He was not of an age but for all time!
- Ben Jonson
William Shakespeare, to use his own expression “shuffled off this mortal coil”, on 23 April 1616. This was reputedly his 52nd birthday. He would be buried in the Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-on-Avon.
The poem that he wrote for his headstone, transliterated into modern English, reads as follows:
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.
(quoted in Shakespeare Online)
Such is the final epitaph for the greatest writer in English. These rhyming couplets are similar to the way he would announce the end of an act in so many of his plays, giving the actors their cue. So, this was how Shakespeare announced his final act.
During Shakespeare’s time, when a cemetery was full, grave diggers would dig up the bones of the bodies previously buried in the cemetery and burn them to make room for the new ones. This disgusted Shakespeare, so he wrote his epitaph accordingly to discourage anyone from digging him up (eNotes).
If this sounds disgusting, consider that cemeteries are often moved in our own time and place. They may be built over and the original headstones relocated, particularly with so much “development” around. Consider that Lang Park football stadium was built on the old North Brisbane Burial Grounds (Suncorp Stadium), also called Paddington Cemetery. This ‘was the principal place of burial of Brisbane residents up to 1875’ (Sykes 2014). In 1911, Queensland Parliament passed The Paddington Cemetery Act. This authorised the government to redevelop this cemetery and relocate the remains to another cemetery within 12 months (Brisbane City Council).
Even closer to home, the Sydney Town Hall was built over the Old Sydney Burial Ground, a cemetery which dated back to the 1790s, until a new cemetery was established at Brickfield Hill in 1820 (City of Sydney). ‘Once closed, the cemetery was neglected. By 1837 many of the headstones had been vandalised. The cemetery became “a resort for bad characters at night” and by day stray pigs, goats and horses wandered among the graves, many of which lay open’ (City of Sydney). Later that century, the Town Hall would be constructed, in two stages between 1868 and 1889, to a design by J N Wilson (Sydney Town Hall). ‘The history of the construction of Sydney Town Hall is a complex one, interspersed with scandal, subterfuge, suicide and lengthy delays’ (Sydney Town Hall).
Then there’s Central Station, built in 1906 over the old Devonshire Street Cemetery, in Brickfield Hill. Starting in 1901, bodies were exhumed here. “The remains represent thousands of persons, who, when in life, belonged to all denominations and religions” (Barlass 2015). They were relocated to various cemeteries, giving the relatives about two months to exhume them, particularly the new cemetery in Botany (Sydney Living Museums). In the 1970s, two extra unused platforms were built, Platforms 26 & 27, and are now appropriately called the “ghost platforms” (Barlass 2015).
Devonshire Street Cemetery, courtesy State Records.
So, as these examples show, old cemeteries may often die themselves and the graves be disturbed. This is in a new country like ours, barely two centuries young, so how much more would this be the case in ye olde England? Therefore we can see that Shakespeare’s epitaph had a practical purpose. However it seems ordinary compared to epitaphs of other writers such as Spike Milligan’s humorous “I Told You I Was Ill” (quoted in Roberts 2012) and the sublime inscription of John Donne:
Reader, I am to let thee know,
Donne’s body only lies below;
For could the grave his soul comprise,
Earth would be richer than the skies.
(quoted in Wheeler 2016)
Perhaps a better epitaph for the Bard, was written in the First Folio in 1623, by his great friend and rival, the fellow playwright Ben Jonson. Printed below, it is called To the Memory of My Beloved the Author, Mr. William Shakespeare.
To draw no envy, Shakespeare, on thy name,
Am I thus ample to thy book and fame;
While I confess thy writings to be such
As neither man nor muse can praise too much;
Ain’t that the truth! Anyone who has had anything to do with Shakespeare’s work would agree, a little like some ordinary person reading it, or a lot like a major Literature scholar, or even Sir Laurence Olivier.
‘Tis true, and all men’s suffrage. But these ways
Were not the paths I meant unto thy praise;
For seeliest ignorance on these may light,
Which, when it sounds at best, but echoes right;
Or blind affection, which doth ne’er advance
The truth, but gropes, and urgeth all by chance;
Or crafty malice might pretend this praise,
And think to ruin, where it seem’d to raise.
These are, as some infamous bawd or whore
Should praise a matron; what could hurt her more?
But thou art proof against them, and indeed,
Above th’ ill fortune of them, or the need.
I therefore will begin. Soul of the age!
The applause, delight, the wonder of our stage!
My Shakespeare, rise!
This part is well done, because it sounds like Jonson is presenting Shakespeare on the stage, announcing him yet again.
I will not lodge thee by
Chaucer, or Spenser, or bid Beaumont lie
A little further, to make thee a room:
The comparison here is to other poets: the great Chaucer was author of the Canterbury Tales, Spenser was a contemporary, who wrote the Faerie Queene.
Unlike Shakespeare, all these men were buried in Westminster Abbey.
Thou art a monument without a tomb,
And art alive still while thy book doth live
And we have wits to read and praise to give.
