Grave curse shows Shakespeare's fear for his bones

LONDON (Reuters) - A curse engraved on the tomb of playwright William Shakespeare may have saved his remains from being exhumed, an academic says.

Digging up the bones of the dead was common in Shakespeare’s time, either for religious or research purposes. Often remains were removed to make way for more graves, and dumped in landfill sites or even used as fertiliser.

The playwright was so fearful of this happening to his own remains that he had the curse engraved on his tomb at Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-on-Avon, as a warning to gravediggers after his death in 1616:

“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.”

Dr Philip Schwyzer, senior lecturer at Exeter University, said: “Shakespeare had an unusual obsession with burial and a fear of exhumation. The stern inscription on the slab has been at least partially responsible for the fact that there have been no successful projects to open the grave.”

Schwyzer, who explores the idea in a new book “Archaeologies of English Renaissance Literature”, added: “His epitaph marks his final, uncompromising statement on a theme that preoccupied him throughout his career as a writer for the stage.”

The private nightmare is depicted in work such as Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet and Richard III.

Anxiety about the mistreatment or exhumation of corpses is found in at least 16 of the 37 plays, with this concern often being more pronounced than the fear of death itself.