Death of Shakespeare
The 23rd of April 1616 AD
Given the sheer volume of his work, it is hard to believe that Shakespeare was only 52 when he shuffled off this mortal coil – and that he had been in effective retirement for several years before that (he produced no further plays after 1613, and his last three works were collaborative efforts).
Like much of his life, there is mystery or at least a lack of clarity about his death. We know for sure he was buried on April 25, because the records of Holy Trinity Church in Stratford tell us so. It is presumed he died on April 23, partly because a funeral two days later would have been usual, partly because as that is St George’s Day and the date on which he was born is thought to be April 23 there is poetic symmetry to it.
Equally the cause of his death is not known. Shakespeare made his will on March 25 that year, less than a month before his demise, and some scholars conclude from what is seen as a shaky signature that he was already ill, thus preparing for death by getting his affairs in order – famously bequeathing his wife Anne his second best bed. A rather colourful story related 45 years after his death – albeit by onetime Stratford vicar John Ward – is that the playwright had contracted a fever during a drinking session with Ben Jonson and the poet Michael Drayton, a fever that eventually killed the bard. We do not know.
Examination of Shakespeare’s remains could potentially yield answers, but he lies safely entombed beneath the chancel of Holy Trinity, a stone above his resting place bearing a curse on anyone tampering with the grave: “Blest be the man that spares these stones, And curst be he that moves my bones.” Not perhaps his greatest words if indeed, as legend has it, he wrote them. Better to remember him for rather finer lines – perhaps from Julius Caesar: “When beggars die, there are no comets seen; The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.” We can but trust they did so for our greatest wordsmith.
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