I could have subtitled this one “Billy’s Bones” had I been feeling a tad more cheeky. The program I am reviewing isn’t a movie, rather a documentary I came across purely by chance on PBS. The “educational channel,” or “poor man’s Discovery Channel,” if you will, offers up some terrific viewing opportunities, if you’ve never bothered to check, and SHAKESPEARE’S TOMB was as fascinating and entertaining for me as any bigscreen production; I daresay it will be for the right kind of viewer who chances upon this recommendation as well.
The stone slab atop Shakespeare’s grave in Holy Trinity Church at Stratford-upon-Avon is smaller than the ones topping the graves of his relatives on either side, suggesting that the site had, at one point, been disturbed and then repaired. Modern Science, in the form of ground-penetrating radar, has proven this. (It also reveals that Shakespeare was not buried in a coffin, but was wrapped in a shroud and buried simply.) How did the grave become disturbed? A story circulating since 1879, originally published in a magazine called ARGOSY, states that the grave was broken into and the skull stolen. That story mentioned certain details that a factionalist likely would not have known—for example, the depth of Shakespeare’s grave being only three feet, when it was commonly believed, indeed believed until disproved by the experiment conducted for this documentary, that the Shakespeare family rested in a large subterranean vault—thus lending credence to the tale. The graverobbers later changed their minds, it is said, and sought to return the skull, but instead of putting it back where it belonged, they dumped it into a nearby mausoleum. A skull in the Sheldon family crypt at Beoley, belonging to none of the family buried there, was believed to be the Bard’s, but forensic examination revealed it to be the skull of a woman in her 70s; her identity is unknown. It seems probably, then, that Shakespeare’s skull is not in its grave with the rest of his bones. Considering the curse inscribed onto the ledger stone atop the grave—“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”—it does make one wonder exactly WHY the graverobbers were so keen to get rid of the skull after they’d gone to all the trouble of stealing it, doesn’t it?