Shakespeare’s Epitaph

Bardolaters have seldom been able to resist going to the Birthplace in Stratford, or to TrinityChurch, sited on the banks of the Avon, where they can pay respects to the poet-playwright’s tomb. What they see there is a dark gray slab lying flat on the floor of the chancel just at the foot of the altar. Yet, of all those who make the pilgrimage, how many have paid close attention to the epitaph inscribed on it?


Visitors who stop to read the quatrain probably don’t feel much of a response apart from a slight chill at the words “cursed” and “bones.” Perhaps a guide tells them that Shakespeare’s authorship of the epitaph has never been established; and that, if he did write it, his fears were fully justified: his remains have disappeared from beneath the stone. Either grave robbers disobeyed his exhortation and braved the curse or else at some point the flooding Avon flushed away Shakespeare’s earthly remains. Because Stratford’s most famous citizen knew that ordinary parishioners weren’t normally granted permanent tenure when they were buried inside the sanctuary, one reason for the writing of this verse incantation was to conjure away a possible eviction. That Shakespeare’s stone was left in place suggests compliance from parish authorities, even though unforeseen circumstances eventually thwarted the poet’s last request—a reasonable one, given his fame. (Comparison with the Venetian cemetery island of San Michele may be apt: the obscure dead are allowed ten years’ residence there, after which they are shipped to other cemeteries on the mainland. Only names like Stravinsky, Pound, or Brodsky can hope for undisturbed rest on this isle of the dead.) As for Stratford’s TrinityChurch, it made an extra effort and commissioned a bust of the poet, installed near his tomb, not very long after his death, one whose inscription praises his writings.

The tomb epitaph, though, doesn’t mention them, a fact bolstering the assumption that its author must be Shakespeare. What other person would have failed to dwell on the basis for the deceased’s claim to be remembered? (I believe it was Walter Coen, in a note to The Norton Shakespeare, who first made this observation.) Shakespeare scholars say that there is no reason to deny his authorship of the quatrain, even though most of them find the poem disappointing—his shortest poem and, according to many judges, little better than doggerel. Given the discovery in recent years of other poems not up to the Shakespearean standard and yet proven with near certainty to be his, possibly we can at last accept that he wrote the epitaph as well. That doesn’t mean that the spellings and abbreviations used in it were necessarily the author’s. Carvers of seventeenth-century tomb inscriptions relied on shortcuts that sometimes differed from orthographic conventions then current. (Note, for example “Ye” for “the” and “Yt” for “that.”) Besides, there was considerable latitude in spelling rules even among those with university degrees. Shakespeare may have used punctuation when he drafted the quatrain, but none survives in the inscription. We can also assume that it was entirely the tomb engraver’s decision to use upper case for most of the letters that he chiseled in the slate surface. Easier to incise than small letters, they also guarantee readability.

Granting that it is a minor work, there may be more in this miniature swan song than has been seen up to now. A quatrain composed of iambic tetrameter couplets, regular in meter except for an initial iamb that may qualify as a spondee, and an initial trochee in line three. All lines but the last use alliteration, contributing to the “folk” quality of the poem, the epitaph of a Warwickshire lad born and bred. Tetrameter couplets have a spring in their step and are often used for songs and witty poems, for example, Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress.” They seem, though, a strange choice for testamentary inscriptions, and the disaffection most critics have felt for Shakespeare’s last poem arises in part from the half-comic effect of the metrical frame. Instead of somber reflections on mortality and transience, we get a jingle, to some degree genial, about dust and bones. But isn’t this the gallows humor of a man approaching death and not wanting to seem too ponderous? It reminds us of Hamlet’s odd jocularity in the Yorick scene, or moments in Villon, or, indeed, in Marvell’s “The grave’s a fine and quiet place / But none I think do there embrace.” The bantering quality of the poem subverts elegiac pieties that the author wouldn’t feel comfortable pronouncing himself. It also softens us up for the kill, the concluding curse spat out in the final line.

