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"Here's our own hands against our hearts."

Benedick speaks facetiously, but for Shakespeare, at least, there might actually be a case of his hand moving against his heart. The very hand that had produced some of the greatest works of the English language may have also ended his career as a playwright.


No one is certain why after twenty years in London, Shakespeare decides to move back to Stratford away from theatre life, but his suffering from a severe hand tremor is a fact on which historians can agree. The evidence is found in his handwriting. Some scholars suggest his handwriting began to worsen at age thirty-six from the abundance of misreading errors printed in the early versions of the later plays, including Othello, Hamlet, and Lear. This, coupled with the fall in his writing output after 1603 (dropping from two new plays per year to only one), makes us look side-eyed at his last three plays, Henry VIII, The Two Noble Kinsmen, and the lost play Cardenio-- all collaborations. The collaboration itself is not strange, being common in Shakespeare's time and how we believe he got his start on the competitive London scene. As a mature playwright, he was recruited to salvage other plays many times as well. But when it came to his own plays, his writing didn't require outsourcing. His contributions to Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen also show no decline in quality or richness (the difference in skill between himself and John Fletcher being painfully apparent sometimes). So if his writing didn't need shoring up, why John Fletcher? Why anyone? It's hard to believe Shakespeare would've accepted this arrangement unless he was physically unable to do it himself. So coming back to his hand, why did it shake?


Parkinson's disease has been considered, but ultimately put aside. The disease is more associated with the pollutants of the Industrial Revolution and accompanied by characteristically tiny handwriting (micrographia): Shakespeare's handwriting was unsteady but normal in size. Historians also doubt writer's cramp as Shakespeare was known to write in short frantic bursts (Ben Jonson famously grumbled, "he never blotted out a line") and periods of slow revision; nothing like the daily long hours of writing necessary to develop the scrivener's palsy, as it was called then. Another possible cause is essential tremor. It's onset is often in the mid-thirties, matching Shakespeare's timeline, impairing handwriting and worsening with stress and exertion. Interestingly, alcohol alleviates the symptoms and may explain, in part, the tales of Shakespeare's drinking passed around Stratford in the years after his death. But self-medicating with alcohol can cause intention tremors or task-oriented tremors. Evidence for this can be found in his surviving signatures: legible to start, but chicken scratch in the end. But whatever it was that made his hand shake, it forced Shakespeare into early retirement.


The last lines Shakespeare ever wrote (aside from his ominous tomb curse) are from scene 5 of The Two Noble Kinsmen and seem to carry his farewell to the stage:


O you heavenly Charmers, What things you make of us! For what we lacke We laugh, for what we have, are sorry: still Are children in some kind. Let us be thankefull For that which is, and with you leave dispute That are above our question. Let’s goe off, And beare us like the time.


"Let us be thankefull | For that which is": if only he knew how much were are still grateful for the words he's given us 400 years after he voluntarily put down his quill. You've never gone out of style, Will.





*from among his surviving six signatures


Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. New York: Riverhead Books, 1998.


Ross, John J. Shakespeare's Tremor and Orwell's Cough: The Medical Lives of Famous Writers. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2012.

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