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How Did Shakespeare Die?

In the ninth episode of Let's Talk Shakespeare we ask "How did Shakespeare die?"

We have found ourselves at the end of Shakespeare's life, and with most questions we asked, we don't know the answer to this one for sure. What we do know is when he died and where he is buried, but there is no recorded evidence of what killed him. There are, however, rumours and stories surrounding his death, and in this episode we look at these and other evidence about what his death would have been like.

Image: SBT 1868-2/280 Copy of Shakespeare’s Burial Monument

This week's guests (in order of appearance) are:

- Ben Crystal, Actor, Director and producer.
- Dr Elizabeth Dollimore, Outreach and Primary Learning Manager at the SBT
- Professor Sir Stanley Wells, Honorary President of the SBT
- Revered Dr Paul Edmondson, Head of Research and Knowledge at the SBT
- Dr Tara Hamling, University of Birmingham

Narrator: Jennifer Reid


REID: Hello, and welcome to the ninth episode of “Let’s Talk Shakespeare”, a podcast brought to you from Stratford-upon-Avon by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. I’m Jennifer Reid and today we’re going all the way to the end of Shakespeare’s life and asking the question, “How did Shakespeare die?” Well we know he did, and that he is buried in the chancel of Holy Trinity Church here in Stratford-upon-Avon. When we think about how Shakespeare died there is one story, one myth that prevails over all others that you will hear repeatedly referred to throughout this podcast by pretty much all of the speakers. So my first clip is from Ben Crystal to kick off the conversation about how Shakespeare died.

CRYSTAL: Slowly, by about all the evidence. We don’t know. We know that towards the end of his career, his writing took a bit of a wobble. He knocked it out of the park with a series of terrific plays - MacbethAntony and CleopatraCoriolanusKing Lear - a little bit of a dip with Timon of Athens and so on, Cymbeline you could argue, some would even say Pericles, as he begins to collaborate again with younger writers. Then we have a couple of swan songs with The Tempest, a reworking of a different sort of version of Two Gentlemen of Verona with Two Noble Kinsmen and then the very odd piece to end with Henry VIII - and you get the impression of a man sort of just petering out. He was very old of course by the time he died - 52 was a grand old age when the average life expectancy of Elizabethans was in the early 30s. There’s all sorts of apocryphal tales about how he died from drinking too much or whatever but we know that he died at home, that he went back to Stratford, and that he had time to write his will and slipped away.

REID: So a bit of scene setting there from Ben. That we don’t know what Shakespeare died of is quite frustrating, but the fact is that we know very little about what killed people specifically in those days due to the lack of medical knowledge. However, this is made even more frustrating by the fact that Shakespeare’s son-in-law was John Hall - the renowned physician - whose notes were published after his death and record in detail the treatment of his patients. Hall does mention the treatment of his own wife, Shakespeare’s daughter Susanna, but sadly makes no reference to treating Shakespeare or how he failed to save his famous father-in-law’s life. So next up we have Liz Dollimore who is the manager of Outreach and Primary Learning at the SBT and she can talk about some of the things that may have killed Shakespeare.

DOLLIMORE: Nobody knows how Shakespeare died. There are as many theories as there are theorists as to how Shakespeare died. Again, there is an apocryphal story that has grown up around that about how his friends from London came and visited him in Stratford and they got into a bit of hard drinking and chatting and he passed away the next day. However he wasn’t an old man, even by the standards of the time, so really he would’ve been more likely to have a hangover than die, so there are several things that aren’t quite straight somehow about that story. When we think about the likely killers of people in that time period, one of the most often suggested would be typhus fever because it was supposedly particularly common if you lived near a stream and there was indeed a stream that ran along the bottom of the New Place property, so that’s a possible one but really nobody knows. I mean death was recorded but not reasons for death - I guess a lot of the time they didn’t know why you died, so what could have been recorded? Sometimes they did record it if people died of the plague because they tried to track plague deaths, so they could be aware of whether or not it was spreading, so it was unlikely that he died of the plague, but apart from that.

REID: And so let’s talk about that apocryphal drinking bout. This story first appears after Shakespeare’s death, but it has prevailed and it’s a wonderfully romantic idea - our famous writer full of beer sleeping in the open air in the English countryside under an oak tree - but the likelihood of it? Next up is Professor Stanley Wells to give us a bit more detail about this story and the likelihood of it being true.

