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Shakespeare's Death: How Many Times Can We Say 'Speculation'?

"Tired with all of these, for restful death I cry." - Sonnet LXVI

It's amazing all the good stuff there is on Shakespeare's death considering how little we actually know. We have petty slights, revised wills, gifted swords, cursed graves, and a lot of missing information intriguingly filled in with speculation. Parsing the fact from the fancy takes a little bit of effort.

The familiar narrative goes a little like this: William Shakespeare charmingly dies on his birthday, April 23, 1616, in his Stratford home. Two friends, Ben Jonson and Michael Drayton, came up to visit him and enjoyed a particularly hard night of drinking that kills a feverish Shakespeare the next day, just as he reaches the incredibly old age of 52. No one is surprised at this. William had taken to drinking heavily in the three years before his death, the poor dear. What really surprises people is the parting shot to his wife, bequeathing his "second best bed" to Anne Hathaway as a lasting reminder that she was second place in his heart and in his bed (cue in the "beautiful youth" and "dark lady" sonnets). But charming once again, he places a lovely curse on his grave against all who would disturb his eternal rest. And so ends the life of William Shakespeare. Wrong. Well, partly wrong.

Or rather, it might be more accurate to say "misleading". And very much contested by historical evidence and more speculation, but you know, updated speculation.

"The worst is death, and death will have his day." - Richard II

  • Maybe he died on his birthday. Maybe not. The only end-of-life documentation we have is the burial on April 25, 1616, so it's mostly an educated guess he died two days earlier. It's a lovely idea, and entirely possible; so it became the accepted death day. And while it was vogue to "make a good death", meaning your earthly affairs were in order (your will) as well as your spiritual ones (ready to meet your maker in your own bed surrounded by family), there is nothing that places Shakespeare in his Stratford bed at his death. It's just the most likely scenario.

"Drink, sir, is a great provoker of three things...nose-painting, sleep, and urine" - Macbeth

  • The beloved story of Shakespeare's last night on earth getting black-out fever drunk with friends originated with a local vicar 45 years after his death. It's a myth. While Ben Jonson and Michael Drayton conceivably could have visited Shakespeare in Stratford, being friendly rivals and within easy distance, it is unlikely that an accurate portrayal of the events survived in the town's collective memory a half century later. More likely the vicar borrowed the weight of Shakespeare's fame for a home-grown cautionary tale against the evils of alcohol. But that would be speculation. And for his drinking problem? There are some mentions of it from London acquaintances before he leaves for Stratford, but most accounts also surface many years after his death, so who's to say?

"So wise so young, they say, do never live long" - Richard III

  • Life expectancy in early modern times is heavily debated among experts. The high death rate among children and pregnant women skews the average to a low 35 years of age which would make 52 very old indeed. But really, if you could make it to 30, barring accident or illness, you had a very good chance to make it to 60. But living well into your 80s was possible, too, and not hugely uncommon; Shakespeare's own daughter, Judith, lives to age 77. So an enthusiastic pub crawl for his 52nd birthday would be ill-advised, not recklessly fatal. Don't be ageist, historians.

"By medicine life may be prolonged, yet death will seize the doctor too." - Cymbeline

  • If a drunken fever wasn't a likely killer for a man of 52, there were other fevers that could get the job done. Typhoid fever was plentiful in water-adjacent Stratford, so it's possible Shakespeare could have contracted it. However, many scholars don't like the sudden fever theory at all, but a long-term illness instead. This illness would take responsibility not just for his death, but early retirement, too. You can track that through the plays, they claim. Shakespeare has a good run from 1604-1606 with Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth; but the writing gets "wobbly" with Timon of Athens, Cymbeline, and Pericles (warning: the opinion of these scholars does not reflect the opinion of this writer - Pericles rules) and rallies again for a swan-song with The Tempest in 1611/2. The fact that the rest of his plays are collaborations convince them even more of a slow final decline. The truth of it is that we simply do not know what ailed Shakespeare; which is especially annoying since his son-in-law, Dr. John Hall, was his attending physician. Way to let us all down, John.

"Time goes on crutches until love has all his rites." - Much Ado About Nothing

  • Much has been made about the "second best bed" left to Anne. Yes, most of his possessions bypassed Anne to fall on their eldest daughter, Susanna, so that doesn't look great; but the second best bed was the marital bed. The best bed was traditionally reserved for guests. Shakespeare left to Anne the bed they shared and on which their children were conceived and born. This was a traditional custom and a respectful, if not loving, gesture. She would also continue to live comfortably in the matrimonial home. These are not signs of disfavor. And honestly, the juicy gossip at Shakespeare's death wasn't about his marriage, but his daughter's.

"Fathers, from hence trust not your daughters' minds | By what you see them act." - Othello

  • Shakespeare became a little unreasonable, shall we say, around the topic of his daughter Judith shortly before he died. In fact, most of the revisions on the surviving final draft of his will deal with cutting Judith out of most of her inheritance. Shakespeare was a wealthy man at his death, owning many properties in London and Stratford, and gave away his money very generously to all sorts of family and friends. Which goes to show how piqued he was with her, or more specifically, with her choice of husband. The reason: the massively public scandal of Thomas Quiney getting a married woman, Margaret Wheeler, with child. Even worse, it only came out after his marriage to Judith when both mother and baby die in childbirth. Shakespeare seems to have taken his anger out on Judith. Unfairly, too, since she found out about it the same time everyone else did. Shakespeare family gatherings must've been supremely awkward up until William's death.

"So thou, outgoing in thy noon | Unlooked on diest, unless thou get a son." - Sonnet VII

  • In his last days, Shakespeare wasn't just doling out swift retribution on his children (poor Judith). When tracing to whom key family heirlooms were given, scholars find that his livery sword opens up room for some more speculation: Shakespeare was tenderly cherishing the memory of his only son, Hamnet, who tragically died at 11 yrs old. The decorative sword, emblazoned with the family crest, would have been worn by Shakespeare to present at court and traditionally left to the male heir. The family crest was especially significant since it was recently granted to William's father by the crown and legitimized the Shakespeares as gentlemen - a long-held desire by both father and son. Shakespeare left it to a young man from the Coombe family, 27 yrs old, who most likely was a childhood playmate of Hamnet.

"What is he that builds stronger than either the mason, the shipwright, or the carpenter?" - Hamlet

  • Shakespeare did not specify much for his funeral. He did not seem all that keen on pomp and ceremony. By all accounts, he had an appropriately standard funeral as expected of his social standing. However, we do know that he asked for mourning rings to be made and distributed to those who attended. We also know Shakespeare paid £400 to be laid under a stone slab inside Holy Trinity Church. And another thing, this time pretty weird: Shakespeare was buried s e v e n t e e n feet deep. No one knows why. Some speculate there was a worry about contagion; but even for plague deaths (those were tracked so it's an unlikely cause of death) and typhoid victims it is an outrageously deep grave. The most common speculation is simply that he did not wish to be disturbed. We have his own words (curse, really) for that inscribed on his grave:





*earliest death mask of Shakespeare's casted 1616. Has been heavily disputed but recently it's been gaining legitimacy among art historians.

Greenblatt, Stephen. Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare. W.W. Norton & Company, 2005.

Harkup, Kathryn. Death by Shakespeare: Snakebites, Stabbings and Broken Hearts. Bloomsbury Sigma, 2020.

Jennifer Reid, "How Did Shakespeare Die?", podcast

Shakespeare, William, et al. The Riverside Shakespeare. Second Edition. Houghton Mifflin, 1997.

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