How did Shakespeare Die?

Shakespeare's Grave
Shakespeare's Grave. Lee Jamieson

Unfortunately, we don’t know exactly how Shakespeare died. But there are some tantalizing facts that help us build a picture of what the most likely cause would have been. In this article, we will look at the last weeks of Shakespeare’s life, his burial and the Bard’s fear of what might happen to his remains. How did Shakespeare die?

Too Young to Die

Shakespeare died at just 52. If we take into account the fact that Shakespeare was a wealthy man by the end of his life, this is a relatively young age for him to die.

Frustratingly, we have no record of the exact date of Shakespeare’s birth and death – only of his baptism and burial.

The parish register of Holy Trinity Church records record his baptism at three days old on April 26 1564, and then his burial 52 years later on April 25 1616. The final entry in the book states “Will Shakespeare Gent”, acknowledging his wealth and gentleman status.

Rumors and conspiracy theories have filled the gap left by the absence of exact information. Did he catch syphilis from his time in the London brothels? Was he murdered? Was it the same man as the London-based playwright? We will never know for sure.

Shakespeare’s Contracted Fever

The diary of John Ward, a past vicar of Holy Trinity Church, records some scant details about Shakespeare’s death, although it was written some 50 years after the event. He recounts Shakespeare’s  “merry meeting” of hard drinking with two literary London friends, Michael Drayton and Ben Jonson.

He writes:

“Shakespear Drayton and Ben Jhonson had a merry meeting and it seems drank too hard for Shakespear died of a feavour there contracted.”

Certainly, there would have been cause for celebration as Jonson would have just become poet laureate at that time and there is evidence to suggest that Shakespeare was ill for a few weeks between this “merry meeting” and his death.

Some scholars suspect typhoid. It would have gone undiagnosed in Shakespeare’s time, but would have brought on a fever and is contracted through unclean liquids. A possibility, perhaps – but still pure conjecture.

Shakespeare’s Burial

Shakespeare was buried beneath the chancel floor of Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon. On his ledger stone is inscribed a stark warning to anyone wanting to move his bones:

"Good friend, for Jesus' sake forebeare, To digg the dust enclosed heare; Bleste be the man that spares thes stones, And curst be he that moves my bones."

But why did Shakespeare deem it necessary to place a curse on his grave to ward off grave diggers?

One theory is Shakespeare’s fear of the charnel house; it was common practice at that time for the bones of the dead to be exhumed to make space for new graves. The exhumed remains were kept in the charnel house. At Holy Trinity Church, the charnel house was very close to Shakespeare’s final resting place.

Shakespeare’s negative feelings about the charnel house crops up again and again in his plays. Here’s Juliet from Romeo and Juliet describing the horror of the charnel house:

Or shut me nightly in a charnel-house,

O'er-cover'd quite with dead men's rattling bones,

With reeky shanks and yellow chapless skulls;

Or bid me go into a new-made grave

And hide me with a dead man in his shroud;

Things that, to hear them told, have made me tremble;

 

The idea of digging up one set of remains to make room for another may seem horrific today, but was quite commonplace in Shakespeare’s lifetime. We see it in Hamlet, when Hamlet stumbles across the sexton digging out the grave of Yorik. Hamlet famously holds the exhumed skull of his friend and says “Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him”.