“Blessed be the man that spares these stones, And cursed be he that moves my bones.”
Was Shakespeare's gravestone epitaph a curse? Did it work, or did the church move his bones?
“Item, I give unto my wife my second best bed with the furniture.”
Did Shakespeare want everyone to know that his wife was second best? Or was this bed a romantic gift?
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By Dave Saba Of Final Wish Inc.
William Shakespeare is probably the greatest and most mystery-shrouded writer in the English language. But for someone so celebrated, very little is known about him and his personal life.
Some people portray him as a loving husband and father, who left his humble upbringings in a rural town to become the Bard of Avon, granted a coat of arms and the title of ‘gentleman’. They say that the son of a leatherworker who became the municipal ale taster lived his final years in retirement, happily accompanied by his wife Anne Hathaway and their daughters.
Others suggest Shakespeare’s marriage was loveless, and more of the shotgun variety. He was 18, she was 26 and three months pregnant. Was he happily married when he wrote a series of sonnets, including one that is particularly bawdy, celebrating his “Dark Lady” mistress, who was dun-coloured with raven black eyes and hair?
To some he was the Eminem of his day, not only a writer, but a successful actor and theatre owner, who challenged the aristocracy and bragged how his “powerful rhyme” would outlast death. The South African Journal of Science published a report that pipe fragments from Shakespeare’s garden tested positive for cannabis. Some historians argue that he couldn’t possibly have written all the works attributed to him. And one historian has gone so far as to state that Shakespeare wasn’t English at all but Italian.
Unfortunately for those curious of who Shakespeare the man was, at that time an unrecorded life was the norm, and his was no different.
Death was a central theme in many of Shakespeare’s plays and poems, from funeral processions to lovers dying of ritualistic suicide in a crypt, not to mention a certain soliloquy performed with a skull in hand. This shouldn’t be surprising. The London Shakespeare lived in would be unrecognizable to us. Public executions were common, and the heads of traitors, often par-boiled and dipped in tar, were displayed and maintained on the gates of London Bridge. Crippling poverty was apparent everywhere, and frequent outbreaks of bubonic plague, as well as smallpox, syphilis, and tuberculosis helped to reduce the average life expectancy to thirty-five years.
We know that Shakespeare lived to the ripe-old age of 52, but how he died is disputed. There are records of a virulent outbreak of the “new fever”, typhus, in his area the year he died. Yet the vicar of the church where Shakespeare is buried wrote that he died after a merry meeting and hard night of drinking. A biography of Shakespeare’s son-in-law, who was a doctor, claims he had a stroke. There is no surviving record of Shakespeare’s funeral and who attended. Thankfully though, Shakespeare recorded many of his final wishes and even wrote his own epitaph.
The last two lines of his epitaph read “Blessed be the man that spares these stones, And cursed be he that moves my bones.” Apparently Shakespeare was appalled by how bodies were treated after death. He had been privy to a room in his church that was full of exhumed bones awaiting reburial, and as a result he wanted to ensure that his remains were left in peace. He was buried as he wanted, in the Church of the Holy Trinity in Stratford-upon-Avon, but as a lay rector buried in the chancel (prime real estate near the altar) he knew there was a fair chance that his remains would be exhumed in favour of someone with deeper ties to the church. Hence the curse. Shakespeare’s curse worked as he was never officially exhumed. The scary epitaph also allowed for Anne Hathaway, who died seven years later, to be buried beside him. Apparently workers were too afraid to disrupt his bones by burying them together.
Shakespeare’s will detailed many of his final wishes and it provided insight into who and what he cared about. Almost half the will concerns his daughter Judith. She’d had a rough go being excommunicated for an unofficial wedding – her husband had not secured the right license – and then having to deal with the disgrace brought on by his adultery and conviction for “carnal copulation”. Shakespeare ensured that she was well taken care of financially, and that she received his “broad silver gilt bowl”. He left the son of his deceased friend, who had been a local MP, his sword. Shakespeare also left some money for the poor of Stratford, and ensured that enough was left over for his mates and godson to have mourning rings.
There is one of Shakespeare’s final wishes in particular that keeps historians questioning the happiness of his marriage, and it concerns the “second best bed”. In his will the second best bed is all that Shakespeare left his wife. “Item, I give unto my wife my second best bed with the furniture.” Some argue that this is the proof that the marriage was loveless, or that Shakespeare was cruel to Anne Hathaway. Others disagree, saying that she must have already been provided for outside of the will, although there is no reference to this. Some of his romantic fans argue that this was a loving and sentimental gesture. Apparently the best bed in a house back then would have been a guest bed, and the second best bed would be the matrimonial bed. Theories abound. And while it’s doubtful that we will ever know the truth about much of Shakespeare’s personal life, there is no doubt that thanks to his final wishes and epitaph, we know more than we would have. And what we do know certainly provides fodder for lots of interesting discussion.
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