Historians believe that Shakespeare was born on April 23, 1564, and that he died on the same day in 1616. The 400th anniversary of his death this year is being celebrated worldwide through special exhibitions, performances, classes, and books. In honor of this anniversary, this is the first in a small series of blog posts by English and American Literature Reference specialist Abby Yochelson on Shakespeare at the Library of Congress.
William Shakespeare has been in the news a lot lately. Specifically, Shakespeare’s skull was in the news in late March because new archaeological techniques using non-invasive ground penetrating radar have indicated that his skull does not seem to be with the rest of his skeleton buried in the Holy Trinity church in his home-town Stratford-upon-Avon.
There were rumors published in the late 19th century that grave robbers made off with the skull in the late 18th century. “How Shakespeare’s Skull Was Stolen” appeared in October 1879 in the English periodical The Argosy: A Magazine of Tales, Travels, Essays, and Poems, but the story didn’t seem to be taken seriously. If those grave robbers existed, they probably endured some bad luck because Shakespeare’s epitaph reads:
Good friend, for Jesus’ sake forbear
To dig the dust enclosed here.
Blessed be the man that spares these stones,
And cursed be he that moves my bones.
This recent news story brought to mind a favorite little item in the Library of Congress’s collections. Shakespeare’s Bones by C.M. Ingelby was published in London in 1883. You’ve got to love those Victorian-era titles because the rest of the title reads: The proposal to disinter them, considered in relation to their possible bearing on his portraiture: illustrated by instances of visits of the living to the dead. You can read the full 48-page pamphlet at The HathiTrust Digital Library.
Mr. Ingleby was not the first to argue that Shakespeare’s bones should be dug up; he seems to have entered into an ongoing discussion. He backs up his argument by discussing cases where other famous authors’ bones were exhumed for various purposes, including those of Friedrich Schiller, Ben Jonson, John Milton, and Sir Francis Bacon. Whether it’s a saint or a great writer, the purpose is “to disinter the remains of great men, and remove them to a more fitting and more honourable resting-place.”
Mr. Ingleby goes on to provide other justifications for digging up bones:
Accordingly it is held justifiable to exhume a body recently buried, in order to discover the cause of death, or to settle a question of disputed identity: nor is it usually held unjustifiable to exhume a body long since deceased, in order to find such evidences as time may not have wholly destroyed, of his personal appearance, including the size and shape of his head, and the special characteristics of his living face.
Keep in mind that this was written before the age of modern forensics and the ability to use DNA to identify people. For example, DNA was used in 2014 to determine that the bones found beneath the car park in Leicester, England, were truly those of King Richard III. As it turned out, King Richard did have curvature of the spine, so Shakespeare probably did not invent him being a hunchback in his play The Tragedy of King Richard III, as some historians have claimed.
In Mr. Ingleby’s case, he simply wanted Shakespeare’s skull to compare it to various portraits floating about claiming to be the true representation of Shakespeare. A number of busts and paintings appeared in the 18th and 19th centuries with claims that they were the real image. Using the skull, experts could decide what Shakespeare really looked like. These are just a few of the portraits Mr. Ingleby discusses:
(Show various portraits)
Undoubtedly, many people would like to devise scientific tests on the bones to decide once and for all if the “Man from Stratford” was truly the “Shakespeare” who wrote all the plays and poetry. The “authorship question”–as the debate over who “really” wrote Shakespeare is known–has raged for centuries: Shakespeare was actually Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford; Francis Bacon; Christopher Marlow; or even Queen Elizabeth I. I’m not intending to wade into the authorship debate here, but at the Library of Congress, we have nearly 800 books on the authorship subject, not to mention the countless articles, websites, and films out there on the topic.
Mr. Ingleby certainly had no question in his mind that Shakespeare was truly Shakespeare; he was a Life Trustee of the Birthplace, Museum, and New Place–all pilgrimage spots in Stratford-upon-Avon for lovers of The Bard. He simply wanted to know what the guy looked like!