Narrative feature

Was there a cover-up over Shakespeare’s death?

The cause of the Bard’s demise has always been pretty shadowy. Some say he died of fever, others syphilis. Lloyd Evans examines the evidence

23 April 2016

9:00 AM

23 April 2016

9:00 AM

How did the Bard kick the bucket? The 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death reignites interest in a great literary mystery. All we know for sure is that he was buried on 25 April 1616 in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford, and it’s a fair assumption that he died a couple of days earlier, around his 52nd birthday.

A dearth of evidence compels us to sift the plays for clues to his lifestyle, which may, in turn, help with the autopsy. Historians condemn this kind of detective work but their reasons seem pretty unfair. Imagine that the biographies of the last century’s leading dramatists had perished and we were trying to reconstruct their characters from their writings. We’d feel entitled to guess that Coward was a bit camp, that Beckett had his gloomy spells, that Pinter could get quite shirty, and that Stoppard enjoyed puns and had a brain the size of Canada. By the same token Shakespeare provides good evidence that he liked a drink. Many of his best-known characters are inseparable from booze: Mark Antony, Sir Toby Belch, Falstaff, Prince Hal and the other inmates of Mistress Quickly’s tavern. Macbeth is often played convincingly as a sot. Hamlet’s aversion to the bibulous culture of Elsinore may indicate the guilt of the penitent tippler. In Othello, alcohol is crucial to the story. The drunken antics of Cassio lead to his dismissal and this accelerates Iago’s plot against the Moor. But before we postulate that Shakespeare was ‘an addict’ who died of ‘alcohol abuse’ we should bear in mind a neglected fact of early modern history. Until the arrival of tea in the 18th century, the whole of Christendom was drunk all day, every day, because the only reliable means of sanitising water was fermentation. Where every drink contains alcohol, everyone is a problem drinker.

There’s a persistent rumour, which hasn’t quite the strength of a ‘tradition’, that Shakespeare succumbed to syphilis in later life. The evidence is scanty and it comes from a passage in Lear where the vagrant king delivers this salty outburst. ‘But to the girdle do the gods inherit,/ Beneath is all the fiend’s./ There’s hell, there’s darkness, there’s the sulphurous pit, burning, scalding, stench, corruption. Fie fie fie; pah pah!’ Whatever was itching Lear, it was worse than nits. And yet nothing in the later plays focuses on the nether regions with such rebarbative intensity. And in the final work, The Tempest, Shakespeare creates a central character of notably mellow and sanguine disposition. But Prospero’s serenity, if we grant ourselves permission to interpret the role as the author’s self-portrait (as Coleridge did), is perfectly compatible with the diagnosis of syphilis because, in its tertiary stage, the disease abandons its inflammatory assaults on the body and leaves the patient invisibly weakened and vulnerable to death by stroke or heart failure.

The nearest we have to a proper post mortem comes from John Ward, vicar of Holy Trinity, who entrusted this medical opinion to his diary in 1661: ‘Shakespear, Drayton, and Ben Jonson had a merry meeting and it seems drank too hard, for Shakespear died of a feavour there contracted.’

But there are puzzles here. A fever is not a natural consequence of heavy drinking. And at first sight it seems that Shakespeare and Jonson held a luvvies’ reunion with Michael Drayton, a local poet and dramatist, and all three got royally hammered. As Shakespeare recovered the next day he picked up a virus, keeled over and died. Imperfect science conflated the bug and the booze-up.

There is also a will, dated 25 March, 1616, whose wobbly signature has prompted speculation about Shakespeare’s faltering health. One theory is that the Bard knew his end was nigh and resolved to set his affairs in order at the last minute. And yet, one’s deathbed seems a curious place from which to organise a booze-up with anyone, let alone with Ben Jonson. One commentator finds corroboration for Ward’s diary in contemporary health reports. ‘A serious outbreak of typhus, known as “the new fever”, in 1616, lends weight to Ward’s story.’ But does it? Pestilences were so common in Shakespeare’s day that cities were regularly deserted by any inhabitant who could afford to escape. Such outbreaks invariably closed the theatres and forced Shakespeare to suspend his trade as a playwright. So this ‘serious outbreak’ may be no more than a sudden spate of unexplained deaths in a particular area. And Ward’s evidence, though contradictory, clearly ascribes Shakespeare’s death to two related causes: disease and over-drinking.

Criminal barristers will tell you that when more than one explanation is offered for a single event, the witness may be concealing the truth. And that’s my hunch. Ward was writing nearly half a century after the binge that he recounts in such informal but telling detail. His literary symposium features the two great playwrights of their day along with a local lad, Drayton, who blurs the contours a little and makes the picture more casually credible. But the placement of Shakespeare alongside the roistering Jonson on the eve of his death seems a little too convenient. I think we’re entitled to surmise that the syphilis rumours were not just accurate but were known to be true. Nearly 50 years later, along comes Ward, a respectable churchman and a devotee of Shakespeare, who constructs a tale that happily suppresses the last distasteful whisper about his literary hero: Shakespeare died of the pox.

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  • Cis

    The signature is shaky because it wasn’t Shakespeare who signed it: the man known to us as William Shakespeare had been dead for some months and the will we have was “signed” by his case officer once he had destroyed as much evidence as he could about the real man and created enough red herrings to fake a later date of death and to fascinate four centuries of scholars. Drayton and Jonson were probably in on the deception.

    • ziggourat

      Interesting, but to know this you must be awfully old. I hope you have written this account for the History of the time.