Until that moment, though, smiling amicability: “Good frend, for Iesus sake forbeare.” The poet decides to regard any person taking the time to read his epitaph as a friend, even a good friend, the extra weight of that metrical stress giving the desired emphasis. Shakespeare invokes the second person of the Trinity, Godhead in fleshly form, as a support for his imputation of friendship to all visitors. Jesus had twelve disciples, including St. John, described in that gospel as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” We’re not meant to doubt that he loved Peter and Judas as well, but these two are associated, in differing degrees, with betrayals. The final curse is directed to traitors, those who do wrong to their friends. The blessing of line three is directed to “the man,” a mild honorific demoted to a bare “he” in the final curse. The friends who behave well in this world are in their way like the Master, whose Ecce homo (“Behold the man”) echoes in the epitaph’s “Blest be the man.” It’s a stock formula, found in both the Psalms and in Horace, and I will say more about it below.

As for the final line, unfamiliarity with historical grammar may lead the reader to think that “he” should be put in the objective case—“him,” as the object of the verb “cursed.” Instead, it is the subject of the verb “to be” in the optative mood: “May he be cursed,” the same mood as in “Blest be the man,” which might also read, “May the man be blest.” The first sentence of the quatrain is in imperative mood, a command or request to the reader-friend, with “you” understood; the second consists of two optative clauses in the third person, joined by the conjunction “and.” A shift of person and verb mood underlines a small but revealing shift in perspective. The first sentence brings the reader close to the speaker; the second offers a prospective view of two potential agents, one good and one bad, a sort of Last Judgment, where a sheep is directed to one side and a goat to another.

The formula of an alternative blessing and curse goes back at least to Isaac’s deathbed speech in Genesis 27:29. Isaac first proffers the curse and then moves to the serene outcome of the blessing. Shakespeare reverses that order so that the quatrain’s most startling line receives the heaviest emphasis. It’s sobering to reflect that the last verse sentence written by the Soul of the Age is a curse, but that is what we must assume until facts prove otherwise. As for the blessing, its Horatian formula, Beatus ille, is echoed in the Vulgate’s translation of several psalms, including Psalm 1; and we find a Renaissance variant of it in Du Bellay’s sonnet “Heureux qui comme Ulysse a fait un beau voyage.” (“Happy the man who like Ulysses has made a beautiful journey.”) Closer to Shakespeare, and a possible influence on the epitaph, is the conclusion to George Peele’s “His Golden Locks Time Hath to Silver Turned” (published in 1590):

Blest be the hearts that wish my sovereign well,
Cursed be the souls that think her any wrong!
Goddess, allow this aged man his right
To be your beadsman now, that was your knight.

Both works are pleas lobbying for the assent of their readers, pleas using the metrical energy of the initial trochee “Blest be.” Shakespeare’s, written while he was still alive, presents itself as posthumous, a voice from beyond the tomb. That is in itself a notional resurrection, competing with a more orthodox Christian view of life after death. Another unorthodoxy is hinted at in the author’s wish to have his remains left undisturbed, for, after all, Christian eschatology proposes a resurrection not only of the soul but also of the body. The doctrine echoes Ezekiel’s prophetic “Can these bones live?,” a question resounding through the Valley of Dry Bones only moments before thousands of scattered skeletal components began to move, stand, and reunite in a kind of sacred bricolage. Granted, in this case and in the Last Judgment, resurrection is to have been accomplished by divine, not human, agency. Recall that, in chapter 23 of 2 Kings, when King Josiah sees the tomb of Isaiah, he forbears to have the prophet disinterred, saying, “Let him be; let no man move his bones.” This is the outcome Shakespeare prefers for himself, and we know other texts where he voices reservations about an afterlife, the most famous no doubt Hamlet’s soliloquy, in which the “sleep” of death brings with it the fear of troubling dreams.

