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Lost: The Mystery of Shakespeare’s Skull

There’s an “odd disturbance” at one end of the Bard’s grave.

Shakespeare did not want his bones moved. (Image: Martin Droeshout/Public domain)

William Shakespeare’s skull may be missing from his grave. It may have been missing for more than two centuries.

There have long been rumors that Shakespeare’s grave was robbed, but the grave itself has never been examined (in part out of basic respect for the dead and in part, perhaps, because of the curse written on his tombstone). Starting in 2014, a team of researchers from Staffordshire University scanned the graveyard at the Holy Trinity Church with ground-penetrating radar and found what Kevin Colls, the project’s leader, calls “an odd disturbance at the head end” of the grave.

They’re not ready to say for sure that Shakespeare’s skull is missing. But, as Colls told the New York Times, “We’re reasonably confident that there’s a good chance that William’s skull is no longer there.”

If Shakespeare’s skull is not in his grave, who took it? The only clues right now to the identity of the possible thief come from a story, from 1879, about “How Shakespeare’s Skull was Stolen.” It was published in the Argosy, a British magazine, as an account by “a Warwickshire Man” and dated to circa 1794.

The story has it that a local doctor, Frank Chambers, “a wild, rather dashing young fellow; not bad looking,” dug three feet into earth and lifted the skull.  It’s generally regarded as fictional, but according to Colls, some of the details check out.

In the story, it’s not clear if the skull is every returned to Shakespeare’s grave; it’s hinted that it was not. Which opens up a new mystery: where might the skull have gone to?

It is not, the team determined, the skull which resides in a nearby village and was rumored to be Shakespeare’s. (That skull belonged to a woman.) Maybe it’s at the tomb of the Skull and Bones secret society. Maybe it’s in the possession of someone who doesn’t know why their luck is always so bad … but it’s because they’re the subject of Shakespeare’s curse on whoever “moves my bones.” Or perhaps it is still in the churchyard, removed once and returned. Since the church is not interested in actually having Shakespeare’s grave dug up, though, unless the skull is found somewhere out of the ground, we may never know for sure.

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