      • Sandra Barwick

        That was irony, I think Zig.

  • What matters is how Francis bacon died since he and his pals (not the Bard) wrote the Shakespeare works. Bacon is said to be buried in St Albans Church near where he lived but nothing now is to be found there, while rumour has it he fled to Transylvania and lived there for another 20 years or so after his faked death in England with the Racokzi family writing the der Fama with Valentin Andrea and is buried nearby in the name of St Germanus.
    There is an exciting account of Bacon’s life and loves, far surpassing anything known about the Bard, in the new faction novel The Royal Secret . see

    • Holy God we praise Thy Name

      If it was Bacon they’d be called the Works of Bacon and not Shakespeare’s Works, you dope.

    • ADW

      A secret so well kept that even Bacon himself never suspected he wrote them. The Bacon thesis was devised as a fantasy by a mentally ill woman over two centuries after Shakespeare’s death. But hey, knock yourself out

  • Holy God we praise Thy Name

    It was the Moslems who killed Shakespeare?

  • Badger

    Was it an Illuminati blood sacrifice?

  • What is wrong with this account? Let us count the ways.
    To begin with, those not well acquainted with drink have a tendency to think any merry-making is ‘overdoing it’. In their minds, there is nothing much between being churchily sober and rolling about on the floor. If Shakespeare liked a tipple with friends, and could afford it, then jolly good. But that has nothing, as the article states, with having a fever. To the point that the testimony is utterly irrelevant. Indeed, it is deduced from the supposed fever or infection that he was drunk! Which is of course rubbish. And then, why assume that the Ward fellow was any kind of judge? Some people, whatever their calling in life, past or present, are unreliable as to facts. Where did Ward get his and why should we trust any of them?
    In the end, with this as with most things Shakespearean, we don’t know and can’t know. In the end, Shakespeare died of the same thing we all do: mortality!

  • AWoLsco

    Would anyone like to see some, in fact now many, posts deleted, censored by the Spectator?

    It might be interesting to see what is censored in this supposed age of free speech, and work out why this is being done.
    What are ‘ they’ , the ‘establishment’, afraid of?
    Just click on AWoLsco, which will take you to Disqus, and then click on ‘profile’ which you will take you to the latest posts, and then scan down looking for a nice distinctive red flag, euphemistically titled ‘ pending’ or ‘detected as spam’. you’ll see a lot of red flags.
    Sure, there’s a lot of amateurish junk there, but in amongst it, is the odd wee gem….or so I like to imagine.

  • PeterH

    I think we can discount Bacon as a possible writer of Shakespeare’s plays, although he may have been plagiarised. The real evidence for the author points to Marlowe. Shakespeare produced nothing before Marlowe’s supposed death. Marlowe was a spy or informer for the government whose life was in danger. He needed to disappear. Both he and Shakespeare went to local grammar schools, (which King’s School Canterbury) was in those days. Both were sons of leather workers, a tanner and glove maker (Shakespeare) and a shoemaker and cobbler (Marlowe), skilled trades. Plays in Shakespeare’s name first appeared a few weeks after Marlowe’s alleged death. I have read that until the 1920s some of Shakespeare’s early works were attributed to Marlowe who surely in Dr Faustus produced the greatest line of all, “Was this the face that launched a thousand ships and burnt the topless towers of Ilium”.

  • Matias Jordan

    Shakespeare died in fact on may 3…

  • Joseph McGrath

    A drunken Macbeth and Hamlet? Oh, my, you’ve let someone’s “concept” get under your skin. If Shakespeare wanted it that way, why wouldn’t he write it that way? The Cassio citation, though, makes a great deal of sense. Why? Because that’s the way it’s written.

  • Sandra Barwick

    Headline asks question to which the answer is No. When did the Daily Mail get a job on the Spectator website?

  • Jack Cade

    Michael Drayton was not a ‘local lad’ but a fairly important Elizabethan/Jacobean poet in his own right.

  • Sean Lamb

    What nonsense – Shakespeare was murdered because he was becoming utterly insufferable.

    Imagine how many of those turgid late period plays he would have turned out if he had lived to 80?

    • eyeresist

      Those late plays are generally thought to have been collaborations – see the book “Shakespeare in company”. But yes, Shakes seemed less interested in making sense in his later years, and treated the words as a kind of fantastic music.

  • justejudexultionis

    More importantly, was Margaret Thatcher personally involved in the Hillsborough cover-up?

  • JM

    A better headline and standfirst might be: “Was there a cover-up over Shakespeare’s death? Lloyd Evans doesn’t know.”

  • Athelstane

    Wow. A Shakespeare conspiracy story has been online for three days, and not a single Oxfordian has done a bombing run on the combox.

  • eyeresist

    The conclusion of this article – “I think we’re entitled to surmise that the syphilis rumours were not just accurate but were known to be true” – cannot be taken seriously, and perhaps was not supposed to.

    Ward should be regarded as a recorder of local tradition (or gossip, to use its vulgar name), not as an historian or expert witness. This doesn’t mean he was wrong; the idea of a drinking party followed by morbid decline does not defy belief; it merely requires interpretation. In that age of magical thinking, the close coincidence of two notable events would naturally imply a causal link. One might also postulate that there was a popular notion of heavy drinking leading to contracting a fever (we would need to consult with social historians on this point). The correlation would make sense: apart from alcohol poisoning, there would be the danger of passing out in the cold outdoors. The taste of rancid food might be incautiously overlooked; visitors to town might bring unfamiliar viruses with them.