Much ado about the Case of the missing skull

Inscription thought to be commissioned by Shakespeare himself
Inscription thought to be commissioned by Shakespeare himself

A-vanitas-still-life-with-a-candle,-an-inkwell,-a-quill-pen,-a-skull-and-books

Have you heard about the latest Shakespeare mystery? Someone has stolen his skull! There is a very real possibility that somewhere, someone is in possession of the beloved poet’s head and is keeping it a secret. Or, maybe not. There may be much ado about nothing. Let’s start from the beginning.

Argosy, an early 19th century English magazine, now considered to be the first published collection of “pulp fiction”, is our starting point or should I say reference point for the case of the missing skull. Here too we have a slight mystery on our hands, as the date of the magazine’s first issue is in question. Some Internet sites say it started in December of 1882, yet a bound collection of some of its earliest stories titled, Argosy Volume 28, notes that the stories are from 1879. And if this is volume VIII, wouldn’t this suggest even an early date of publication? But no matter, what is important is that at some point in history, one of the stories published in Argosy was a story titled, “How Shakespeare’s Skull was stolen” authored by A Warwickshire Man. The story is part of the Volume 28 collection, which is still in print today. I read it thanks to Google Books, though it is such a mess of a story that I don’t recommend you bother.

The story is narrated from a first person’s perspective. One man retells a tale he was told as well as readings he got from a diary. As a piece of fiction goes it’s a little messy but readable, but from a historical account may leave the reader with a lot of unanswered questions and some major plot holes. If it is to be believed, a young brash and arrogant doctor, Frank Chambers, pays two well-known grave robbers to dig up Shakespeare’s skull, because, well, why not! After all the doctor already had one skull and felt he needed a second “to bear him company; the poor fellow finds it unked here o’nights since he was swinging free and easy on Mappleborough Green”. So it seems the doctor had the skull of a hanged man and wanted to balance that out with a poet. Doesn’t sound like a likely pair for bookends to me.

The story continues as slapstick comedy; the two grave robbers set out dig up Shakespeare, but because they rely on a local Stratford maid who cannot read, and has never heard of William Shakespeare, ends up digging up the wrong skull. (if this reminds you of the brain stealing scene in Young Frankenstein, you are not alone) After being admonished by Chambers, the pair sets out again, key to the Church in hand, and finally steals away with the right skull.

As I said, as a piece of fiction it’s a little messy but entertaining enough and should be regarded as such, but of course it is not. Some scholars (though no one I know) renamed this a rumor and have long wondered if Shakespeare’s skull is really missing.

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Well, if you are lucky enough to live in the U.K. and are interested in this mystery you are in luck! BBC 4 will broadcast the findings of a 2014 archaeological investigation of Shakespeare’s grave at Holy Trinity church in Stratford-on-Avon tonight. The investigation set out to either dispel or confirm some of the rumors surround Shakespeare’s burial:

Was he buried standing up?

Why are flagstone markings so short?

Is this marked spot empty and is he buried somewhere else?

The answers to these questions suggest that both William and Anne are buried in the church and that the bodies extend past the markers. And no, he is not standing up but is laying just a few feet down.

But the real mystery, at least according to the researchers, is that the ground around Shakespeare’s head appears to have at one time been disturbed, suggesting that this rumor of theft could turn out to be true. However, the vicar of Holy Trinity, the Rev Patrick Taylor, is not convinced. After all, it is one thing to steal from the corner of some dark cemetery, it is quite another to steal into a locked church, removed some flagstones, remove the dirt, dig up a skull and put it all back again without anyone every noticing. Impossible? No. Improbable? Yes.

We should reserve judgment until after the documentary airs, but in honesty, this seems much ado about nothing.

Works Referenced

The Guardian, Shakespeare’s skull probably stolen by grave robbers, study finds

Google Books Argosy Volume 28 How Shakespeare’s Skull was stolen

Pulpmag.org The Argosy

Author: sarij

I'm a writer, lifelong bibliophile ,and researcher. I hold a Bachelors in Humanities & History and a Master's in Humanities. When I'm not reading or talking about Shakespeare or history, you can usually find me in the garden discussing science or politics with my cat.

4 thoughts on “Much ado about the Case of the missing skull”

  1. The head of noted composer Josef Hadyn (1732-1809) WAS STOLEN for real. He died during the chaos around Napoleon’s invasion of the Habsburg Empire, and his skull was removed by a phrenologist. The Wikipedia article has the basic details, missing only one amusing fact: during the 1945-54 period, when attempts were being made to reunite the skull and body, they ran afoul of Cold War politics, as Austria was under Allied occupation, and one part was in the Soviet Zone, while the other part was in the International Zone.
    See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haydn%27s_head

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Grave robbing was popular during this time. One has to wonder how many heads are sitting on shelves or housed in medical institution’s basements. Apparently the practice of “head hunting” was encouraged by the medical field so that the remains could be studied to find out what made a person special. I think this was one reason Einstein’s brain was taken.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. These days, when it’s possible (as with Richard III’s skull) for forensics to reconstruct somebody’s features from their skull it would be invaluable to have it to hand, but as I think you noted with my review of a study of Shakespeare’s portraits, Sari, what matters most is the legacy of his works. But still, we all like to put a face to a name, don’t we!

    Will keep an eye out for the documentary. I suspect there’ll be a lot of Shakespearean stuff shoved our way this April, not all of it of huge worth …

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree that it’s really the work that counts. I am amazed at the depths (pun intended) that some will go to find out something new or tantalizing about Shakespeare. I really want to hear your take on the documentary as I am not sure we in the States will get a change to see it any time soon.

      Liked by 1 person

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