William Shakespeare (1564-1616) was buried in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford upon Avon in Warwickshire. Shortly after Shakespeare's death there was some talk about removing his remains from Stratford to Westminster Abbey but the idea was soon abandoned. Poet William Basse wrote:
Renowned Spenser, lie a thought more nigh to learned Chaucer; and rare Beaumont, lie a little nearer Spenser, to make room for Shakespeare....
Ben Jonson also wrote the lines:
My Shakespeare, rise! I will not lodge thee by Chaucer or Spenser, or bid Beaumont lie a little further on to make thee room.
But it was not until 29th January 1741 (1740 in Old Style dating) that a memorial statue to him was finally erected in Poets' Corner (although the Dean and Chapter had given leave to erect a monument to him back in 1726 at the request of John Rich. Perhaps funds were not forthcoming at this time).
The life-size white marble statue, shown in the dress of his period and wearing a cloak, was erected by the 3rd Earl of Burlington (Richard Boyle), Dr Richard Mead, Alexander Pope and Tom Martin. Charles Fleetwood of the Drury Lane Theatre and John Rich of Covent Garden Theatre gave a benefit to help raise funds for the public subscription. The monument was designed by William Kent and executed by Peter Scheemakers, and both signed it, with the date 1740. The Dean and Chapter of Westminster charged no fee for its erection.
The Latin inscription above the head of the statue, in gold on a panel of dark marble, can be translated:
William Shakespeare [erected] 124 years after [his] death by public esteem.
The carved heads of Queen Elizabeth I, Henry V and Richard III appear on the base of a pedestal. The figure of the poet, about 5 feet 6 inches in height, stands with his right leg crossed in front of his left, leaning his elbow on a pile of three books (they have no titles). A chaplet (wreath of bays, signifying immortality) with a dagger (symbol of tragedy) and a dramatic mask are also shown above the head of Richard III. The group is in front of a pedimented architectural frame. William's left hand index finger points to a scroll hanging from the pedestal on which is painted a variant of Prospero's lines from The Tempest:
The Cloud capt Tow'rs,
The Gorgeous Palaces,
The Solemn Temples,
The Great Globe itself,
Yea all which it Inherit,
And like the baseless Fabrick of a Vision
Leave not a wreck behind.
Some of the black paint has rubbed off this inscription so some letters are now incomplete. The last but one line of the inscription appears in The Tempest as "And, like this insubstantial pageant faded" and the substituted line (which should be "And, like the baseless fabric of this vision") should head the quotation. It is not clear why this variation was used.
The inscription on the base of the memorial was added in 1977 (to make it clear to visitors who might not be able to read the Latin):
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE 1564-1616
BURIED AT STRATFORD-ON-AVON
There is no other wording on the memorial. Originally there were railings in front of the monument but these were removed, probably in 1821. On the marble ledge between the feet of the statue the letters "T.T.1787" are incised. This is probably graffiti by a Westminster schoolboy, as there are many other monuments in the Abbey that were defaced by initials by boys at this period. The monument was last fully cleaned in 1997.
Several actors and actresses particularly known for their Shakespearian roles are buried or commemorated in the Abbey - David Garrick, Sarah Siddons, Sir Henry Irving, Philip Kemble, John Henderson, Hannah Pritchard, Peggy Ashcroft and Laurence Olivier.
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey by James Wilkinson, 2007
Gentleman's magazine for February and May 1741
"The monument to the memory of Shakespeare" by Ingrid Roscoe, in Journal of the Church Monuments Society IX, 1994
"Peter Scheemakers" by I. Roscoe, Walpole Society, 1999
"Shakespeare. Staging the World" by J. Bate and D. Thornton, 2012
The Victoria & Albert Museum and Ashmolean Museum Oxford have drawings by James Gibbs which may be designs for the proposed 1726 memorial
There is also a memorial for Shakespeare in Southwark Cathedral in London.
© National Portrait Gallery, London [Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND 3.0]
This image can be purchased from Westminster Abbey Library
Image © 2023 Dean and Chapter of Westminster