WELLS: How did Shakespeare die? Well, we don’t know for certain. There are one or two rumours about it. There is a story told by a vicar in the middle of the seventeenth century quite a long time after Shakespeare died - about 50 years after Shakespeare died - who said that Shakespeare died after a drinking bout with Ben Jonson and Michael Drayton, those both writers. Ben Jonson a writer who was based in London, a writer who was certainly both a friend and a rival of Shakespeare’s. He was a very strong character, was Ben Jonson, a man of great prejudices. He wrote a great tribute to Shakespeare which is printed in the First Folio, the first serious appreciation of Shakespeare, in which he talks about him as being not of an age, not of a single age, but for all time, so he was very admiring of Shakespeare. It’s not impossible that he came up to Stratford to see Shakespeare. Drayton was a frequent visitor. Drayton was a poet and playwright who spent much time at Clifford Chambers, only a mile away from Stratford. So there could be truth in that story that they drank too much and that he got an infection after it for some reason. 

It’s true that for the last 3 years of his life he doesn’t seem to be writing any plays, so it does look as if he felt played out in some way or other, and whether he was actually ill or just tired, he was in his mid-40s - not old of course, but at the same time fairly old for the time. Some people did live to be very old in Shakespeare’s time but to die in your mid-40s was not to die particularly young. He presumably died in Stratford in New Place; we have no records of that. 

He did make his will, however, in the last few months of his life, and it’s not uncommon - particularly in that period - for people to delay making their wills until they know that they’re likely to die before long, so that may be some indication that he knew that he was dying. Sadly it’s not a very personal will: it doesn’t tell us anything about his artistic achievements, and he doesn’t leave books or manuscripts or papers or anything like that. We only have the will itself - the draft of the will, in fact. We don’t have the inventory that must have accompanied it. That is lost like so many other documents of the period. It’s quite possible that that inventory mentioned the books and the papers which must have been in New Place, and the coat of arms, for example. His father was awarded a coat of arms in 1597, which he passed on to Shakespeare which made him officially a gentleman, and that would’ve been something to display and become a family heirloom. Who knows, they may still survive somewhere, and we keep on hoping that sometime, somewhere, somebody may be able to trace some of these family possessions. Something like a silver-gilt bowl could survive somewhere - it might have been inscribed. On the other hand, it might have been melted down for the sake of the precious metal. He had a sword that I suspect would be a part of his livery, part of his official garments when he was serving the king. He left his sword to a young friend, a 27-year-old man, of the Combe family with who we have other records of Shakespeare’s association and I write about that firmly in our book The Shakespeare Circle. The sword would’ve normally, one would suppose, have gone to his son, but his son, Hamnet, sadly died when he was only 11 years old. So Shakespeare left his sword out of his family. Presumably he had a fondness for this young man who may well have played with Shakespeare’s son when he was a boy.

REID: Stanley mentioned there Shakespeare’s will, and we’ve talked about the will in a lot of previous episodes: in Episode 2 in relation to Anne Hathaway and the second-best bed, in reference to where he lived, and in Episode 8 about Shakespeare’s worth, but I’m just going to play the short clip from Paul Edmondson. Paul is the head of Research and Knowledge at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, and this is just a little recap and summary of Shakespeare’s will.

EDMONDSON: The will survives only in draft, and the will is a complicated document. The version that survives, the latest draft, certainly shows signs of revision - that he seems to have started writing it much earlier than we’ve supposed, but then revises it on 25 March 1616, which suggests he knew he was dying then, and of course he dies about a month later. He seems to have revised the will because of his daughter’s unfortunate marriage - although it was probably fortunate for her, it seems to have been a happy marriage - with Thomas Quiney. There was social scandal attached to Quiney himself: he got with child an already-married woman, Margaret Wheeler, who had his baby, and both she and the baby died in childbirth. This was just before he marries Judith Quiney, and of course it all transpires just after they got married. So Shakespeare certainly seems to have revised what he would have left to Judith if she had married a different man.

REID: Now there have been a lot of references in this podcast to Shakespeare’s age when he died and life expectancy at the time. A few of these references have contradicted each other and that is because there are a few problems with using the term life expectancy and these numbers can be really skewed. So my next speaker - and in fact the rest of my clips for this episode - is from Tara Hamling who lectures in early modern history at the University of Birmingham. My first clip from Tara, in this one she clarifies about life expectancy and about Shakespeare’s age when he died.

HAMLING: Life expectancy is a difficult question. It varies according to social status. But certainly for people with means, if you lived beyond a certain age, especially for women, that would be around child-bearing age, then the expectation would be that you could live actually well into your seventies and eighties. There is not an age where you reach and that's it, you’ve reached your life expectancy. In fact, people did live very long and full lives. But obviously there was an awful lot of sickness, illness and disease around that could affect you at any age. We can assume that Shakespeare picked up some kind of infection. Whether it was from a drinking bout, I don’t know. So obviously again, it's socially specific, but there are obviously a lot of children dying, and children are more susceptible to the disease around. That can skew the figures. But you have also got a rise in population over Shakespeare’s lifetime, so actually people are becoming more robust and more children are surviving.  There is still an awful lot of death and mortality around and periodic outbreaks of the plague which takes out huge numbers of the population, but overall the demographic is that actually there are more people around - a population explosion - living longer. So is Shakespeare typical? Not really. But what is typical? You got the whole spectrum.