On the other hand, when Mary Magdalene visits the tomb of Jesus on the Sunday after his crucifixion, she discovers an empty tomb. Her first thought is that the body has been stolen. Later, once other disciples have come to the empty sepulcher, an angel tells them, according to the Synoptic Gospels, “He is not here, he has risen.” It is worth pondering Shakespeare’s unwillingness, after invoking the name of Jesus on his tomb inscription, to condone any disturbance of his mortal remains. He wants them to stay where they are. Because he finds the prospect of grave robbers frightening and repellent? Because he doesn’t believe in an afterlife and the resurrection of the body? Because he does believe in an afterlife and is afraid of what it might hold in store? We can only raise these questions, not answer them. In the event, his bones did stay put until accidental and unknown circumstances removed them, with the result that the visitor is con- fronted with a tomb as empty as its gospel prototype. It’s an irony of history Shakespeare seems to have anticipated as a possibility and even as a likelihood.

The epitaph rings changes on three substances, dust, stones, and bones. The term “dust” is a canonical part of Ash Wednesday ritual, where participants are told, “Remember thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return.” God formed Adam from riverbed clay, and that clay retains the permanent possibility of dying into desiccation and dust. To be reminded that we are dust encourages us to amend our lives before it is too late, to do good while we can. One good deed we might perform is to grant the wishes of a friend who asks to have his remains left undisturbed. Just as those who have gone ahead must expect a Last Judgment, so should we, and revise our conduct accordingly.

The author’s dust is “encloasèd,” an odd spelling that may or may not be Shakespeare’s. If it is his, it may be an expressive touch (we don’t find “boanes” or “stoanes” in the next lines) meant to recall the Latin cloaca, the channel for excretion, or, in cities, a sewer. If we are all clay born from the body of Mother Earth, our dust also returns to be buried in her; we begin in the womb and ultimately return to its rhyme. Dissolution into dust is accomplished in a final embrace of the matrix that earth is and a recovery of complete unconsciousness, a state Shakespeare, like Hamlet, seems to prefer to life after death. We might compare here the opening lines of the Threnos that concludes “The Phoenix and the Turtle,” Shakespeare’s one Symbolist and hermetic poem:

Beauty, truth, and rarity,
Grace in all sincerity,
Here enclosed, in cinders lie.


Death is now the phoenix’s nest
And the turtle’s loyal breast
To eternity doth rest,


Leaving no posterity.

If the phoenix’s nest is death, then at some point he will be reborn from his ashes, according to the mythological nature of his kind. The turtledove, however, will rest throughout eternity and leave no posterity. A bit farther on, with these verses in mind, I will again contrast two posthumous fates, each apportioned as Shakespeare sees fit. As early as Hamlet, though, or “The Phoenix and the Turtle” (1601), we can see that contrasting eternities were a preoccupation for him.

Dust is dusty and, when composed of human remains, depressing; but it isn’t frightening. Bones, meanwhile, are a harder substance, resisting the utter oblivion and anonymity of dust. We can’t see human bones without thinking that they were once part of a living creature, and becoming conscious of our own skeletal frame. Not for nothing is the pirates’ Jolly Roger composed of a death’s head and a pair of crossed bones. “Digging the dust” is disquieting, but “moving the bones” falls squarely within the Gothic-horror purview. Bones are that part of the anatomy that retain for centuries a small, undissolved connection to our identity. So they foster quite a lot of posthumous concern, which in the epitaph takes the protective form of the author’s curse.

Line three mentions “stones,” and the plural needs explaining. Shakespeare obviously knew only one stone would be used for the inscription. Of course he needed to rhyme, and there’s no way to turn “bones” into a single bone. But stones, meanwhile, have literary associations: the twin tablets of the Law that Moses brought down from Sinai; the stones Orpheus made dance when he sang to his lyre; and the stones on which public inscriptions are made, either on an arch of triumph or a tomb. Neither dust nor bones can be used for inscriptions. (Or water: hence the paradoxical epitaph of Keats, “Here lies one whose name was writ on water,” a lapidary lament ignoring the fact that its words are inscribed on stone.) Shakespeare’s protective reference to testamentary stones might be a reference to the part of him that is literary and therefore not subject to the mutability of time and death. The man who “spares these stones” will bring a sufficient regard to the author’s literary productions; he will thereby deserve and experience a blessing.

