What We Know About Shakespeare's Death

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

A portrait of William Shakespeare is pic

AFP / Getty Images

Often regarded as the greatest playwright of all time, William Shakespeare is said to have died on April 23, 1616, which is believed to have been his 52nd birthday. The exact date of his death technically isn't certain, however; the only known end-of-life documentation for Shakespeare is a record of his burial on April 25. His death date is assumed to have been two days earlier.

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

The Cause of Shakespeare’s Death

The cause of Shakespeare's 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 while on the deathbed, so Shakespeare was likely acutely aware that his life was coming to an end.

One theory of the cause of Shakespeare's death arose from a diary entry written by the vicar of Stratford-upon-Avon who, 45 years after the incident, 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.” However, 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 as occurring on April 25, 1616. As a local gentleman, he was buried inside Holy Trinity Church beneath a stone slab engraved with this self-written 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 a place of interest for Shakespeare enthusiasts—it is where he was both baptized and buried, marking the beginning and end of the Bard’s life.

Shakespeare's Will

Shakespeare left the bulk of his possessions to his eldest daughter, Susanna, over his wife, Anne. Anne's share famously included Shakespeare's "second-best bed," which has drawn speculation that the couple had marital troubles. 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" being reserved for guests.

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Jamieson, Lee. "What We Know About Shakespeare's Death." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, thoughtco.com/shakespeares-death-facts-2985105. Jamieson, Lee. (2020, August 28). What We Know About Shakespeare's Death. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/shakespeares-death-facts-2985105 Jamieson, Lee. "What We Know About Shakespeare's Death." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/shakespeares-death-facts-2985105 (accessed June 7, 2023).