History

Why Would Someone Steal Shakespeare's Head?

Why would thieves have stolen Shakespeare's skull? Back in the day, grave robbing was big business.

"Good frend, for Iesus sake forebeare To digge the dust encloased heare. Bleste be ye man spares these stones, And curste be he moves my bones."

This is William Shakespeare's epitaph, dating back to 1616. Though the world's best- known dramatist, Shakespeare was not being dramatic when he wrote these words. Instead, he was trying to prevent something unsavory that neither his fame nor fortune could deter: his corpse being dug up by grave robbers.

His curse may not have worked, at least not centuries ago: According to a documentary that aired over the weekend, "A radar scan of William Shakespeare's tomb has discovered signs of tampering with his final resting place that lend credence to a story about his skull being stolen in the 18th century, researchers say."

Shakespeare's Curse-Protected Grave Gets Radar Scan

The archaeologists cleverly avoided Shakespeare's curse, which specifically warns against "digging dust" and "moving bones" but says nothing about using ground-penetrating radar. The findings, though indirect, give new life to speculation-long dismissed as rumor-that his head may have been stolen in 1794.

But why would anyone want to steal Shakespeare's head?

As "The New York Times" noted, one motivation for stealing his skull can be found in phrenology, a wildly popular-and widely believed-pseudoscientific field of "study" begun in the late 1700s in which a person's skull was believed to reveal his or her personality and other characteristics.

A prominent bump on the forehead, for example, might be assumed to reflect a proficiency in language or dramatics. It's not surprising that the skull of one of the most famous and important literary figures in history would be coveted and examined.

Skull-Duggery and Grave Robbing Aside from phrenological curiosity about Shakespeare's skull specifically, there were other reasons why the bard's bones might have been disturbed. Throughout most of history, medical knowledge of anatomy was poor and indirect, partly because of fear and taboos against cutting open corpses.

Shakespeare Portraits Reveal Bard at Different Ages: Photos

The Renaissance brought an emphasis on practical, real-world knowledge about anatomy, which necessarily meant examining and cutting up the dead. In Europe, the rise of early medical centers created a strong demand for dead bodies; a few cadavers were made available by royal decree, usually the bodies of condemned criminals. In the 1700s, in fact, dissection was a punishment for serious crimes. Demand soon outstripped supply, however, and a black market for cadavers emerged.

Centuries ago it was not uncommon to wear dead strangers' body parts; in the 1600s and 1700s teeth and hair from dead bodies was sometimes used to make dentures and wigs, respectively (if not respectfully).

By 1720, theft from graveyards was common in London, and grave robbers (or "resurrection men," as they were known) were making a profit digging up bodies and selling them to anatomists and doctors. Some were so eager to cash in that they didn't wait for people to die: Irish grave robbers Brendan Burke and William Hare, for example, committed 16 murders and sold the bodies to a well-known London anatomist in 1828.

Shakespeare's Original Audiences: Photos

By the 1900s most grave robbing in the West had ceased, though it continues into modern times, for different reasons. In 2012, for example, over 100 graves were dug up in the African country of Benin, looted by grave robbers seeking body parts for use in voodoo rituals.

So did thieves really make (as Shakespeare wrote in "King Richard III") "Off with his head"? Measure for measure, some aren't convinced by the new analysis and Stratford-upon-Avon church has made it clear that more direct investigation (i.e., digging up the bard's grave) is quite out of the question.

Wherever his skull may actually be, Shakespeare was not alone in his concerns about post-mortem theft. In fact a giant named O'Brien-who stood over seven feet tall and was exhibited in 1780s London-feared that his skeleton would be seized and displayed after his death. He was correct.

Holy Trinity Church is famed for being the church where William Shakespeare was both baptized and buried.

Experts disagree about which of Shakespeare's portraits are real or fake. There is no definitive portrait of the Bard painted in his lifetime. Only two likenesses, both posthumous, are widely accepted as authentic: a bust on his tomb in Stratford's Holy Trinity Church (right), restored and repainted several times, and the Droeshout engraving, used as a frontispiece to the Folio edition of his plays in 1623 (left).

In 2006, Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel, professor of English at Mainz University, Germany, claimed amid some controversy that four images of Shakespeare were the true likeness. The portraits were the Chandos portrait (top left), the Darmstadt Shakespeare death mask (top right), what she called the original Flower portraits (bottom left) and the Davenant bust (bottom right).

According to the German academic, the other two portraits help reconstruct different stages of Shakespeare's life and diseases. One dates from his youth, the second from his old age. Possibly painted around 1594, when the poet was about 30 years old, this portrait depicts Shakespeare as a relatively young man exuding self-confidence and a triumphant smile. At that time, Shakespeare had reached the first height of his unparalleled literary career.

The portrait hung in the bedchamber of Prince Franz (1740-1817), in the Gothic House of the Dessau-Wörlitz Garden Realm. Seized in 1945 by the Soviet army, it has been lost ever since. Only a high-quality, monochrome photograph from 1936 remains. Records show the portrait was given to Prince Franz in 1763-64 as a gift by Thomas Hart, a distant relative of Shakespeare.

The other portrait represents the Bard as an affluent, older gentleman living in retirement. He sits on an elaborately-carved chair, holding a book in his left hand and resting his right hand on the head of an adoring dog, sitting to his right. According to the German researcher, this painting shows for the first time the whole person of Shakespeare.

While careful examination of the image has even determined the breed of the dog, which, according to the London veterinary Bruce Fogle, appears to be a Lurcher, (a cross between a Greyhound and a working dog) nothing is known about the provenance and history of the portrait. Hammerschmidt-Hummel found the portrait in a rare, richly illustrated edition of James Boaden's work of 1824. Called an "Inquiry into the Authenticity of Various Pictures and Prints, which ...have been offered to the Public as Portraits of Shakespeare," the book displayed the portrait as an engraving.

All the details in the image suggest Shakespeare had his portrait made at his Stratford residence New Place at the the age of about 50, presumably for the last time -- about two years before his death.

The tests for authenticity on the new portraits brought to light a series of facial marks and idiosyncrasies that correspond to those found on all the other Shakespeare likenesses. In particular, the two newly found pictures show a growth on the upper left eyelid and swellings in the nasal corner of the left eye, which seem to represent different stages of a disease and are present in all portraits used for comparison. Moreover, a montage of the Wörlitz and Boaden portraits with the Droeshout engraving shows "astounding correspondences and agreements." Hammerschmidt-Hummel said. "Such precise correlations can only occur when the persons depicted and compared are identical," she said.