Facts and Educated Guesses About Shakespeare's Death

His will left his 'second-best bed' to his wife

great english writer face portrait
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William Shakespeare, often regarded as the greatest playwright of all time, is said to have died on April 23, 1616, which is believed to have been his 52nd birthday. The date of his death isn't certain; the only known end-of-life documentation is a record of his burial two days later. His birth date isn't known, either, but it has been estimated based on his baptism, recorded on April 26, 1564. 

When Shakespeare retired from London around 1610, he spent the last few years of his life in New Place, Stratford-upon-Avon’s largest house, which he had purchased in 1597. Stratford-upon-Avon was a market town about 100 miles west of London on the River Avon. It is believed that Shakespeare’s death occurred in this house and would have been attended by his son-in-law, Dr. John Hall, the town physician.

New Place no longer stands, but the site has been preserved by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and is open to visitors.

The Cause of Shakespeare’s Death

The cause of his death is not known, but some scholars believe that he had been sick for more than a month before he died. On March 25, 1616, Shakespeare signed his dictated will with a “shaky” signature, evidence of his frailty at the time. Also, it was customary in the early 17th century to draw up a will on the deathbed, so Shakespeare must have been acutely aware that his life was coming to an end.

One theory of the cause of his death arose from a diary entry written by the vicar of Stratford-upon-Avon, who noted in 1661, many years later, that: “Shakespeare, Drayton, and Ben Jonson had a merry meeting, and it seems drank too hard; for Shakespeare died of a fever there contracted.” With Stratford-upon-Avon’s reputation in the 17th century for scandalous stories and rumors, it is difficult to authenticate this report, even if it was written by a vicar.

Shakespeare’s Burial

The Stratford Parish Register records Shakespeare’s burial on April 25, 1616. As a local gentleman, he was buried inside Holy Trinity Church beneath a stone slab engraved with his epitaph:

Good friend, for Jesus' sake forbear
To dig the dust enclosed here.
Blessed be the man that spares these stones,
And cursed be he that moves my bones.

To this day, Holy Trinity Church remains an important place of interest for Shakespeare enthusiasts, as it marks the beginning and end of the Bard’s life. Shakespeare was baptized and buried at the church.

Shakespeare's Will

Shakespeare left the bulk of his possessions to his eldest daughter, Susanna, more than to his wife, Anne. Her share famously included his "second-best bed," which has drawn speculation that the couple was not close. There is little evidence, however, that she had fallen out of favor. Some scholars note that the term "second-best bed" often refers to the marital bed, with the "first-best bed" reserved for guests.