A bone to pick: After life’s fitful fever, let the Bard sleep on

A South African academic reckons it’s time to dig up William Shakespeare. Inspired by the revelations about King Richard III, whose remains were recently liberated from a car park in Leicester in Britain, Professor Francis Thackeray of the University of the Witwatersrand’s Evolutionary Studies Institute claims he is “very interested by the possibility” of subjecting Shakespeare to the same treatment.

Thackeray has worked at Gauteng’s paleontological world heritage site, the Cradle of Humankind and, as the custodian of “Mrs Ples” – the most complete fossil skull of early man ever found in Africa – argues that the famous pre-human skull probably belonged to a juvenile male.

“Given the extraordinary success of the study of the skeleton of Richard III,” Thackeray says, “we recognise the potential of undertaking forensic analyses of the Bard.” In 2011, Thackeray applied to have Shakespeare’s remains exhumed. The request was turned down. Remarkable as it seems, the custodians of Holy Trinity church in Stratford-upon-Avon – the playwright is buried beneath the chancel – were not convinced by Thackeray’s research, which stems from his belief that Shakespeare smoked marijuana. (If Thackeray thinks that’s what “noted weed” means in Sonnet 76, he needs to buy a dictionary.)

The custodians were also no doubt swayed by the fact that Shakespeare himself made a point of pleading with subsequent generations to leave him be.

In what might be the last piece of verse he composed (if not, perhaps, his finest poetical hour), his epitaph reads: “Good frend for Jesus sake forebeare/ To digg the dust encloased heare./ Blese be the man that spares thes stones,/ And curst be he that moves my bones.”

I don’t have much truck with curses; I’m not usually one to stand in the way of the noble pursuit of knowledge. But I wonder whether we should respect Shakespeare’s wishes. Even if we could locate the man’s mortal remains – it’s not certain exactly where they lie – and managed to subject them to scientific analysis, what do we want to discover? What kind of food he ate? If he chewed his fingernails?

Disinterring a controversial and medically interesting skeleton that experienced a violent, early death is one thing. Exhuming a playwright who expired, as far as anyone can tell, in his bed in plump middle age is another. If Thackeray thinks writers lead lives as turbulent and exciting as medieval warrior kings, well, he should meet more of them. In my experience, the job involves a lot of sitting at desks.

But we are forever fussing with Shakespeare’s bones. We’re obsessed by the possibility he might have been gay (leaving aside whether he would have recognised the concept). We’re thrilled that he died from syphilis or alcoholism. We crawl over every jot and tittle of his will, as if it contained psychological notes rather than a legal distribution of property.

Being curious about what made Shakespeare tick is inevitable. But just as inevitable is his uncanny ability to evade our deepest scrutiny. Would I be interested to find out what killed the man? Sure. Would it help me get closer to unravelling the spectral brilliance of Sonnet 107 or the heart-stopping intensity of The Winter’s Tale? I really hope not.

The thing that made Shakespeare extraordinary was his brain. Brilliant as modern archaeology is, no one is going to unearth that any time soon.

Thackeray and his colleagues should beware of a precedent, too. In the 1840s, a failed playwright and former schoolteacher from Ohio called Delia Bacon became convinced that Shakespeare (a “stupid, illiterate, third-rate play actor”) was a fraud, and that the philosopher-scientist Sir Francis Bacon – no relation – had not only written the plays but left a note confessing so inside Shakespeare’s tomb.

Having stolen into the church one night, Delia Bacon was found by the sexton staring at the gravestone, trying to work out how to get in. She committed her theories to print in 1857, then succumbed to depression and was confined to an asylum. No one can say what drove her over the edge – but haunting graves trying to solve imaginary riddles probably had something to do with it. – © Guardian News & Media 2015

Andrew Dickson’s new book, Worlds Elsewhere: Journeys Around Shakespeare’s Globe, will be published by Bodley Head later this year

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