REID: Well that clears that up a bit. So what we're going to look at with Tara for the rest of the podcast is not what Shakespeare died of and what killed him, but what his death would have been like. Morbid I know, but bear with her because it's not as gruesome as it sounds.

HAMLING: So people like to think about how Shakespeare died. We know a fair amount about Shakespeare’s death, unlike other parts of his life. They are lovely stories about how he got drunk and he then contracted some kind of fever or flu because he was drinking. It was too heavy a drinking bout. It's all great speculation but we just don't know. Actually you have got to give a little bit of credit to some of these stories because folk tales can sometimes survive for longer with grains of truth to them than some other recorded forms of history. But really and honestly we don't know, so we can only speculate and they're lovely stories. 

What I’m interested in is what we can reconstruct about Shakespeare’s deathbed based on contemporary advice literature because there was a huge emphasis on making a good death in this period. That had two aspects to it. One was concerned with taking care of worldly affairs and the other was taking care of spiritual affairs. So a good death involved first of all making a will and making sure you had secured your material inheritance, and that was all clean and tidy, and sorted out. The other was to do with making sure that you were sufficiently spiritually prepared to meet your maker because in the early modern period, there was a popular culture surrounding the idea of ‘living to die’ and ‘dying to live’.This tradition is known as the memento mori tradition which is a Latin phrase that means ‘remember you must die’. That particular inscription, ‘live to die’ is found on lots of objects and surfaces in the period. So you would have seen this inscription memento mori or ‘live to die’ everywhere you went. It’s there on huge amounts of printed material, both visual and textual, and it’s there on things like objects. So spoons with ‘live to die’ written on it. This was very much an embedded part of the visual popular culture of Shakespeare’s lifetime. So this would have been something that Shakespeare would've absorbed. He would have known that the expectation was that he should meditate on death; meditate on his own state of spiritual preparedness. This is something we would associate with the Gothic tradition and see it as dark and morbid but actually this was something that for a Protestant Christian society would have actually been about hope and expectation for the eternal life with God and Christ, and this would have been eternal bliss. So the idea of ‘live to die’ but ‘die to live’ is actually a very positive message and this was what people were encouraged to meditate on.  

As somebody got ill, there was obviously even more emphasis on this sort of tradition and that sort of sense of; are you spiritually prepared to meet your maker to enter into the eternal life? We can assume as well as absorbing this sort of tradition throughout his life, as his deathbed approached, there would have been certain manoeuvrings in order to make sure that this met the requirements of a good death. The main requirement of a good death in material terms was that you were in your bed and that you were there and prepared. You've made your will. You've got your family around you, and you've sorted out your soul. You're in a good place, ready to die. So that kind of scenario, given Shakespeare’s status, given his literacy, that doesn't even do it justice. His enormous understanding of the culture of the time and the printed culture of the time, and the expectations of the time. We can assume that Shakespeare would've absorbed a lot of this. Whether he then observed all of these aspects of a good death? He would have almost certainly wanted to observe the formal conventional aspects that were linked to status. As I say, when it comes to how did Shakespeare die, the question, we can imagine him in his bed at New Place, having made his will which we have and we know he did. He sorted that out. Having considered the future of his family, he then would've had to turn his attention to his own spiritual affairs presumably reflecting on his life, achievements and his moral virtues.

REID: Now I find this sort of thing fascinating. The parts of Tudor life that are so different from our lives today, yet so the same. We have some books in the collections here in the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust that are exactly those guidebooks that Tara referred to, in which they give advice on how to have a good death. And then there is also advice on how to mourn and grieve appropriately. It's really easy to imagine that because death was all around them and child mortality was much higher, that they dealt with death in a much more removed way than we do today. That they didn’t grieve as deeply. But these sorts of books really show the exact opposite was true, in fact. So we can imagine what Shakespeare’s deathbed was like, but what was his funeral like?

