Shakespeare Monument in Stratford-on-Avon church 


by David Roper © 1994


by permission of David Roper

Stratford Memorial inscription The death of William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon in 1616 touched the public interest no more than that of Edward de Vere’s decease 12 years earlier. Unlike the funerals of Spenser (1599), Beaumont (also 1616), and Jonson (1637), Shakespeare’s demise was not honoured by a burial and accompanying memorial stone at Westminster Abbey. No explanation for this neglect, other than some untold need for secrecy, is entirely consistent with the known facts at that time.

      Whether by coincidence or design nothing appeared publicly as a remembrance of Shakespeare until after the death of Anne Hathaway (1623); she being still known in the Warwickshire dialect of her husband’s family as Mrs Shaxpere. It is true that Oxford student, William Basse, had earlier written a poem urging that Shakespeare be interred at Westminster alongside Chaucer, Beaumont and Spenser, but Ben Jonson had spiked the plea with a response that appeared in the First Folio edition of the plays. Consequently, no Abbey place was to be made available for the man from Stratford. And so one mystery leads to another. Not only did Shakespeare’s death go unrecognised when it occurred, but a deliberate effort was afterwards made to prevent public recognition of him at Westminster Abbey; which even in the 17th century was seen as the resting place for the nation’s greatest.

      Upon this evidence alone, a prima facie case exists for suggesting that the man from Stratford may not, perhaps, have been the real William Shakespeare, but that he was, instead, a person who had willingly identified himself in that role as a cover for the true author. This would certainly explain the mystery surrounding his death. It would also account for the strange monument erected at Stratford in 1623.

      Contrary to Jonson’s claim that Shakespeare needed no monument, he seems actively to have contributed to the one placed inside the Holy Trinity Church at Stratford. From Dugdale’s Almanac of 1653, we learn that this monument was ordered from Gerard Johnson of Southwark in London. Since Johnson’s firm of stonemasons had already constructed the 2nd Earl of Southampton’s tomb at St. Peter’s in Titchfield, Hampshire, it is probably through this same avenue that the Stratford order was placed. Certainly, Henry Wriothesley had the money, and having been immortalised in the Sonnets, he had very good reason to serve the interest of his former friend. At the very least, there is neither evidence nor reason to suppose that the order came from Anne Hathaway or any member of her family, of whom all were uneducated and illiterate.

      The original monument - for the one on view at present is a replacement set up during the 18th century - addressed the passer-by at three levels: the dumb language of imagery; Latin prose and English verse. Both the public’s uninterest in Shakespeare’s death at the time it occurred, and the lack of recognition following, could have easily been set right by a suitable testimony. It never happened. Instead, a strange effigy, together with two very puzzling inscriptions beneath it only added to the mystery. Stratford theorists prefer to pass it by with as little comment as possible.

      When Sir William Dugdale first published a picture of the monument in his Antiquities of Warwickshire, his etching showed the figure of Shakespeare, from the trunk upwards, clutching hold of a sack of farm produce, possibly wool, since the four corners of the sack have been tied together in the manner of that time. Nicholas Rowe’s Life of Shakespeare (1709) contained a similar etching, re-affirming the presence of the bagged substance. The coat of arms Shakespeare had acquired was also depicted, together with a skull whose lower mandible was missing. On either side were two cherubs, each holding out an artefact to be associated with the figure below. One of these items was an hourglass, no doubt meant to reflect the passage of time and the mortality of the man below. The other was a spade, confirming the yeoman stock with which this same man had been associated. Both artefacts remain quite irreconcilable with the life of Shakespeare. The spade being quite comical since John Knox had already used it as an example for unimaginative (i.e. Spadish) language in the previous century. Ben Jonson had also picked on this symbol for the same reason in his Poetaster (1601). But, set in the wall of the Stratford parish church, the existence of this dumb language would have merely confirmed to the congregation, most of whom were illiterate, what they already knew: their fellow burgher had been a wealthy merchant, and his death, some years ago, had afterwards been remembered by his smart London friends.

