Long story short: new radar-imaging test indicate the skull is missing but the rest of the skeleton remains unmolested.
Today's article on the discovery in the New York Times points a finger at a 1794 break-in, and that might well be the case, but there are other instances where the church has been broken into. Below is an excerpt from my forever-in-progress book STALKING SHAKESPEARE that deals with one such break in which occurred in 1973.
Another episode of scandal regarding the Stratford bust is worth touching upon, this one involving a wayward reverend who took liberties with the law in order to pilfer a likeness of his favorite poet. In 1748 the Stratford schoolmaster Reverend Joseph Greene, who had recently signed as a witness to the planned renovation of the Stratford Monument, stole into the chancel with a cohort and made a plaster mould of the bust. Twenty-five years later Greene confessed his crime while arranging to ship the stolen mould to his brother. Greene wrote:
In the year 1748 the Original Monument of Shakespeare in the Chancel of Stratford Church was [to be] repair’d & beautifi’d; as I previously consider’d that when that work should be finish’d no money or favour would procure what I wanted, namely a mould from the carv’d face of the Poet; I therefore, with a Confederate, about a month before the intended reparation, took a good Mould in plaster of Paris from the Carving, which I now have by me . . . [Italics mine.]
After shipping the stolen mould, which has since been lost, Greene then penned an even stranger letter to his brother in which he disparaged the Shakespeare Monument at Westminster and introduced a new player to this drama, Methuselah:
I think a bust from the Original Monument, as your is [the stolen one], must be much more valuable & satisfactory, than one from his pompous Caenotaph in Westminster Abbey; which . . . though in a venerable & majestic attitude, is more likely to represent Methuselah, than our Poet, who died at the age of 53.
So what are we to make of this shadowy Methuselah posing as Shakespeare in Westminster Abbey? Methuselah, you’ll recall, was Noah’s grandfather who the Bible tell us died at age 969. The Westminster statue portrayed Methuselah, Greene wrote, whereas “our poet” was immortalized in the mould stolen from Stratford, begging the question: did Greene steal his mould because he suspected the Stratford Bust was about to be transformed into Methuselah too? Regardless, Greene’s letter makes it clear that the Westminster Shakespeare did not portray “our poet” but instead some mythologized stand-in, a fabrication, a “majestic” poet for the ages.
In 1973 Trinity Church was broken into yet again. At that time a popular notion was gaining steam that the Stratford monument, of which the bust was part, contained inside it some confession of alternative authorship. There was a big brouhaha, lots of press, but before the bust could be sounded, as scheduled, the church was breached and the bust damaged and perhaps pilfered of those purported contents. Which is intriguing enough, though of course it isn’t, not for Stratford, because it seems that during this 1973 break-in the bust was also switched.
Or at least that’s the contention of the hyper-logical Professor Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel, and she’s worth listening to because her book on Shakespeare’s images, The True Face of William Shakespeare, was published in 2006 at the end of a unparalleled seven-year investigation performed by a German super team of doctors, forensic scientist, 3D-imaging engineers, archivists, and a scholarly G-man from the German Federal Bureau of Criminal Investigation. It was, quite frankly, the most impressive study ever done on the subject of Shakespeare’s face. And while comparing the current Stratford Bust with its historical photographs and descriptions, Hammerschmidt-Hummel made a strange discovery:
My meticulous comparative examination of the specifics parts of the face, the hands, and the clothing, especially the collar, produced results which led me to the conclusion that the objects reproduced are not identical, and that the bust scrutinized in the niche of the chancel in 1996 was clearly an old, dirty and much darkened copy of the original, which in several places had been superficially repainted, but without completely covering up the old underlying grime. The most striking proof that we are dealing with two different objects is provided by the condition of the right hand. While the original bust—as written sources also attest—lacks a few fingers, which have been broken off, the fingers of the right hand of the bust photographed in 1996 are intact. The idea that there is a link with the intrusion of 1973 suggest itself. It is at that point that the original could have been replaced by a copy.
So should we now exhume Mr. Shakespeare? Well that would be opening a literal and figurative can of worms, and I seriously doubt the caretakers at Stratford will ever let that happen.