In his book, Shakespeare’s Stratford (1928),2 Edgar I. Fripp, a Life Trustee of Shakespeare’s Birthplace, writes as follows:
In 1593, the Chancel of the Church was in a bad state, and the Corporation moved Lord Treasurer Burleigh (the Chancel was Crown property) to compel the tithe holders to put it in repair; and not long after obtaining it as a grant from the Crown, they proceeded to bring pressure upon these gentlemen, of whom Shakespeare was one, and to sell or let the right of burial within its walls. Shakespeare was buried here in 1616; but it was not until his Monument was erected, or was about to be erected, that they had the place made less unworthy of its illustrious dead, and we may suspect that George Quyney, the reading-minister from 1620 to 1624, was largely, if not chiefly, responsible for the reparation.3 […] The Chancel was pronounced "ruinous" in 1618, the Corporation resolved to "bestow some charges" on keeping it "dry" in 1619, and they were presented by Quyney and the churchwardens (one of whom was Richard Tyler4) for its "decay" in April 1621. In 1621-25 the walls were mended and "painted" and the windows "glazed," and the building was presentable, for the first time since the Poet’s interment, when his old friends and fellow actors of the King’s Company paid their one and only visit to Stratford, presumably to see his Monument, in the Summer of 1622. (My italics.)So, according to this information, William Shakespeare, as one of the tithe-holders, had been buried in the chancel in 1616 and, if the right of burial was sold or let, the fee may have been by measure of the ground to be covered by the tombstone (as was the case in Westminster Abbey), which might explain the small tombstone (about one meter long),6 clearly insufficient to cover the coffin of a normal man, unless, like Ben Jonson, Shakespeare had been buried vertically.
In British History Online we read the following:
This great dramatist and contemporary of Shakespeare was buried in the north aisle, and on a plain stone over his grave are to be seen the words "O! rare Ben Jonson"- an epitaph perhaps the more forcible for its quaint brevity. These words are said to have been cut by a mason for eighteen pence paid him by a passer-by, "Jack Young." Mr. R. Bell, in his "Life of Ben Jonson," writes, "The smallness of the surface occupied by the gravestone is explained by the fact that the coffin was deposited in an upright position, possibly to diminish the fee by economy of space. The tradition that Jonson had been interred in such a manner was generally discredited until the grave was opened a few years ago, when the remains of the poet were found in an erect posture."Was Shakespeare buried vertically? Although nobody has suggested such a thing, Schoenbaum7 mentions a report from the late seventeenth century, according to which “they […] laid him full seventeen foot deep, deep enough to secure him.” “But [he adds] this seems unlikely so close to where the Avon flows." He also tells us that by the mid-eighteenth century the gravestone had to be replaced, because it had sunk below floor level. This suggests a really deep hole, subject to precisely that kind of upsetting influence from the proximity of the river. But why would they dig such a deep hole? Perhaps the report was mistaken anyway, because seventeen feet would be an exaggeration even for a coffin placed in an upright position.
One wishes that in this age of scientific resources, the Stratford authorities (or whoever) would do a proper research on that grave, even if they decide to hang some fetish round their necks while they are doing it, to avoid the fearful curse. While I would not wish to discourage the English scientists who might undertake this necessary bit of archaeology, I believe I should mention the following story. On June 19, 1941, a group of Russian scientists opened Tamburlaine’s tomb in Samarkand despite the curse inscribed on it; the curse threatened that if the tomb were disturbed a catastrophic war would ensue for those responsible. Two days after the tomb was opened, Hitler invaded the Soviet Union.8
Dramatic digressions aside, another thing that strikes me as odd reading Fripp’s text, is that the chancel should have been "ruinous” by 1618. Buildings do not easily become "ruinous" in two years, and yet Shakespeare was buried there in 1616. John Combe, whose monument is placed in the North East corner of the chancel, had died in 1614, leaving in his will (unlike Shakespeare), a provision of "three score pounds" for its erection. Combe’s monument was carved by Gerard Johnson (or Gheeraert Janssen), the same man who, apparently not till 1622, carved Shakespeare’s Monument, according to Sir William Dugdale.9
The conclusion must be that in 1614 the chancel was in relatively good condition. But, was it still in good condition in 1616? It must have been at least decently so. One would have expected that, having buried their most illustrious citizen there the corporation would take the trouble to keep the place reasonably "presentable," unless of course nobody (not just Shakespeare’s London friends but literally nobody) ever went there to visit the tomb. Otherwise, how could the chancel be "ruinous" only two years later? And if it was indeed "ruinous" in 1618, why did they wait till 1622 to make the building “presentable, for the first time since the Poet’s interment”?
Are we to believe that the greatest poet the Western world has known, was buried in a derelict chapel, in a small grave that has no name to it, but only four doggerel lines, the first two of which are a paraphrase of Marlowe’s Hero and Leander?
