How Did Shakespeare Die?

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The cause of Shakespeare’s death is a mystery, but an entry in the diary of John Ward, the vicar of Holy Trinity Church in Stratford (where Shakespeare is buried), tells us that “Shakespeare, Drayton, and Ben Jonson had a merry meeting and it seems drank too hard, for Shakespeare died of a fever there contracted.” Ward, a self-proclaimed Shakespeare fan, wrote his diary fifty years after Shakespeare died and most historians agree it appears to be a baseless anecdote. It should be noted though that a serious outbreak of typhus, known as the “new fever”, in 1616 (the year Shakespeare died), lends credibility to Ward’s story.

C. Martin Mitchell, in his insightful biography of Shakespeare’s physician and son-in-law, Dr. John Hall, presents the following hypothesis: “I have formed the opinion that it was more likely than not in the nature of a cerebral hemorrhage or apoplexy that quickly deepened and soon became fatal. There are three reasons for this. Firstly, the hurried reconstruction and inter-lineated clauses of the Will not allowing time for it to be copied afresh before signature; Secondly, the earliest and clearest impressions of the Droeshout frontispiece of the First Folio show outstanding shadings, suggesting marked thickening of the left temporal artery– a sign of atheroma and arterio-sclerosis; and thirdly, such a termination is quite common in men who have undergone such continuous mental and physical strain over a prolonged period as our actor-manager-dramatist must have been subjected to throughout his, undoubtedly, strenuous career.Richard Burbage who daily shared the same theatrical life, himself died of such a seizure after twenty-four hours illness [in 1619]” (Mitchell, 79).

Unfortunately, Shakespeare’s death at the age of fifty-two will almost surely remain a mystery. We do know, however, that in a world where plague, syphilis, typhus, scurvy, tuberculosis, smallpox, malaria, dysentery and toothaches shortened a Londoner’s life expectancy to thirty-five years, Shakespeare fared quite well, leading a relatively long and healthy life.

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References
Kay, Dennis. Shakespeare. New York: William Morrow, Inc., 1992.
Levi, Peter. The Life and Times of William Shakespeare. London: Macmillan, 1988.
Mitchell, C. Martin. The Shakespeare Circle: A Life of Dr. John Hall. Birmingham: Cornish Brothers Ltd., 1949.
Picard, Liza. Elizabeth’s London. London: Phoenix Press, 2003.