      The total lack of any literary connexions on the original monument would not have been taken amiss. For no one in Stratford at the time of Shakespeare’s death knew him to be anything other than a merchant, a money lender and a property dealer. In fact, when in 1598, the town needed an advocate to represent their case for tax concessions in London, they sent Richard Quiney. Which is odd, because Shakespeare was already in London at the time. A fact confirmed by Quiney who discussed borrowing money from him in a letter written to Adrian Quiney, his father. Could not the town officials, at least, have consulted with Shakespeare? Or, in their eyes, was he still the uneducated ex-butcher’s apprentice, which several written testimonies of that time invite us to believe?

      Directly beneath this half-figure of Shakspeare, (as the monument calls him) and that bag of wool, there appear the first of two inscriptions.

Stratford Memorial inscriptionThe Stratford Memorial's inscription. Note: this has been inverted and computer-enhanced to increase its readability - RW


      Nestor is the arthritic old man appearing in Troilus and Cressida. When he is not remembering his lost youth, he is heard “applying” his leader’s speech, (e.g. I. iii). Even if we dig deeper and consult Homer’s Iliad, there is little more to be gained. At best, Nestor never rises above the stature of a legendary old man around whom myths were woven. Can it be that the figure at the centre of the Stratford monument, and with whom comparisons to Nestor have been drawn, was also a man of myth and legend, who likewise ‘applied’ his master’s speeches?

      That Shakespeare should next be likened to Socrates is so far distant from an attribute that The Encyclopaedia of Shakespeare (which claims to answer anything about Shakespeare) refuses to mention it. The book even omits this philosopher’s name. Stratford theorists do not have a happy time with these Latin tributes. For, whereas Shakespeare wrote excessively, Socrates wrote absolutely nothing. His lasting fame being entirely due to the works of Plato and Xenophon. But in these accounts there is conflict. For the two writers show Socrates in completely different lights. According to Xenophon, he was “the patron-saint of moral twaddle” (Hegel). But in Plato’s dialogues, Socrates appears witty, humorous and a thinker of considerable depth. One need only compare the two descriptions we have of Shakespeare - the Stratford tradesman and the London playwright - to see what the inscription writer had in mind:- a man who wrote nothing himself; yet, whose later repute as a ‘Genius’ would be seen by some as sublime, and by others as ridiculous. Not surprisingly, the third figure from antiquity, Virgil, is seized upon by the Stratford fraternity in some desperation. But in what they say they soon err. To assess Virgil in the light of 20th century scholarship, and then apply this four centuries back in time, is bad history. For it makes no sense to impose modern thinking upon bygone ages that did not share in those thoughts.

      Virgil is an excellent example. In 16th and 17th century Europe, then a major part of Christendom, Virgil was not a ‘religiously correct’ person. If we compare our own age with then, the changes we make in both literature and society, for the sake of ‘political correctness’, can be seen to have had their counterpart in changes that were formerly introduced for their ‘religious correctness’. To allow Virgil to become acceptable, a story was devised which told how he had acquired his gift of poetry from another source. Following his mysterious encounter, the entire episode became cloaked in secrecy, and the true identity of Virgil’s poetic inspiration was concealed from the public. This story first appeared in print as part of Virgil’s biography (Een Schone Historie Van Vergilius) in 1552; and afterwards spread across western and southern Europe. Since it was still extant when the Stratford monument was under construction, the implication is that Shakespeare, being likened to ‘Virgil’ for his ‘Art’, had managed to acquire a similar reputation for himself under comparable circumstances. It is certainly a thought that would have occupied the mind of the inscription writer, for he was clearly an educated person. But, then, from where did the Stratford man obtain his literary gift? And who was the real author: the man whose identity was being kept from the public? The monument having posed the question, immediately provides the answer.

