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Friday, April 17, 2015

Should We Open Shakespeare's Grave?


Should Shakespeare’s grave be opened?

Should we open it for the first time in history, and examine his remains?

Is there any good reason to open it?


Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon


In the days since King Richard III’s re-interring at Leicester Cathedral, there is a renewed request to open Shakespeare’s grave inside Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon.

There is one particular academic who has been calling for this investigation for many years.

Professor Francis Thackeray is an anthropologist and director of the Institute for Human Evolution at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, and he would like to find out how Shakespeare lived and died, what he ate and drank, and if he smoked cannabis.

Did Shakespeare smoke weed? It is possible.

In the last few years, Thackeray has made some rather interesting discoveries about clay pipes which were dug up in the garden of Shakespeare’s house, New Place, that would suggest that the Elizabethans were experimenting with substances like cannabis and coca leaf (cocaine), to achieve health benefits.


Shakespeare's grave


As far as Thackeray’s desire to open the grave, he says “Given the extraordinary success of the study of the skeleton of Richard III, we recognise the potential of undertaking forensic analyses of the Bard.”

He says that the inspection could be done with great care: “We could … do high-resolution non-destructive laser surface scanning for forensic analyses, without moving a single bone.”

He goes on to say “Perhaps we may, one day, be granted the opportunity to study an extremely small sample of tooth enamel or dentine which could be analysed for DNA. Techniques for doing this have been developed, using extremely small samples.”

In a related and older interview, he also says that he would make a reconstruction of the body from the laser scan.

Also, Thackeray would like to examine the remains of Shakespeare’s wife, Anne, and his sister, who are also buried at Holy Trinity.

Perhaps the greatest mystery that such an examination could solve is Shakespeare’s cause of death, which is unknown.

Thackeray says his examination could result in a better understanding of Shakespeare’s health: “Growth increments in the teeth will reveal if he went through periods of stress or illness -- a plague for example, which killed many people in the 1600s.”




This proposal to examine his bones has some supporters it would seem, however reluctant, like Prof. Stanley Wells who was quoted by the Daily Mail “I would be happy if they did open it up because it could put an end to a lot of fruitless speculation."

Prof. Thackeray’s methods for examing Shakespeare’s grave and bones sound very reasonable and sound, even if his motives are peculiar. I too am fascinated by what could be learned from such an examination, but I could care less if Shakespeare smoked pot, or tobacco, or drank too much wine, or chewed his fingernails, etc.

I am sure that anyone who is allowed to disturb Shakespeare’s bones would do so with the greatest of care, and would never imagine doing any harm to his remains.

But if I recall correctly, as I watched the King in the Car Park documentary about the discovery of King Richard III’s skeletal remains, while an archeologist was digging him up she accidentally cracked his skull with her tool!

So you will excuse me if I am not impressed by claims that Shakespeare’s bones will not be affected by any examination.

I also think Thackeray’s comparison of the study of Richard III’s bones to Shakespeare’s bones is dishonest. King Richard’s bones were studied because they were lost, they were sought out and then discovered. Shakespeare’s bones are not lost. We know where they are. 

In my opinion, any examination of Shakespeare’s grave and bones is not archeology.

I am fascinated by the question of Shakespeare’s death. He was only 52 years old when he died. 




I would like to know how he died. But as curious as I am about every last detail of his life, work, and the world in which he lived, I do not need an answer. I think I can survive without knowing the answer. I have enough knowledge, and insight into his life, that I do not need an answer about his death. 

I have a rather good idea of what his last days looked like, and one day, hopefully sooner than later, I will share it with you. I think you will agree with me that mine is the most plausible explanation for his death.

Carved in stone covering Shakespeare’s grave is an epitaph:

Good frend for Jesus sake forebeare
To digg the dust encloased heare
Bleste be the man that spares thes stones
And curst be he that moves my bones.

It would be reasonable to assume that Shakespeare wrote this himself. Why? Because it is written "my bones." I doubt that another person would have used the word "my."

What did Shakespeare mean by this epitaph? It is clear that he doesn't want his grave opened.

I don’t think there is anything unclear about his desire not to have his bones disturbed.

Why did Shakespeare want to be left alone? 

Perhaps he feared that his bones could be stolen, for whatever reason. 

Many historical figures shared that fear. For example, Abraham Lincoln's body was almost stolen and ransomed by Chicago criminals, and was moved and put in a more secure place within his tomb. 

Also, Shakespeare’s lifetime was marked by enormous political and religious upheaval, with the Protestant Reformation, and the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Perhaps Shakespeare’s epitaph is a wish to find a permanent resting place in a country and a world that was increasingly impermanent.




I have a theory why Shakespeare wrote this epitaph. He did not want to be celebrated, in London’s Westminster Abbey, for example, in Poets' Corner. He did not want his bones in a tomb, for the public to see.

He had been a famous playwright and actor during his lifetime, and instead of seeking more fame, he wanted privacy.

He wanted to be buried in the place where he was born, where he fell in love with Anne, where he married her, where he built his home, where he raised his family, where he lost his son Hamnet, where he retired to when he was facing his death in 1616.

I have every reason to believe he loved London. I am sure the idea of being buried near Geoffrey Chaucer was very appealing to him.

But Stratford-upon-Avon was his home. That is where he wanted to remain. Forever.




William Shakespeare may have been a mysterious man while lived, and has become a very mysterious figure ever since. He never ceases to fascinate us.

But instead of prying into his grave and stealing a look at his bones to determine what he looked like and what he ate and drank, we should look to his plays, look to the history of his times, and create an image of the man that is fuller, and more meaningful.


Cheers,





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