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Who stole Shakespeare’s skull?

A BBC documentary that will air on Saturday argues that Shakespeare’s skull is missing from his grave at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford. Using ground-penetrating radar, a team of archaeologists scanned the grave site and found an “odd disturbance  at the head end and we have a story that suggests that at some point in history someone’s come in and taken the skull of Shakespeare. It’s very, very convincing to me that his skull isn’t at Holy Trinity at all.”

There are a number of problems with this theory. The biggest is that Shakespeare might not be buried in Holy Trinity Church in the first place. As the BBC notes, “The playwright’s final resting place has long been the subject of argument among historians and archaeologists, because it is too short for an adult burial.” It’s possible that Shakespeare was quite short, but I can’t see Ben Jonson or Christopher Marlowe letting that one go. 

There have long been rumors that Shakespeare’s skull was stolen. In 1794 Horace Walpole offered £300 to anyone who brought him the Bard’s dome. A human skull—which may or may not have belonged to Shakespeare—was eventually presented to Walpole, but the cheapskate refused to pay up. 

It’s possible that the skull offered to Walpole really was Shakespeare’s! It’s also just as possible that Shakespeare is buried somewhere else. I choose to believe that Shakespeare’s skull is missing because he ordered The Lord Chamberlain’s Men to use it in productions of Hamlet after his death.