      Stratford theorists do not like their hero’s monument. They are rightly suspicious of it. There seems to be a cryptic message hidden amongst its words whose revelation might shake them from their bed of complacency. So they hurry past it. Yet, are not the opening words of the next part to the inscription an injunction against just such haste?

Stratford Memorial inscriptionThe Stratford Memorial's inscription. Inverted and computer-enhanced.


Not only has each onlooker been questioned about their haste in passing-by, but they have also been issued with a challenge:—Read if you can the name of the person whom envious death has placed with in this monument of Shakspeare’s. Clearly, it is puzzling, but with all word puzzles the solution invariably lies in the different way the words can be read. For example, it is Envious Death; i.e. Death with the wish to deprive, who has placed someone within the stonework of the monument; someone, whose name we have been challenged to read. Since the entire construction is far too small to hold a person, it must therefore be that person’s name we are seeking. In which case, Death has placed it within the wording directly before us.

      The very next phrase points toward a possible solution. For, if ‘Death’ is the culprit, then, according to the wording used, it is ‘Quick Nature [that has] Died’. In a cryptogram, of which this inscription is an obvious example, even to the challenge at its commencement, words may legitimately die; that is, fade away, until only a single syllable from each one is left. Those remaining are then grouped together to form a solution to the original puzzle. Quite clearly, this strategy does not apply to Quick Nature. But, if we translate these words into Latin; and a hint at changing into this language has already been suggested by the prior transposition of a noun and its subordinate adjective (something not found in English), then the matter is seen very differently. This is because ‘Quick Nature’ becomes: ‘Summa Velocium Rerum’ (for the use of velox in this context, cf. Horace, Cicero et al.). Next, by letting these words die, or fade away, the syllables that remain are Sum Ve Re. Or, SUM VERE, since grouping them together is permissible when a solution is forthcoming. Turn these words back into English, and we have “I Am Vere”. Apparently, the answer to the inscription writer’s cryptic challenge, and confirmation to the growing number of people who are already persuaded that de Vere was the hand behind Shakespeare’s poetry.

Stratford Memorial inscription       It is certainly a solution that is not out of place. Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, was the leading court poet and playwright of his day. Frustrated at being unable to publish or perform his plays outside of court, because of his nobility, he had every reason to seek an outlet for his work amongst the lower classes. Mad, bad, and dangerous to know, claimed his enemies. Perhaps, to them, he was; but then so was Byron in his day. In Henry Peacham’s 250 page book on education (1622), he placed de Vere at the head of those poets who had made Elizabeth I’s reign a Golden Age, but never once does he refer to Shakespeare. Clearly, if de Vere was the man behind the mask of William Shakespeare it would certainly explain the Stratford man’s sudden rise to riches. It would explain, too, the public silence when he died; and it would also explain why Jonson and others were intent that he should never receive the honour of a Westminster Abbey burial. It would also explain the distinction between the two sides of Shakespeare - the crass commercialism of a town merchant, and the disdain for money that occurs in some of his plays. Vere is also a solution that makes perfect sense when the rest of the inscription is read. For the person to whom reference has been made is next described as having his name on a very expensive tomb. This could not possibly apply to the Stratford man, for he was buried in a nameless wooden coffin that carried only a poorly rhymed curse. Indeed, when his wife died, and later his daughter, the curse actually prevented them being buried with him, even though this had been their wish. By contrast, at Westminster Abbey, a very costly tomb was erected in 1609 by the grieving widow of the soldier-knight, Sir Francis Vere. This splendid marble monument, which is still mentioned in Abbey literature, later became the resting place for several other members of the Vere family. Its design having been sculptured from a similar one existing at the court of Nassau, in the Dutch town of Breda. And it is this Flemish connexion that brings us to the next part of the epitaph in a quite extraordinary way.

