Paul Kent, author of "101 Short Essays on Shakespeare" is our 'head boy' today...
At the northern end of London’s Carnaby Street, there’s a pretty decent pub called “The Shakespeare’s Head” which has been thrust into the limelight in the last couple of weeks thanks to the somewhat grisly discovery that Shakespeare’s own head might have been been nicked from his grave in Holy Trinity Church Stratford-upon-Avon. The identity of the thieves, the date of the theft and the skull’s whereabouts are currently unknown, adding yet more to the sum total of things we don’t know about the world’s greatest ever playwright.
The “story” coincidentally broke with the airing of a new TV documentary, in which proper scientists scanned the gravesite using the latest “Ground-Penetrating Radar” gizmo, thus revealing the cranial absence without disturbing what’s left of the skeleton, which would have invoked The Shakespeare Curse, as carved on the grave itself:
Good frend for Jesus sake forebeare,/ To digg the dust encloased heare;/ Bleste be the man that spares thes stones,/ And curst be he that moves my bones.
Back in 2007, a Renaissance literature scholar revealed the startling fact that anxiety about the mistreatment or exhumation of corpses is found in at least 16 of Shakespeare’s 38 plays, which also makes a great headline (geddit?!), and which would seem to indicate that Shakespeare had a morbid fear losing his own crowning asset. Look what happens to Yorick’s skull in Hamlet, as – in many productions – it is casually tossed around members of the cast without so much as a by-your-leave. What is now played for laughs might well have been profoundly disturbing to audiences who genuinely believed that to arrive headless in heaven would condemn you to an eternity “Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything”.
And, of course, head removal was a common form of execution back in the sixteenth century. In 1598, the year before the Globe Theatre opened on Bankside, no fewer than thirty heads were impaled on spikes and displayed at the Southwark end of the old London Bridge for all to see – a grisly reminder not just of mortality, but what could happen if you stepped too far out of line or got on the wrong side of Queen Elizabeth. As indeed Shakespeare almost did when his acting company somehow managed to get themselves embroiled in the Earl of Essex’s failed rebellion in 1601. Essex lost his head, as did Edward Arden, a distant cousin of Shakespeare’s mother who was also found guilty of treason. So Shakespeare might well have been reminded of his own brushes with mortality as he walked, or was ferried, to work on the South Bank.
The Shakespeare play with the greatest number of severed heads must be Henry VI Part 2, which features no fewer than four: the Duke of Suffolk is beheaded by pirates; Jack Cade and his rebels behead Lord Saye for the imagined crime of promoting literacy; they also behead Saye’s son-in-law, Sir James Crowmer, and both heads are somewhat bizarrely mounted on poles and made to kiss each other; and ultimately, Cade’s own head is severed and taken to the King for inspection.
So losing your head was a serious business. And whether Shakespeare has actually lost his (the boffins’ scans are not entirely conclusive, apparently), it’s intriguing to speculate as to who might have it, and why they nicked it in the first place. Grave robbers? Souvenir hunters? Phrenologists? Who knows?
But whatever the case, it’s yet another dog and pony show to divert our attention from what really matters about Shakespeare – the plays he dreamed up in his head. - Paul Kent
101 Short Essays on Shakespeare is an accessible and jargon-free guide, whether you're new to Shakespeare, or a seasoned playgoer. Available at Amazon UK, Amazon US, Kobo and other good eBook retailers.
Paul Kent is also the author of 'How Writers Write'.