Gratified as I was to note how many people still hold this country’s history dear, when Richard III’s remains were re-interred at Leicester Cathedral last month, it didn’t take long for contemporary thought to add a disturbing footnote.
The most charitable thing I can say about Prof. Francis Thackeray, from South Africa’s University of the Witwatersrand, is that he appears to be a little giddy with the excitement of the moment. Now that Richard III has unexpectedly returned to the forefront of modern British consciousness, he suggests, wouldn’t it be grand if we could do likewise with another of our famous names; William Shakespeare?
Not by opening a museum dedicated to him or brushing up his plays with a modern twist and sending them out on tour. Oh no: Mr Thackeray would have us dig up his coffin and remove the lid.
“‘Given the extraordinary success of the study of the skeleton of Richard III, we recognise the potential of undertaking forensic analyses of the Bard,’ he said.
“Prof Thackeray believes analysis of his bones could reveal new information about how the playwright lived, what he ate and drank, whether rumours are that he smoked cannabis are to be believed, The Times reports.
“However, he acknowledged that the epitaph on Shakespeare’s grave might prove to be a stumbling block.
“The Bard is said to have lived in fear of exhumation and had an unusual obsession with burial and the mistreatment of corpses.”
Apparently, thank heaven, objections have already been raised to this notion.
.”..sceptics include Stuart Hampton-Reeves, the head of the British Shakespeare Association, who questioned the value of the proposed investigation.
“‘None of the big questions — how he worked, how he put the plays together, what it was like to be at a performance — are going to be solved by examining the bones. It would produce a lot of publicity, and not much research,’ he said.”
Despite the different opinions, you may notice a rather odd similarity. Neither man even hints at the considerations of morality or common decency that would persuade many of us not to touch this idea with a 10-foot pole. It is as if that aspect hadn’t even occurred to them.
Would Thackeray talk so glibly about the mortal remains of someone buried in 1985 or 1999, I wonder? Especially were it someone he knew. What year would represent his cut-off date, beyond which people cease to be people and become artefacts, fair game for ghouls in lab coats? I give him the benefit of the doubt here and assume that he actually has a cut-off date.
No doubt there are fine lines to be drawn between Man’s investigate spirit and respect for the dead but it would be comforting if people presumably not lacking in grey matter actually acknowledged that fact. The past may be a foreign country but its natives were flesh and blood human beings. They had a sense of right and wrong and no doubt a hope that the phrase ‘rest in peace’ would mean exactly that.
Give it another four hundred years and we shall have all emigrated to that land ourselves. Should our own coffins cross paths with archaeological endeavour, we can only hope the guys holding the trowels are a little more nuanced than Prof Thackeray seems to be.