Has Shakespeare Lost his Head?


Folklore has long claimed that in 1794, a doctor robbed Shakespeare’s grave and made off with his head—perhaps to win a bet. Archaeologists have now discovered evidence that the tall tale may have some truth. (The New York Times)

Use our resources to learn more about Shakespeare’s relevance today and the Britain of his day.

Teachers, scroll down for a quick list of key resources in our Teachers’ Toolkit.

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Shakespeare’s epitaph threatens a curse upon anyone who disturbs his grave. It reads, “Good friend, for Jesus’ sake forebeare/ To digg the dust enclosed heare/ Bleste be the man that spares thes stones, / And curst be he that moves my bones.” Photograph by Dean Conger, National Geographic.
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Shakespeare (or most of him) is believed to be buried in this church, the Church of the Holy Trinity in Stratford-upon-Avon, United Kingdom. Photograph by Dean Conger and John E. Fletcher, National Geographic.

Discussion Ideas

  • How could researchers tell Shakespeare’s grave had been disturbed without disturbing it further?
    • They used ground-penetrating radar. Radar is a method of determining the presence, location, and even the velocity of an object using radio waves or microwaves.
      • A radar transmitter releases radio waves through the ground, which reflect off any object in their path.
      • The rate at which the waves reflect off of different objects and back to the surface helps researchers produce a map of what’s underground and at what depth.
    • Results from the radar scan showed the bottom half of Shakespeare’s grave was untouched, but the top of half—where his skull should be—had an unknown box-like structure in its place. This may be material that was used to repair the floor after a break-in.


  • What myths and legends about Shakespeare’s grave does the radar evidence support or disprove?
    • An article printed in Argosy Magazine in the late 19th century claims that in 1794, a doctor named Frank Chambers led a team of grave robbers into the Bard’s grave.
      • Supposedly, Dr. Chambers got away with Shakespeare’s skull and later sold it for 300 British pounds to politician Horace Walpole.
        • This tale had been traditionally dismissed as myth, but researchers found it to be surprisingly accurate in its details. In particular, the shallow depth of the grave mentioned in the magazine article matches the measurements produced by radar scans.
    • Some myths have asserted that Shakespeare’s grave may actually be empty.
      • Radar scans show there is definitely a body in Shakespeare’s grave—hopefully, it’s Shakespeare’s.
    • Shakespeare’s skull has been rumored to rest in a crypt in a nearby village called Beoley.
      • Researchers examined that skull and found it to belong to an unknown old woman. Where exactly Shakespeare’s skull might be remains a mystery.
    • Shakespeare himself may have written his epitaph, which claims the grave has a curse upon it.
      • The epitaph reads,“Good friend, for Jesus’ sake forebeare/ To digg the dust enclosed heare/ Bleste be the man that spares thes stones, / And curst be he that moves my bones.”
        • Are radar waves gentle enough that the archaeologists will escape the curse? Only time will tell.


  • Why would someone want Shakespeare’s skull?
    • In the late 18th century, a pseudoscience called phrenology was beginning to gain popularity.
      • Phrenology studies the shape of the skull in connection with intelligence and other character traits.
        • It’s possible someone stole Shakespeare’s skull to try to understand what made him a genius. Stealing from famous people’s graves for this reason was not entirely uncommon at the time.
    • The skull may have been stolen by a relative and possibly even reburied.
      • In Shakespeare’s day, mortality rates were much higher than today, and death may have felt ever-present. In this context, it wouldn’t have been seen as strange for a family member to desire to keep relics from a deceased loved one.
      • If a family member stole Shakespeare’s skull, it’s possible that person had it buried with him or herself, in hopes of being reunited after death.



Nat Geo: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/03/160325-shakespeare-skull-stolen-missing-history-mystery/

Scientific American: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/shakespeare-s-skull-may-have-been-stolen-by-grave-robbers/

BBC News: http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-coventry-warwickshire-35892218


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