Excerpt: The Private Life of William Shakespeare

Last spring, research by Lena Cowen Orlin was featured in an article in The Guardian, “‘Self-satisfied pork butcher’: Shakespeare grave effigy believed to be definitive likeness.” Orlin’s work suggested that the memorial bust of Shakespeare in the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon may have been commissioned by Shakespeare himself. If so, the bust is more likely to show what he looked like or how he liked to be portrayed. A replica of the bust (shown below) is mounted on a wall of the Folger Shakespeare Library’s historic reading room.

Orlin, who was Executive Director of the Folger Institute from 1982 until 1996, was an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Fellow at the Folger from 2011 to 2012, working on her book The Private Life of William Shakespeare, which was published in the US today. Her book examines different aspects of Shakespeare’s life, including detailed looks at Shakespeare’s father, as well as Shakespeare’s wedding, his home, his will, and the memorial bust.

As Orlin writes, if Shakespeare commissioned the bust, “nothing we have encountered heretofore is as autobiographical as the artefact in Holy Trinity Church—a design for death that gives evidence of a life of learning and literature.” The following passage is near the start of her chapter-long discussion of this work—including a look at how well it was preserved for 130 years after his death, as his grave became an early tourist site.

The Private Life of William Shakespeare by Lena Cowen Orlin. Copyright © 2021 by Lena Cowen Orlin and published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.

Memorial bust of Shakespeare (replica) in the historic reading room, Folger Shakespeare Library. Julie Ainsworth, photographer.

Shakespeare’s monument in the chancel of Holy Trinity Church notes that he died two days before his burial, on 23 April. This is the portentous date with which his legend generally begins, the double intersection of presumed birth and recorded death with the feast day of England’s patron saint. The monument, an elaborately architectural construction of alabaster and marble made to be affixed to a church wall, feeds the legend, too. Its tall base, supported on three blunt corbels, creates the frontal surface space for a touchstone plaque bearing Shakespeare’s commemorative inscription. Two jet columns flaunting Corinthian capitals rise from the base to support an entablature that shelters a rosette-studded niche. Within appears the half-height figure of a man, sculpted from head to waist in painted limestone. Shakespeare’s effigy is bare-headed, with a moustache and goatee, wearing a black gown over a red doublet, the shirt showing as a white falling collar and white cuffs. He stands before a broad cushion, its upper half sage green, its lower half wine red, with gilded cording and gilded tassels. The figure’s left hand rests on a sheet of paper or parchment draped across the cushion; the right hand holds a quill. Above the cornice, a pedimental topper is grounded by two sandstone putti flanking a block that displays the Shakespeare coat of arms. Surmounting this block is another entablature supporting the crown of the pediment and its uppermost element, a sandstone skull. Shakespeare’s armorial shield and helmet, the bases and capitals of the columns, the rosettes, and the inscription are, like the piping and tassels of the cushion, tricked out in gold.

The inscription consists of two lines in Latin and six in English, with a miniaturized addendum giving the date of death:

Ivdicio Pylivm genio Socratem, arte Maronem,
Terra tegit, popvlvs mÆret, Olympvs habet
Stay Passenger, why goest thov by so fast,
read if thov ganst, whom enviovs Death hath plast
with in this monvment Shakspeare: with whome,
qvick natvre dide whose name, doth deck ys Tombe,
far more, then cost: Sieh all, yt he hath writt,
Leaves living art, bvt page, to serve his witt.

Obiit ano doi 1616.Ætatis.53 die 23 ap.

How authentic is the monument to its moment of creation? We know that there have been repairs and renovations over the years, some of them carefully documented. And when we try to turn back the clock by consulting the sketches and transcriptions of early witnesses John Weever, William Dugdale, and George Vertue, we discover inconsistencies. These have provoked some to suppose that the bust does not represent Shakespeare at all. One persistent argument is that it originally honoured John Shakespeare rather than his son, and that it was modified to change the genuine likeness of a merchant into a fraudulent representation of a writer. For the sceptics who question whether a glove maker’s son from provincial Stratford-upon-Avon could have authored what are generally accounted to be the greatest poetic works in the English language, the monument is a flash point.

Their misdoubts fly in the face of a body of evidence that has so far gone unexplored: cognates from the specialized genre of which Shakespeare’s monument partakes. Similar ‘demi-figure’ depictions authenticate his memorial as one of a type that accords with his time, with his travels, with his practices of performance, and with his writerly connections to books and knowledge. Here is where the search for Shakespeare brings us: to a monument that he most likely commissioned himself with these other monuments in mind. If this was the case, then nothing we have encountered heretofore is as autobiographical as the artefact in Holy Trinity Church—a design for death that gives evidence of a life of learning and literature.


Funerary monuments do not survive unmodified by age or intervention. In Holy Trinity, for instance, we encounter cautionary examples among installations in the Clopton Chapel. The commemoration of William and Anne Clopton was more traditional than that of Shakespeare; they are depicted in a medieval style, as full-length, recumbent effigies on a monumental stone chest that houses their entombed remains. As for nearly all funeral markers, there is no exact date of creation. We know only that William died in 1592 and Anne died in 1596. We also learn, from an inscription added to the wall-mounted frieze bearing images of their children and their heraldic shields, that ‘The right honourable Dame Joyce, Countess of Totnes, their eldest daughter, caused this their monument to be repaired and beautified, Anno 1630’. A tablet posted below indicates that ‘Sir John Clopton, Knight, their great-grandson, caused this again’ in 1714, and we discover that Sir Arthur Hodgson funded another refurbishment project in 1892. (Despite all this attention, the tomb inscription suffered sufficient damage over time that it is now partially unreadable.)

Less than four decades after its creation, the Clopton tomb required renovation. It was roughly the same for the Kerwin family sepulchre in St Helen Bishopsgate, London. A daughter, Joyce Featly, said that ‘in this passage of thirty-nine years’, the monument had become ‘somewhat defaced and withered’. She ‘raised, repaired, beautified’ the tomb chest, and protectively surrounded it ‘with iron bars, in a fair and graceful manner’. We do not know whether Shakespeare’s monument was tended by his sister Joan, who survived him by thirty years (dying in 1646); his daughter Susanna, who survived him by thirty-three years (dying in 1649); his daughter Judith, who survived him by forty-six years (dying in 1662); or his granddaughter Elizabeth, who survived him by fifty-four years (dying in 1670). It would seem, however, that at least one of them was willing to invest in Shakespeare’s commemoration in these after years. William Dugdale required as much as £5 from ‘the immediate heirs or nearest relations’ of the deceased before including their monuments in his 1656 Antiquities of Warwickshire, as he did with Shakespeare. The subvention was for Wenceslaus Hollar to turn Dugdale’s onsite sketches into proper print illustrations.

When a renovation was first documented in 1749, Shakespeare’s monument was about 130 years old and had already been a tourist destination for more than a century. Dugdale visited Holy Trinity Church in July 1634; a month later, a man known as ‘Lieutenant’ Hammond recorded his own trip to Stratford in his travel diary. He saw ‘a neat monument of that famous English poet Master William Shakespeare, who was born here’. Dugdale and Hammond were probably preceded by John Weever, who may have been in Stratford as early as 1618; by the King’s Men players who visited in 1622; and by Leonard Digges, who referred to Shakespeare’s ‘Stratford monument’ in his commendatory poem for the 1623 First Folio. There would be many others to come, all providing incentive for the careful and continual maintenance of a site of pilgrimage.