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Is Shakespeare’s Grave Cursed?

Photo Credit: Stock Montage/Getty Images
Photo Credit: Stock Montage/Getty Images

Famous playwright William Shakespeare was no stranger to witches, curses, and superstitions – even in the afterlife! Shakespeare’s writings of floating daggers, bubbling cauldrons, and skeletal soliloquies must have left an impact on him, so much so that he wrote one final spooky verse before his death in 1616.

Shakespeare’s Final Wish

Shakespeare was buried at the Holy Trinity Church in his hometown of Stratford Upon Avon. If you visit his grave today, you will be greeted with an eerie warning:

Good friend for Jesus’ sake forbear,
To dig the dust enclosed here:
Blest be the man that spares these stones,
And curst be he that moves my bones.

According to the history books, Shakespeare was especially concerned about graverobbers looking to profit off of the Bard’s bones. In the 16th and 17th centuries, it was common for bodies to be exhumed for research, moved to accommodate a need for more burial plots, or for grave robbers to steal buried valuables like jewelry and the remains of famous people.

Portrait of William Shakespeare.
English dramatist and poet William Shakespeare ponders his next work, circa 1600. (Photo Credit: Stock Montage/Getty Images)

We’re sure you are wondering: has Shakespeare’s posthumous warning worked? It’s more complicated than you may think!

It is speculated that Shakespeare wrote the “curse” himself, but new evidence suggests this might not be the case. Shakespeare was buried near four of his family members, including the grave of his wife Anne Hathaway, but his ledger stone is the only one that does not have a name written on it. Did he decide on using the four lines he wrote as an identifier instead?

Who Stole Shakespeare’s Skull?

In 2016, the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, archeologists investigated the tomb for the first time. Using ground-penetrating radar, they were able to see inside the grave without disturbing the stone – as per Shakespeare’s request. Their findings did reveal that Shakespeare’s warning may not have been as successful.

William Shakespeare's grave at the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon.
A general view of the gravestone of William Shakespeare at the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon. (Photo Credit: Ben Pruchnie/Getty Images)

In 1879, Argosy Magazine published a story about Frank Chambers, a man who agreed to dig up Shakespeare’s skull in 1794. Archeologists were able to confirm that the soil was disrupted at the head of the grave, which is indeed missing a skull!

Some historians like Professor Francis Thackeray from the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg want to exhume Shakespeare’s grave to help unearth the truth. Thackeray suggested that exposing the grave and taking high-resolution scans could allow for forensic analysis without moving the bones, as per Shakespeare’s final request.

Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon.
The chancel and grave of William Shakespeare in Holy Trinity Church. (Photo Credit: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

More from us: Turneth The Air Blue With These Classic Shakespearean Insults

Nobody knows where Shakespeare’s skull is now, or if Frank Chambers ever experienced the curse on his grave. It seems like in the near future, the researchers like Professor Thackeray may learn how effective Shakespeare’s curse really is.

Elisabeth Edwards

Elisabeth Edwards is a public historian and history content writer. After completing her Master’s in Public History at Western University in Ontario, Canada Elisabeth has shared her passion for history as a researcher, interpreter, and volunteer at local heritage organizations.

She also helps make history fun and accessible with her podcast The Digital Dust Podcast, which covers topics on everything from art history to grad school.

In her spare time, you can find her camping, hiking, and exploring new places. Elisabeth is especially thrilled to share a love of history with readers who enjoy learning something new every day!

The Digital Dust Podcast