      ‘Sieh All’, the monument proclaims. The meaning sounds clear, but the verb used is not an English word. It is from the German tongue, and would have been in common use during the 16th century, particularly in places where Low German was spoken. Is this word meant to direct attention towards the Vere tomb, with its Flemish origin? If so, the sense of the inscription implies that every thing will be revealed there. Including, apparently, the greatest mystery of all, the whereabouts of the missing Shakespeare manuscripts. See! All, That He Has Written, we are told. Have the Shakespeare papers really lain undiscovered in Westminster Abbey since the early part of the 17th century? Was de Vere secretly interred in the family tomb at the same time. The Abbey records are understandably silent on this matter, but Percival Golding, a first cousin of de Vere, wrote a history of the family in which he stated that “Edward de Vere ... lieth buried at Westminster”, (The Armes, Honours, Matches and Issues of the Ancient and Illustrious family of Veer). As a family member he was in a perfect position to know the truth.

Shakespeare Monument in Stratford-on-Avon church       H.R.H. Prince Charles, whose permission is presently required to explore this possibility, has initially declined. The idea of opening de Vere’s tomb was put to him by the Earl of Burford on my behalf, but the Prince thought it might open the way to other requests of a similar nature, and felt unwilling to take any action that might create a precedent. But this uncovers some intriguing questions. For example, how important is it to Prince Charles that the Shakespeare manuscripts should be found? Is it only important if they reveal the hand of the Stratford man, and something to be avoided otherwise? If so, who is being protected by the Prince’s decision? Not the countless students of literature who would benefit from such a discovery; not the memory of Shakespeare, himself, and certainly not the scholarly ideal of research into truth. If Shakespeare really was Edward de Vere, as the Stratford monument, along with other sources, indicate then it is time for this theory to be tested. One very obvious way, suggested by the cryptography on the Stratford monument, is to open the tomb at Westminster Abbey. Only the reputations of some university myth makers would be lost in doing so, and this must be balanced against the genuine possibility of revealing the hidden truth behind Shakespeare’s ambiguous career as a trader, merchant and usurer while writing sublime masterpieces that reviled such activity.

      The monument’s inscription ends with the same conformity to its cryptic nature as when it began. ‘Living Art’ is the theatre. And the ‘Page To Serve His Wit’, with its equally obvious double meaning, suggests that the epitaph writer, probably Ben Jonson, was playing the page in service to the Earl of Oxford’s literary talent. Certainly, Jonson’s Epitaph to Henry Lord La-ware begins in the same manner as the inscription on the Stratford monument, and the two styles are sufficiently similar as to have drawn comparisons before. Added to which, there is Jonson’s cryptic poem, Ode Allegoric, in which his ability to conceal a hidden meaning in verse is made very obvious. And, further still, there is his love of classical references which play such an important part in the monument’s message.

      Is it really feasible that a monument expected to reflect, if not extol, the best qualities of England’s greatest literary genius should instead sculpture him as a merchant? Is it also to be believed that three totally inappropriate figures from antiquity, Nestor, Socrates and Virgil should be proposed as men whom Shakespeare modelled himself upon; unless, that is, a double meaning was intended? And, is it merely coincidence that an inscription which challenges all who pass it by to read if they can whose name has been placed in the monument, should then reveal this name to be that of Vere: the literary-gifted nobleman whose contribution to art was said to have made Elizabeth’s reign so glorious? Or, is there a yet greater mystery? What is it that induces otherwise ordinarily sane people to rush to the defence of this man from Stratford, when not one single word in his own hand exists, beyond six tormented attempts at writing his own name?

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Copyright © 1994 by David Roper. The right of David Roper to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act of 1988.

This extract was taken from “The Shakespeare Story of Oxford’s Life”, to be published in part on the Internet. David Roper tells me that, following these Internet articles, some of his work has been published by a magazine edited by Bill Boyle.

David Roper has his own website

If you would like to join the growing number of committed lovers of Shakespeare’s works, who also wish to see Edward de Vere’s name reaffirmed as their author, then contact the De Vere Society... when its secretary has been selected.

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