Good friend for Jesus’s sake forbear,And, as we see, the fourth line is a curse, such as the curse inscribed in Tamburlaine’s tomb:
H&L: (…) Gentle youth forbear
To dig the dust enclosed heare.10
H&L: To touch the sacred garments that I wear.
Bleste be ye man y’spares these stones,Was that four-line inscription the only information carved on the tombstone in 1616? Because if the Monument to SHAKSPEARE was not erected until 1622, as Fripp suggests, the tomb itself would have been nameless during the first six years.
And cursed be he y’moves my bones.
Whatever the answer to that question, when they finally got round to erecting the Moniment,11 not only did they get his name wrong but also his age was mistaken, because Shakespeare could not have been 53 on his 52nd birthday.12 Next to his, we find the tomb of his wife, Anne Hathaway, who had died in August 1623; but by then, Shakespeare’s grave had been given "a habitation and a name" by virtue of the adjacent Monument.
Finally, it seems that, although William Shakespeare in his elaborate will had left them "xxvis viii Apeece to buy them Ringes," his theatre colleagues, Heminge and Condell (Burbage died in 1619), never took the trouble to visit their friend’s grave in Stratford until the Summer of 1622.
To resume: According to a Life Trustee of Shakespeare’s Birthplace who seems to have done a thorough research on the matter, the small grave that Dr. Hall paid for the burial of his famous father-in-law, was placed in a derelict chapel, in an anonymous grave, with a clumsy but unequivocal homage to Christopher Marlowe. And, yes, isn’t it an extraordinary coincidence? Shakespeare’s tomb, like Tamburlaine’s, is cursed.
So, two Marlovian lines and a curse like Tamburlaine’s, that was for six long years the only information carved on Shakespeare’s gravestone. Or was it? A possibility that suggests itself looking at all these facts is that something must have happened late in 1621 or early in 1622, so that, by the spring of 1622, there may have been some good reason for refurbishing the chancel, changing the tombstone, and, finally, erecting the SHAKSPEARE Monument.
(To be continued.)
© Isabel Gortázar, January 2010
Isabel Gortázar is an independent scholar, specializing in Shakespeare and Marlowe studies. She is a member of the Board of Directors of the Marlowe Society (UK) and a founding member of the International Marlowe Society. She divides her time between London and Bilbao, Spain.
1See: Peter Farey's "Shakespeare’s Monument?" The Marlowe Society Newsletter, Autumn 2004, and "The Stratford Monument: A Riddle and Its Solution" http://www2.prestel.co.uk/rey/epitaph.htm.
2Fripp, Edgar I. Shakespeare’s Stratford. London: Oxford University Press, 1928. pp. 72-74.
3George Quyney died in 1624, at the age of 24. His physician was Dr. Hall, Shakespeare’s father-in-law.
4Richard Tyler had been one of Shakespeare’s boyhood friends. His name is however deleted from the will and replaced by Hamnet (or Hamlett) Sadler.
5This date probably means the works began between 1st January and 25th March of 1622 (New Style, or Gregorian). In England, the New Year (Old Style, or Julian) started on 25th March, Lady Day. So, if the work was finished by the summer of 1622, Fripp’s dating suggests it had started before the end of March.
6According to Stanley Wells, Shakespeare’s grave is only three feet seven inches, about half the size of his wife’s. (Ref: Diana Price's Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2001).
7Schoenbaum, S. William Shakespeare: A Complete Documentary Life. Revised edition. Oxford University Press, 1987. p. 306.
8For a more detailed account of this fascinating horror story, see: http://www.takimag.com/sniperstower/article/the_curse_of_tamerlane/ .
9In The Diary of Sir William Dugdale (published 1827), we find the following entry for the year 1653: “Shakespeares and John Combes Monuments, at Stratford-super-Avon, made by one Gerard Johnson."
10Ref C. Hoffman: The Man Who Was Shakespeare. London: Max Parrish, 1955. p. 230.
11Moniment, with the i in bold: As it appears in Jonson’s Prefatory Poem in the FF. Perhaps from the Latin monire, “to warn."
12His birthday, that is, if he had been born on April 23rd 1564, as is generally believed (but not proven), given the known fact that he was christened on the 26th. Had he been born one day later, on the 24th for example, on 23rd April 1616, Shakespeare would have been fifty one years old. Curiously enough, Christopher Marlowe, born in February 1563, Old Style (1564, New Style, see footnote 5, above for Old Style, or Julian, calendar), on 23rd April 1616 was two months into his fifty-third year. See my essay: "Let’s Talk of Graves and Worms and Epitaphs." The Marlowe Society Newsletter Nº 27, Autumn 2006.
Click here for the blog's home page and recent content. Branagh, Emmerich, Tom Cruise, Jude Law, Johnny Depp