By contrast, the disturber of bones is a malefactor and should be cursed. Shakespeare’s skeleton is the semi-permanent part of him, not his immortal verse (more lasting than bronze, marble or gilded monuments) but a relic of the material being who wrote. “Bones” can recall violent deeds, and they also retain a faintly sexual connotation—Adam’s rib, and so forth. Shakespeare’s human, pre-literary component might become the subject of biographies, and its frailties recorded; for example, poaching on the local lord’s property, seducing a young woman his social superior whom he more or less abandoned for many years; plus engaging in who knows how many sexual adventures and shady deals while he amassed a fortune directing a company of players in a cutthroat capital. A film made by the BBC several years ago about the composition of the Sonnets gave us a Shakespeare torn between love for a young nobleman and lust for a North African prostitute. It is she (in this fanciful scenario written by William Boyd) who gives him the syphilis that eventually causes his death, a disease some of Shakespeare’s biographers have also attributed to him. After all, the surmise can’t be disproved. Illness is often experienced with embarrassment, and, when a sexually transmitted disease is involved, embarrassment can turn to shame.

Yet Shakespeare might well have been embarrassed by many of his early mistakes, quite apart from any illness. If my hunch is right, this epitaph is the first expression of what was later to become a fear often mentioned by writers: the fear of having the record of their deeds recalled and discussed after death. Anxiety concerning the judgment that posterity is likely to make explains all the burning of letters, diaries, and “Aspern papers” we know about, from Byron to Henry James to Auden, and is encapsulated in Wilde’s acute comment: “Modern biography has added to death a new terror.”

Shakespeare’s epitaph shows that he wished to be remembered only in his writings; facts about his private life should not be dug up. No doubt there were many of the poet’s contemporaries who knew, as the slang phrase goes, “where all the bodies were buried.” “The evil that men do lives after them; / The good is oft interred with their bones,” Antony says in Julius Caesar. But he is being ironic, inverting a principle fundamental to Christianity if not to Roman religion, i.e., that sin dies permanently whereas goodness lives forever. And yet, in some cases, part of the deceased person’s identity has the luck of being transformed into works of art, indeed, words permanent as stone, even when not inscribed on it. It lives on afterward as a strange blend of fictional good and evil, but not as a legal deposition in a case being made against the author. Returning to “The Phoenix and the Turtle,” I propose that we associate the phoenix with Shakespeare’s poetry and the turtledove with his life as a physical being. Joined while he lived, they must eventually part company after his death, one due for permanent revival, the other left to eternal rest.

We have to admit that writers’ dread of biography is well founded. Consider what has happened to the reputations of Frost, Lowell, Plath, and Larkin (to some extent, even to Elizabeth Bishop) once the drama of their private choices came to light. It’s an especially acute concern of poets, whose instabilities are often prime fodder for the sort of treatment Joyce Carol Oates has termed a “pathography.” Actually, reading these appalling books can provoke a mental state that in some ways resembles the condition of accursedness. We’re ashamed for our species, finding little mitigation in the thought that “Great Wit is sure to madness near allied,” that the working conditions of artists, especially poets, seem almost fiendishly designed to increase a sense of anxiety and pain. Underpaid for their writing, they usually have to take work unrelated to their actual gifts, still without earning enough to live comfortably. To this kind of deprivation may be added feelings of guilt that choosing the artist’s vie de Bohème exposes not just themselves but also their children and spouses to hardship and insecurity. Meanwhile, they are never given rock-solid assurance that what they do has lasting value, even when fame overtakes (and sometimes overwhelms) them. We can all remember savage reviews, even of celebrated writers, the resulting damage to personality and artistic production anybody’s guess.

For our part, when we read these pathographies, we may join the chorus of detractors and report that admiring a body of work has become impossible, that appreciation is now irreversibly compromised by what we’ve come to know about the author. Or we may not. The quality of mercy in such instances may take the form of putting aside the detestable aspects of an author’s life and taking pleasure in its fabular, verbal form. Blessed be those who can manage it. Despite his curse, a considerable amount of biographical fact about Shakespeare is now available. And almost never do you not see a vase of flowers on that dusty, gray, admonishing stone in Trinity Church.