This is still true, 400 years later. Now he could add not only his book doth live, but the many versions of it on radio, the silver screen and the internet. This will be true on the quadcentenary of the First Folio in 2023, it will almost certainly still be true however they will read it on the quincentenary in 2123.
Forever, people who like Shakespeare’s work will ‘have wits to read and praise to give’.
That I not mix thee so, my brain excuses,
I mean with great, but disproportion’d Muses,
For if I thought my judgment were of years,
I should commit thee surely with thy peers,
And tell how far thou didst our Lyly outshine,
Or sporting Kyd, or Marlowe’s mighty line.
He compares him here to other playwrights of the time; delightful as their work is, it is not as memorable as Shakespeare’s 37 plays.
And though thou hadst small Latin and less Greek,
Jonson has to show off his superior scholarship here from Cambridge, compared to the old boy of the King’s New School, Shakespeare’s only education.
From thence to honour thee, I would not seek
For names; but call forth thund’ring Aeschylus,
Euripides and Sophocles to us;
Pacuvius, Accius, him of Cordova dead,
He compares Shakespeare to the classic Greek playwrights, in particular the tragedians. Certainly, we can say that some of his tragedies are as twisted as these have always had a reputation for being.
To life again, to hear thy buskin tread,
And shake a stage; or, when thy socks were on,
Leave thee alone for the comparison
Of all that insolent Greece or haughty Rome
Sent forth, or since did from their ashes come.
Triumph, my Britain, thou hast one to show
To whom all scenes of Europe homage owe.
He is saying here that Shakespeare was as great as all the Greek and Roman playwrights. Jonson has a touch of patriotism here, saying that a British author should be so distinguished.
He was not of an age but for all time!
Ain’t that the truth! This is the best line in the play, as generation after generation, century after century, have appreciated the Bard’s work – even once the words began to sound antique to their ears.
This is the epitome of Shakespeare’s legacy.
And all the Muses still were in their prime,
When, like Apollo, he came forth to warm
Our ears, or like a Mercury to charm!
Nature herself was proud of his designs
And joy’d to wear the dressing of his lines,
Which were so richly spun, and woven so fit,
As, since, she will vouchsafe no other wit.
Once again, he uses classical comparisons, from Greek mythology.
The merry Greek, tart Aristophanes,
Neat Terence, witty Plautus, now not please,
But antiquated and deserted lie,
As they were not of Nature’s family.
Now Jonson addresses the comedies, saying that Shakespeare was as great as the ancient comedy playwrights.
Yet must I not give Nature all: thy art,
My gentle Shakespeare, must enjoy a part.
For though the poet’s matter nature be,
His art doth give the fashion; and, that he
Who casts to write a living line, must sweat,
(Such as thine are) and strike the second heat
Upon the Muses’ anvil; turn the same
(And himself with it) that he thinks to frame,
Or, for the laurel, he may gain a scorn;
For a good poet’s made, as well as born;
And such wert thou. Look how the father’s face
Lives in his issue, even so the race
Of Shakespeare’s mind and manners brightly shines
In his well-turned, and true-filed lines;
In each of which he seems to shake a lance,
As brandish’d at the eyes of ignorance.
This is a pun on his name, another way of saying “shaking a spear”. The rest is true, regarding his lines.
Sweet Swan of Avon! what a sight it were
To see thee in our waters yet appear,
And make those flights upon the banks of Thames,
That so did take Eliza and our James!
This aquatic metaphor comes from the Avon River, flowing through Stratford, Shakespeare’s hometown. He compares him to a swan; certainly a compliment, even before the Ugly Duckling story. He then says that Shakespeare has come to London, where the Thames flows, to delight even royalty, ie Queen Elizabeth I and later King James.
But stay, I see thee in the hemisphere
Advanc’d, and made a constellation there!
Shine forth, thou star of poets, and with rage
He now compares Shakespeare to a star, a constellation.
In those days, long before Hollywood, such an expression for a famous person, would not sound so clichéd, like it does to us. Many of those actors and actresses who have a star on Hollywood Boulevarde, made their way there by proclaiming the works of Shakespeare.
Or influence, chide or cheer the drooping stage;
Which, since thy flight from hence, hath mourn’d like night,
And despairs day, but for thy volume’s light.
He is saying here that things are dark on the stages of England, in the seven years it has been since Shakespeare’s death. His great rival playwright, while they were both living, is saying that he misses him.
However “thy volume’s light” will live on, as it continues to, four centuries later.
Ben Jonson, colour illustration after a miniature in the Royal Library at Windsor Castle.
So, in conclusion, this is a much better epitaph for such a great man, than that which is the inscription on his tomb at Stratford-on-Avon, written by Ben Jonson, a great author in his own write. This, in his death, is the only time that someone has out-written Shakespeare, the master of the English language.
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I made this my Best Critical Post – for obvious reasons. It’s about a master writing about The Master.