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Sunday 1 December 2013

Shakespeare's Curse

Following last week’s highlights from my comics collection, here is another souvenir I’ve hung onto since I was at school. It’s a full-scale copy of the rather spooky inscription on Shakespeare’s tomb in Holy Trinity church, Stratford-upon-Avon. I bought it on a visit to Stratford in 1973 to see a performance of Romeo and Juliet (yuk), which I had to study for O-level English Literature (I went to school about 20 miles from Stratford).

The inscription (converted into modern spelling) reads as follows:
Good friend for Jesus sake forbear
to dig the dust enclosèd here.
Bless-be the man that spares these stones
and cursed be he that moves my bones.
This is really very unusual. English churches are packed full of tombs and epitaphs, but I’ve never seen another one that takes the form of a curse. The whole idea of a “cursed tomb” is something that occurs far more frequently in fiction than in reality. You might imagine that ancient Egypt was full of them, but according to Wikipedia that’s not the case – curses were the exception rather than the rule.

So why did Shakespeare place a curse on his gravestone? At the time I assumed it was because he was an alien, or a robot, or a time traveller from the future, and he didn’t want people to find out (that’s the way my mind worked at age 15). Other people, obsessed with the Shakespeare authorship question, might speculate that the grave is empty – since “William Shakespeare” was simply a false identity created by the secret consortium that wrote the plays attributed to him.

The most down-to-earth theory I’ve come across is that Shakespeare, like the ancient Egyptians, seriously expected some kind of physical resurrection, and he was worried that grave robbers would scupper his chances of eternal life. But that still doesn’t explain why Shakespeare felt the need to put a curse on his tomb when so many of his peers and contemporaries didn’t.

Whatever the reason for the curse, it’s done its job – no-one has tampered with Shakespeare’s grave in all the years since he was buried in 1616. Not surprisingly, however, there is no shortage of academics who are eager to dig him up – if for no other reason than to prove he was a pot-smoker.

My copy of the curse was produced by placing a sheet of paper over the inscription and rubbing it with a wax crayon. This used to be a popular way of making facsimiles of church inscriptions, dating back long before photography. I used to assume, naively, that my copy had been made directly from the stone slab of the tomb – but in retrospect that’s highly unlikely. They must have sold millions of these things as souvenirs (they only cost a few pence), and if they’d all been made by rubbing on Shakespeare’s gravestone there’d be nothing left of it! It seems far more likely that my rubbing is a “fake” made from a modern copy of the inscription.

Looking back at my programme from that 1973 production of Romeo and Juliet (I hoarded that, too) I see that Romeo was played by Timothy Dalton (later to become James Bond) while his arch-enemy Tybalt was David Suchet (later to become Agatha Christie’s Poirot).

On another trip to Stratford the previous year, I saw the much cooler play Julius Caesar – in which the part of Cassius was played by none other than Patrick Stewart (later to become Captain Jean-Luc Picard, of course). As you can see from this photo from the programme, he looked exactly the same in 1972 as he always does!


Loren Coleman said...

Of course, some of us recall David Suchet for his brilliant role in the 1987 movie Harry and the Hendersons, about Bigfoot. The character of the possessed, driven French Canadian Sasquatch hunter is “Jacques LaFleur,” played by David Suchet. It is generally agreed within the Bigfoot research community that the “LaFleur” character was, in general, based on René Dahinden, who was born in Switzerland, and moved to Canada when he was 23, dying there when he was 70.

Andrew May said...

Gosh, I never knew that. Thanks for pointing it out, Loren. I'm a big fan of David Suchet so I will definitely hunt down a copy of the movie!