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How Did William Shakespeare Die? Infectious Disease, Alcoholism Or Substance Abuse?

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DEATH OF A GENIUS: Above left; The grave of William Shakespeare, at the Holy Trinity Church, Stratford, Warwickshire. Not all the facts about when, where and how Shakespeare died are known to us. The most elusive details concern the exact circumstances of his death, which Shakespeare scholars still debate to this day. Was it drug or alcohol abuse, or an infectious disease that killed him?

*WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE'S DEATH ACCORDING TO GOOGLE SEARCH

100

The number of people worldwide who Google the phrase, “Shakespeare syphilis” each month.

250

The number of people worldwide who Google the phrase, “Shakespeare drugs” each month.

450

The number of people worldwide who Google the phrase, “Shakespeare alcohol” each month.

10,000

The number of people worldwide who Google the question, “When, where and how did Shakespeare die?” each month.

*All figures for “William Shakespeare's Death According to Google Search”, supplied by Google. Stats include global totals for laptop and desktop computers and mobile devices.

SHAKESPEARE'S DEATH is just as much of a mystery as his life. Was it syphilis, typhoid, influenza, alcohol
or drug abuse that finally ended his days, or was it a combination of elements? By Ben Arogundade.

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WHEN, WHERE AND HOW did playwright William Shakespeare die? Only some of the facts are known. We know, for example that he died in Stratford-upon-Avon, on April 23, 1616 — his 53rd birthday — and his burial was recorded in the register of the Holy Trinity Church, Stratford. Five years previously, Shakespeare had returned home to Stratford after almost 20 years in London. He was taken seriously ill in the first weeks of 1616 — so much so that on January 18 he issued instructions for the drawing up of his will, which, after various delays, was finally completed on March 25. The exact nature of Shakespeare’s illness, and subsequent death, remains the subject of much speculation. Here are the hypotheses currently debated by scholars:

TERTIARY SYPHILIS
This is a sexually transmitted disease, the onset of which may occur years or even decades after initial infection, and which was a known killer in Shakespeare’s time. An analysis of his final signatures suggests that he may have been suffering from dystonia in his arm — an involuntary muscle contraction often linked to syphilis. This may explain why he retired from playwriting in his later years.

TYPHOID
William Shakespeare’s house, New Place, was situated next to a small stream, which in those days were known carriers of typhoid — a contagious bacterial disease transmitted by the ingestion of food or water contaminated with the faeces of an infected person. It is common in areas of poor sanitation, and with limited access to clean water. The fact that Shakespeare suffered severe fevers for weeks before his death is consistent with typhoid.

INFLUENZA
There was an epidemic of this viral infection — commonly referred to as flu — during the winter of 1615 and 1616, which Shakespeare could have caught. A doctor at the time noted that fevers had been “especially prevalent in Stratford,” during that period.

ALCOHOL ABUSE
There is a reference, reported by the Stratford vicar of the time, to a “merry meeting” between Shakespeare and fellow playwright Ben Jonson, in which they “drank too hard, for Shakespeare died of a feavour there contracted.”

DRUG ABUSE
The idea that Shakespeare could have indulged in drug abuse is a hot topic amongst scholars. In 2001, traces of cocaine and marijuana were discovered in early 17th-century clay tobacco pipes near Shakespeare’s home and within his garden. Although there is no proof that they belonged to him, they suggest the facility of a culture of drug use within his hometown, which he would have been aware of.

Ultimately, perhaps William Shakespeare’s death was a combination of some of the aforementioned possibilities, as is commonly the case. Certainly, the speed of his burial — two days after his death — and the unusual depth of his grave — 17 feet — suggest strongly that Shakespeare died of a contagious disease, and that there was concern of it spreading.

The only way to know the truth about whether he died as a result of drug or alcohol abuse or an infectious disease would be to exhume his remains. But, fearful of what might have happened to them after his death, the Bard famously had a curse engraved upon his tomb:

Good frend for Jesus sake forebeare,
To digg the dust encloased heare;
Bleste be the man that spares thes stones,
And curst be he that moves my bones.

And so perhaps the truth will never be known.

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