HAMLING: Shakespeare didn’t make any specific instructions for his funeral, which some people did of gentry status. They would specify the nature of the funeral. They wanted gifts to be made at the funeral. The people that were most worried about the nature of the funeral were either very elite in status so they had certain expectations surrounding the sort of state and pomp and ceremony of the funeral, or they were of a particular religious persuasion and they wanted their funeral to reflect that. So people that were very strictly Protestant would specify they didn't want any pomp or circumstance around their funeral. They wanted it to be very plain so they didn’t become a form of idol. Shakespeare didn’t mention any of that. He just passes over that. So we can assume that he wasn’t elite that we know, and that he didn’t have any particular investment in a particular type of funeral to show his religious affiliation. He does make bequests in his will to certain friends in London and in Stratford of mourning rings, rings for remembrance. Those rings were sometimes given out in funerals. Sometimes, as in Shakespeare’s will, it's an amount of money to be spent on a ring. It’s unclear whether that happens before or after the funeral but that's tied up with funeral arrangements. If so, then we can expect a fairly conventional funeral for somebody of Shakespeare’s status. Not too much pomp. Not too much ceremony. But of the right sort of character for someone dying in 1616 as an established member of the community and a citizen of Stratford. He would have had to have a funeral of appropriate fitting status but in terms of detail, nothing except the mourning rings.

REID: Now if you go to Holy Trinity church today, you’ll see a fantastic monument to Shakespeare that was erected shortly after he died. This is one of the images of Shakespeare that is reckoned to be likely to be lifelike because it was put up by people who knew him, and knew the monument to be a likeness of him. My final clip is again from Tara to talk about this monument, and to talk about memorial monuments in churches.

HAMLING: So the monument we have; the memorial to Shakespeare goes up some time after his death. So mysteriously it appears. That’s not unusual. Unless somebody has the memorial put up in their own lifetime which some individuals chose to do and they would have a weird situation where they would be in church on a Sunday with their funeral effigy next to them. Sometimes they could live for many many years after the funeral effigy goes up. Again that's part of the process of reflecting on your own death and own spiritual state. Having your own effigy there of yourself is part of that and is perfectly appropriate behaviour - not strange. But probably for two-thirds of the population, monuments were put up by their executors or heirs after they died. 

So it's unknown whether it was Anne or Susanna and John Shakespeare that have the funeral monument put up in Holy Trinity. It’s likely that they would have been responsible for it. Although, there is also the suggestion that it was put up by colleagues in London as part of the drive towards commemorating Shakespeare through his works embodied by the folio. It could have been that the monument was put up at the same time as the folio. Although, it’s slightly odd that such emphasis would've been put on Shakespeare in Stratford at that point by those interested in celebrating his achievements in London as a writer. It’s not quite certain who put up the monument originally. What’s likely though is that the monument has been fiddled with over the time in between it was put up, and now to make it look more in keeping with the kind of man and genius that Shakespeare was. For example it is not clear from the earliest drawings of the monument whether he was originally holding a quill. 

So it's just one of those brilliant mysteries surrounding the legacy of Shakespeare and the material traces of his biography that keep us guessing. It would have been weird because people in Stratford wouldn’t have known Shakespeare as a writer and other similar monuments of people of Shakespeare’s standing just have their hands there. They are holding a cushion effectively. They are sort of posed. So I think it's one of the additions that came along later. It’s been repainted multiple times. Its an old thing. It's great because it’s one of the few things we have that's roughly of the right date and we can say that's what he looked like, but it’s been so fiddled with. It's a conventional expression of monuments because at that point, the effigy is suppose to represent the soul in heaven. They're supposed to look slightly removed and otherworldly. It's not meant to look like a portrait in life. It's sort of that stare-y quality. There but not there. It’s absolutely conventional and what you would expect. He's not in the pose that you find on some monuments where you find him leaning on one hand, which is known as the melancholy pose, but also reflects the fact that the person’s departed and is no longer in this realm - no longer in this world. They're represented as if being thoughtful in heaven, but he is represented in a kind of conventional pose associated with orators, so preachers, and professional people, which is just the head and shoulders, the bust, and the hands on a cushion, looking like he might say something. There are plenty of examples of very similar monuments for people of similar sort of standing. Different careers but similar sort of social standing. Lots of churchmen represented in that sort of way. So churchmen are another example of somebody that’s made of a certain status, but are not elite and they don’t merit having a huge monument and a full body monument in the same way that it wasn’t appropriate to depict someone of a middling status full body in a portrait. It wasn’t really appropriate to depict a full body in a monument either, so it was very much in keeping with his status at his death.

REID: So that’s it for today’s podcast. Thanks for joining us, and thank you to all the people who spoke to me for this podcast. That’s Ben, Liz, Tara, Stanley and Paul. A huge thanks to the friends at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust without whom this podcast would not be possible. And do join us next week for the final podcast in this series where we will be looking at how Shakespeare got so popular.

Related Posts:

– A Momento Mori Seal
– Shakespeare’s Death Mask
– Shakespeare is Not Dead 

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