metre in length, which is shorter than his wife Anne Hathaway’s grave. Finally, Shakespeare wasn’t buried in a coffin. Instead, the family members were buried in winding sheets or similar.
It was discovered that his skull is missing
For four centuries after his death, Shakespeare’s grave sat undisturbed. The church had never allowed an excavation of the grave, despite many appeals from researchers, since they wanted to honour the Bard’s wishes. However, in 2016, on the 400th anniversary of his death, a scan – which didn’t physically interfere with the grave – was conducted.
The findings were stark: the grave appeared to have been tampered with, and Shakespeare’s skull was missing.
A 19th-century story might reveal what happened to it
Puzzled researchers then turned to a rather elaborate tale published in an 1879 edition of Argosy Magazine. The story goes that in 1794, an individual called Frank Chambers, along with a group of grave robbers, stole Shakespeare’s skull for a collector for the price of 300 guineas.
Though the story had originally been dismissed as nonsense, when comparing the details with the condition of Shakespeare’s grave, researchers now think it possible that it is an accurate or at least semi-truthful account. A follow-up story then suggested that Chambers panicked and hid the skull in St. Leonard’s Church in Beoley. Excited researchers then examined the so-called ‘Beoley skull’, but it was thought to belong to a 70-year-old woman.
The hunt for Shakespeare’s skull may never yield any results. Similarly, whether a terrible punishment will befall those who dare to disturb the Bard in the afterlife remains to be – or not to be – seen.