The death of Shakespeare: where, when, how?

First Published on Headstuff.ie April 2016

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April 23rd 2016 is the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death. Although his plays and poems have lived on and are enjoyed across the globe, relatively little is known for certain about the man himself. This is particularly so for the matters surrounding his death.

Death, violent and natural, occurs frequently in the plays. This was both a way of bringing the story to a close, while also drawing on the perilous nature of life 400 years ago. At the end of Hamlet, one of the greatest meditations on life and death, the title character has to die to bring an end to his story. As he himself says in his last words, “the rest is silence”. However the death and afterlife of Hamlet’s creator has been less clear-cut. The way in which he actually died is still not established, and in a twist to the tale his remains have, in a way, lived on and created a story of their own.

He died in his home town of Stratford–Upon–Avon, Warwickshire in England, where he had been living with his family. The cause of death is not certain. However the most popular theory emerged from a diary entry written by John Ward, a clergyman living in Stratford in the 1660s, who recorded that:

“Shakespear, Drayton, and Ben Jonson had a merry meeting, and itt seems drank too hard, for Shakespear died of a feavour there contracted”

The famous writer Ben Jonson had recently been selected as Poet Laureate, and the slightly less famous Drayton is most likely to be the Elizabethan poet Michael Drayton. Either way it seems as though the trio made up a raucous group, enjoying the company and drinking more than a little too much. At present there are no other sources that corroborate this idea, and it is worth noting that this diary entry was made several decades after Shakespeare’s death as Ward tried to familiarise himself with the life of a local celebrity.

Nasty, brutish and short

There is another main contender as to the cause of his death. Life in the early seventeenth century was often short. Death from disease was a very likely possibility for many. Indeed, Shakespeare was lucky to survive infancy, as the plague swept through Stratford, just three months after his birth, killing around one fifth of the town’s population. This is marked in the church’s burial register with the words Hic incepit pestis (here begins the plague). The year of the Bard’s death, 1616, saw a serious outbreak of typhoid fever across England. Shakespeare might have been at greater risk as an open sewer ran close by his town house, New Place, and typhoid is born of poor sanitary conditions.

Shakespeare was then buried inside Holy Trinity Church. His unusual epitaph is a curse written in verse:

“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.”

From history buff.com

The afterlife of Shakespeare’s remains have developed their own story of intrigue, as the warning on his gravestone might not have always been heeded. Legend has it that the skull was stolen as a part of a 300 guinea bet in the late 1700s. This theory emerged from two articles written in Argosy magazine. The first article, written in 1879, stated that in 1769 the art historian Horace Walpole offered 300 guineas to anyone who could bring him Shakespeare’s skull. A Doctor Frank Chambers embraced this challenge and broke into the tomb. Having stolen the skull he presented it to Walpole, who then failed to hand over the money for it. Unable to find a buyer for the playwright’s skull, Chambers arranged for its return. All of this seemingly went on unnoticed by the wider world.

The later 1884 article titled ‘How Shakespeare’s Skull was Stolen and Found’ picks up the story with Chambers being unable to sell the skull, and argues that the grave robber panicked and instead of returning it hid it in a local crypt. This explains why many believe Shakespeare’s skull lies in St Leonard’s Church, Beoley, Worcestershire. Although the authorship of the articles has not been confirmed (in the magazine they were labelled as having been written by ‘A Warwickshire Man’) they are thought to have been penned by a Reverend C. K. Langston, who was a vicar in Beoley from 1881 to 1889.

Beoley is around 15 miles from Stratford and has not benefitted in the same way from the tourism industry that has built up over the centuries around Shakespeare’s birthplace. The Langston theory is typical of the Victorian love of the gothic and historical revisionism, which also coincided with a boom in the grave-robbing industry. A request to remove the skull temporarily for DNA testing was refused in 2015.

Recently there was another twist to the tale, when investigations were conducted for a Channel 4 documentary in the UK. For the first time archaeological investigations were carried out using non-invasive, ground-penetrating radar (GPR) to examine the grave site. Their findings were fascinating, to say the least, and some of the results are quite unusual. One of the first things the investigators noticed was that Shakespeare is in fact buried three feet deep, and wrapped in a shroud rather than placed in a coffin. They also found evidence of significant repair works that have been done but not recorded. This tells us that the grave had been disturbed at some point to the extent that new underground supports were needed to prevent it from caving in. Perhaps this damage was done by grave robbers working hastily in the dark to extract their prize? Significantly there is also reasonable evidence to assume that his skull is missing, or at least not buried with the body.

Although it looks unlikely that the custodians of Holy Trinity Church will ever allow the curse to be tempted and the grave opened against Shakespeare’s wishes, it is clear that speculation will persevere.

The riddle of Shakespeare’s death and afterlife will continue to intrigue.

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