Almost everything about Shakespeare’s life is an enigma – but what about his death? Well, that’s an intriguing puzzle in its own right. Because, in between arguing about whether or not Shakespeare even existed, or whether he wrote his plays, or what religion he was, experts have debated the question of how and why the world’s greatest dramatist died when he was barely in his 50s.
It’s generally agreed William Shakespeare passed away on 23 April 1616. We also know where it happened: Stratford-upon-Avon. Possibly the most widely-known trivia tidbit relating to Shakespeare’s death, because of its unintentional amusement value, is that he left his wife his “second best bed” in his will. But actually, this famous will is one of the few useful clues we have about how he might have died.
Before looking more closely at that, another theory has to be discussed. The most colourful theory of all: that William Shakespeare, the most profound and influential genius in the annals of English literature, died as a direct result of getting drunk with his mates.
This oft-repeated legend comes from the diary entry of a certain John Ward, the vicar of Stratford, who noted that “Shakespeare, Drayton, and Ben Jonson had a merry meeting and, it seems, drank too hard, for Shakespeare died of a fever there contracted”. It conjures up a compelling image: three of the greatest poets of their age having a wild night on the town, knocking tankards of ale together and misbehaving with abandon.
William Shakespeare, the most profound and influential genius in the annals of English literature, died as a direct result of getting drunk with his mates.
The problem is, John Ward’s entry was actually scribbled down several decades after Shakespeare’s death, and is now widely dismissed as nothing but a tall tale – a bit of salacious Stratford gossip that’s been passed down through the ages. It does raise the key question, though: was the Bard’s death sudden and unexpected, or the result of a longer illness? Did Shakespeare see it coming?
Those who believe in the “sudden death” theory point to circumstantial evidence – such as the lyrical tribute by a contemporary poet, James Mabbe, which suggests an abrupt demise: “We wondered, Shakespeare, that thou went'st so soon / From the world's stage to the grave's tiring room.”
And there’s the matter of the wording of his will, written just weeks before he died, which begins with a declaration by Shakespeare that he’s “in perfect health & memory, God be praised”. We should be wary about taking this at face value, however, because this may have just been a conventional, generic way of beginning a legal document.
The more convincing conclusion to draw from the fact that less than a month elapsed between the writing of the will and Shakespeare’s death is that he was ill, and knew that the end was approaching. Infrared examination of the fragile document has shown that it had previously been drafted a few months earlier, in January of that year. For some reason, Shakespeare saw fit to update it in March, just before he died. This points to him being stricken with an illness and making his final arrangements in the fleeting time he had before death took him.
But what might the illness have been? Shakespeare’s era was rife with infectious diseases – including outbreaks of bubonic plague which would force the closure of London theatres. Poor sanitation also made typhus an ever-present risk, while there’s even been speculation that Shakespeare succumbed to the ugly effects of tertiary syphilis. The sexually transmitted disease ran life wildfire through London at that time, with surgeon William Clowes ruefully noting how “an infinite multitude” of patients were being treated for it.
There’s even been speculation that Shakespeare succumbed to the ugly effects of tertiary syphilis.
Ultimately, it’s impossible to pinpoint the exact malady that may have afflicted the Bard, but that hasn’t stopped some from trying. A writer called C. Martin Mitchell, who wrote a biography of Shakespeare’s son-in-law, confidently asserted that it was a cerebral haemorrhage – partly because in the much-circulated Droeshout portrait of Shakespeare there seems to be evidence of “marked thickening of the left temporal artery”.
Some have gone even further, suggesting foul play. In his book “Who Killed Shakespeare?”, Andrew Stirling plays out the idea that Shakespeare was silenced by Protestant agents because he was a secret Catholic. While it’s long been postulated the Bard was indeed a Catholic (with Hamlet sometimes regarded as one long extended metaphor about how Catholicism was forcibly shoved aside by Henry VIII), this is perhaps the least convincing theory of all. Though, as with all things Shakespeare, the debates are sure to continue. It probably wasn’t that hangover, though…