UNIVERSITY OF THE WITWATERSRAND, JOHANNESBURG

Here lies Shakespeare...

By Vivienne Rowland

29 June 2011

A Wits professor’s plans to shake up the Bard’s bones have made headlines locally and abroad, in a bid to establish exactly how he died centuries ago.

The average Shakespeare fan might be a little weary of exhuming the English literary master’s remains, since his gravesite is ominously guarded by a stern warning: “Blest be y man yt spares these stones and curst be he yt moves my bones”, but Prof. Francis Thackeray, Director of the Institute for Human Evolution at Wits, says he and his team are not planning on invoking the curse, which has been effectively keeping Shakespeare-gravediggers at bay for nearly four centuries. “We don’t plan to move the bones. And the curse said nothing about teeth,” says Thackeray.

Thackeray and a team of scientists hope to answer the secrets the English writer took with him into the afterlife, by scanning the bones with a 3D portable laser surface scanner, thereby not removing the bones and possibly bringing ill wishes upon themselves. After the scans are uploaded onto a computer, scientists will be able to draw information on individual characteristics from the bones.

“This project relates to forensic anatomy and chemistry. The proposal was sent to the parish church of Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon, where Shakespeare is buried, in May and we are still waiting for a formal response from the vicar Reverend Martin Gorick, or a member of the Parochial Committee,” says Thackeray.

“From the scans we might be able to produce a 3D replica of the skull and reproduce Shakespeare’s face, and possibly take DNA from his teeth.”

Thackeray’s fascination with Shakespeare started when he saw his first Shakespeare play, Richard III, many years ago with his parents in the writer’s hometown. About ten years ago he got a wiff that the writer’s references to ‘weed’ and creative writing (‘invention’) referred to Cannabis (dagga) in a certain sonnet which also appeared to refer to drugs (‘compounds’). This led Thackeray to wonder if Shakespeare ‘was ever under the influence’ while writing, and as a trained chemist, he approached the museum in Stratford-upon-Avon, and requested to test some of the original pipes discovered in Shakespeare’s garden and elsewhere in that region. 

Dagga was found in eight out of 24 clay “tobacco” pipes, and cocaine was recorded in two samples.   The results have been published in the South African Journal of Science. “Through chemical analysis it was possible to determine that Cannabis was accessible to the Bard within his lifetime in England,” says Thackeray.

His quest to expose mysteries of the Bard does not end there. If all goes well, he also wishes to dig up Shakespeare’s wife Anne Hathaway and his daughter, Susanna, and to undertake DNA analyses of these members of the Shakespeare family, using extremely small samples of dentine from the teeth.