Digging up Shakespeare

512px-Shakespeare_grave_-Stratford-upon-Avon_-3June2007Good 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.

These were the words carved onto Shakespeare’s grave at his request and they reveal his fear of exhumation. Revulsion at the mistreatment of corpses is a theme in many of his plays and is cited as further evidence that he did not wish his grave to be disturbed.

According to recent news articles, however, Francis Thackeray of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg is again calling for Shakespeare’s remains to be examined. This is partly in response to the successful analysis of the skeleton of Richard III which revealed not only how the king died but also how he lived. We now know the sort of diet Richard had, the colour of his hair and, through facial reconstruction, his likely appearance. Thackeray believes that we could ascertain similar facts about Shakespeare and, although he had a request for exhumation turned down in 2011, hopes that public opinion has since turned in his favour.

Biographical details about Shakespeare are frustratingly vague and it is easy to see why the opportunity to find out more about him is a tantalising prospect for scholars. However, to date, his epitaph has successfully frustrated all attempts to exhume his bones.

Various compromises are now been suggested, such as opening the grave but leaving the bones intact save the removal of a tooth, which would enable DNA to be extracted and other forensic tests to be undertaken. But disagreement comes from such quarters as the British Shakespeare Association; protesting that this would only reveal physical details, and I have to agree. We would love to know how Shakespeare wrote his plays, what motivated him or what he thought the first time he saw a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But the desecration of his grave in the way he most feared will not answer any of our questions. Moreover, the removal of Richard III’s body from its resting place was a precursor to providing him with the respectful burial he was once denied. Opening Shakespeare’s grave would be in response to no such lofty aspirations.

When all is said and done, there is one overriding fact that trumps all: Shakespeare did not wish his grave to be tampered with. We should respect his wishes.
As Claudio says in Measure for Measure:

If I must die
I will encounter darkness as a bride,
And hug it in mine arms.

Let Shakespeare keep hugging the darkness. For all that he has given us, we owe him that much.

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I have been working for Oxford Open Learning since 2010 and love helping my students with their English and History courses. As a teacher and personal tutor, I have taught pupils from all around the world, aged from three to adult. I am often to be found with my head in a book and sometimes I have four or five on the go at the same time. I love learning about History and Art and am passionate about literature.

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