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Shakespeare and medicine: Shakespeare’s final illness

Shakespeare died on 23 April 1616 and mystery surrounds his final illness - we explore some theories and possible treatments.

Rebekah Owens
A Doctor Casting the Water, Osias Dyck, 1660s
A Doctor Casting the Water by Osias Dyck, 1660s (SBT 1994-17). A doctor at work in the 1660s attempting to diagnose a patient's illness by examining his urine.

It has been a matter of endless speculation as to the nature of Shakespeare’s last illness. No records have survived that can give us a definitive answer, not even the notes left to us by his son-in-law, John Hall. Susanna’s husband, a well-respected doctor – though not formally qualified as one [Schoenbaum, p. 287] – would undoubtedly have been called upon to minister to the ailing Shakespeare. He had helped his wife through a particularly painful bout of colic with the use of purgatives which had effected a great – although, by the sound of it, rather noisy – relief. He had also helped his daughter Elizabeth when the facial spasms she had been prone to flared up as a result of her contracting a rather bad cold.

Such treatments Hall administered were progressive for their time. He was not inclined to bleed anyone copiously with leeches, but used herbs and minerals mixed according to recipes that are recorded in the Select Observations on English Bodies, a book of his cures complied by the Warwickshire surgeon James Cooke. Perhaps one of these treatments was administered to Shakespeare. It would have depended upon his condition. Maybe the reports of his being struck down with a fever after a night out – a ‘merry meeting’ - with Michael Drayton and Ben Jonson are true; but that was only speculation on the part of the vicar of Stratford. Some authors have wondered whether Shakespeare had a severe bout of influenza. During the winters of 1615 and 1616, there was a bad outbreak of the illness in Stratford-upon-Avon. Or perhaps that small brook that ran past New Place carried typhus [Ackroyd, p. 482].

There are hints in other books as to the nature of the treatment Hall might have administered. In The English Housewife of 1683 by Gervase Markham is a recommended treatment for fevers. This would have involved mixing up a julep which was a drink strongly flavoured with herbs – a kind of herbal tea. In this case it would have contained chicory and lemons. The ailing dramatist might also have been offered almond milk flavoured with herbs designed to bring down his temperature – strawberry leaves, violet leaves and purslane. At all costs he was not to have anything too hot or spicy; and he was to avoid strong drink. Perhaps there is something in the story of that ‘merry meeting’, after all. If Shakespeare went for a drink with Drayton and Jonson instead of resting and taking his medicine, he may have made a bad fever considerably worse.


  • Ackroyd, Peter. 2005. Shakespeare: The Biography. London: Chatto & Windus. [Reading Room 25/]
  • Hall, John & James Cooke. 1657. Select Observations on English Bodies. London: John Sherley [SR – 97.8/]
  • Lane, Joan. 1996. John Hall and his Patients. SUA: SBT Alan Sutton [97.8/LAN]
  • Lane, Joan. 2004. ‘John Hall’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Vol 24, Oxford: OUP [Reading Room 93.1]
  • Markham, Gervase. 1683. The English Housewife. London: Hannah Sawbridge. [SR -93.02/]
  • Schoenbaum, Samuel. 1977. William Shakespeare: A Compact Documentary Life. Oxford: Clarendon Press. [Reading Room 25/SCH]


If you'd like to find out more about John Hall and Shakespearian era medicine, pay a visit to our Method in the Madness exhibition at Hall's Croft, or view the exhibition online.

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