Was Shakespeare's Skull Stolen From His Grave?

by Emma Cueto

William Shakespeare has separated quite a few characters from their heads over the course of his writing career, but it seems someone might have returned the favor now that Shakespeare's playwriting days are over. Scans reveal that Shakespeare's skull may be missing from his grave. And in fact, it might have been missing for a long time. My bet is one fanatical theater company decided to take their production of Hamlet to the next level.

Shakespeare died in 1616 and was buried at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon, and a curse (possibly one composed by the Bard himself) was chiseled into the tomb as a warning against anyone who would disturb the grave. Modern researchers, however, have been interested in studying the grave nonetheless. Archeologist Kevin Colls from Staffordshire University along with Erica Utsi, an expert in ground penetrating radar, obtained permission from the church to take scans of the grave. And they came away with all sorts of interesting findings: the graves are shallow, only about three feet; the lack of metal coffin nails suggests Shakespeare was buried in a shroud; and Shakespeare's head seems to be missing.

Yeah. I wouldn't imagine Shakespeare is too happy about that one. The man certainly did not write "Blessed be the man who spares these stones/And curst be he that moves my bones" because he wanted his skull stolen.

Ben Pruchnie/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Rumors that Shakespeare's skull was removed have been around for a long time. The most persistent legend is that a doctor stole the skull in 1794 as part of a bet. However, this is the first evidence that such a thing might have really happened. But whether Shakespeare's skull was stolen in 1794, or whether someone made off with it at some other point in history, the scans suggest that it is no longer in his tomb.

Nor, does it seem, is it housed at a church in Worcestershire as has been rumored in the past as well. The skull found at St. Leonard's church, which many thought could be Shakespeare's, has been ruled out as experts now believe it belonged to a woman in her seventies.

So where is the skull that dreamed up magnificent lines like "Now is the winter of our discontent" and "All the world's a stage"? It's unclear.

We are confident his remains are there,” Colls told the Independent. “[The data] suggests the skull is still missing and might be out there somewhere. There’s no documentary trail we’ve identified of where it might be. We will keep looking.”

And for want of other leads, I'm still putting my money on an overzealous theater company. After all, it wouldn't be the first time that a theater used a real skull in a production of Hamlet — though generally you want to have the dead person's blessing ahead of time for that sort of thing, lest they haunt you and bring your production to ruin.

However researchers go about their investigation, though, I'd put particular weight on suspects that suffered terrible runs of bad luck. The man who wrote Mercutio's "A plague on both your houses!" scene certainly would know how to make good on curses from beyond the grave. And given the inventive torments he devised for his characters, that's really too bad for whoever stole his skull.

Images: WikiMedia Commons