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Shakespeare shuffles off this mortal coil

William Shakespeare's tombstone, Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon
The final resting place of William
Shakespeare, Holy Trinity Church,
It was customary in the seventeenth-century to dictate your will if you felt that you might not have long left to live. Shakespeare was fifty-one, and while not particularly old, he had already seen his younger brothers die.

Thoughts of mortality might have quite naturally been brought on by the imminent marriage of his younger daughter Judith. It is also possible that a lifetime of drinking – wine and ale was drunk instead of water - was simply taking its toll. A persistent tale has William falling ill after a heavy drinking session with a party that included his old friend/rival Ben Jonson.

One should also remember that Shakespeare lived for a considerable time as a single man in London, and his work does refer to "strange maladies" – possibly syphilis – caught during the emotionally tumultuous time that followed the death of his son, Hamnet.

Like many a rock star, writer or actor today, William had lived hard, and in often uncomfortable conditions. The revelations of this year would surely have weakened him further.

In March, just a month after her marriage, Judith Shakespeare and her husband Thomas Quiney are excommunicated for marrying in Lent without a licence. On top of this humiliation, scandal breaks when it emerges that Quiney had got another woman pregnant; the woman had subsequently died in childbirth. A public penance is levied on Quiney, which the family manages to have commuted to a simple fine.

The affair causes William to redraw his will, imposing conditions on Quiney. The will ends with the words "where I have hereunto put my seale." The word "seale," however, is struck through and replaced by the word "hand." Some years later in 1810 a gold signet ring was found close to the Holy Trinity churchyard where Shakespeare would have watched Judith wed. The initials on it are "WS." Had William dropped his ring? Perhaps a combination of weight loss through his creeping illness and the cold had made the ring ill fitting. A gold seal ring – emblem of your status - is not something that would be casually cast away.

William Shakespeare's tombstone, Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon
Shakespeare's tombstone, inscribed
with a stern warning not to
disurb his bones
It is believed William Shakespeare died in Stratford somewhere around April 22nd or 23rd. The cause of his death is as yet unknown. The testimony of a contemporary clergyman alleges that William died a papist, probably receiving the Last Rites in accordance with Catholic faith. His legacy, however, points to a personality shaped by a rich Catholic heritage, but also informed by his need to live between the two faiths. Often when he is decrying the wrongs perpetrated by one faith against another, his voice seems more like that of a humanist. As such he truly was, as Ben Jonson said, "not of an age, but for all time."


William Shakespeare's burial registerBurial of William Shakespeare

Burial Record, Stratford parish register
William Shakespeare last will and testamentShakespeare's will

The Last Will and Testament of William Shakspere


Ben Jonson portraitBen Jonson


The River Thames, LondonShakespeare's London

Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-AvonStratford upon Avon, Warwickshire

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