Did someone steal Shakespeare's head?

The grave of William Shakespeare
A general view of the grave of William Shakespeare at the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon, England.
Ben Pruchnie | Getty Images

Every week, The Thread tackles your book questions, big and small. Ask a question now.

This week's question: Where is Shakespeare's head?

In a twist worthy of one of his plays, Shakespeare's cranium may be missing in action.

Rumors of the wayward skull started in the 1800s, when an anonymous story was published in a British magazine, the Argosy. The story claimed that a group of gravediggers had raided the Bard's final resting place in 1794 and made off with the head for a prize of 300 guineas. (Skull-thieving was not uncommon at the time.)

These thieves — if the story is true — were braving the risk of a curse from Shakespeare himself. The inscription on his tombstone reads:

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Good friend for Jesus sake forbeare,
To dig the dust enclosed here.
Blessed be the man that spares these stones,
And cursed be he that moves my bones.

The inscription on William Shakespeare's grave
The inscription on William Shakespeare's grave promises a curse upon those who move the poet's bones.
Ben Pruchnie | Getty Images

It isn't exactly clear what happened to the head post-theft. (No word yet on if it's being used as a prop in "Hamlet.") This year, in time to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death, a team of modern archaeologists set out to investigate this long-running tale. Using ground-penetrating radar, researchers scanned Shakespeare's gravesite at Holy Trinity in Stratford-Upon-Avon.

"What we found is that half of his grave is undisturbed," archaeologist Kevin Colls told NPR. "And then the head end, so where his skull would have been, there is voids."

Colls interprets these "voids" as confirmation that the master playwright is in fact missing his head. Channel 4 produced a documentary on the research effort.

Not everyone agrees with Colls' conclusion, though. The vicar of Holy Trinity told The Guardian, "We are not convinced, however, that there is sufficient evidence to conclude that his skull has been taken."