“Shakespeare, Drayton, and Ben Jonson had a merry meeting, and it seems drank too hard; for Shakespeare died of a fever there contracted.” The Vicar of Stratford-upon-Avon, 1661
He was 52 years old on the day he died, the richest man in his hometown, the greatest playwright of his age. But even now, nearly 400 years later, much of that life remains shrouded in mystery. The very truth of his identity is debated vigorously, vehemently. So why should the death of William Shakespeare be any different? In the 1970s, handwriting expert Charles Hamilton, who was involved in proving the famous Hitler diaries were an elaborate hoax, made the astonishing claim that William Shakespeare’s last will and testament provided evidence that the great bard had died by poisoning, perhaps even by the hand of a murderer. And the claim came with the support of famed forensic pathologist Michael Baden. In 2005, efforts were launched by American forensic scientist James Starrs to exhume Shakespeare’s remains in Holy Trinity Church to test for poisons. As recently as 2011, anthropologist Francis Thackeray sought permission to exhume Shakespeare both to determine the exact cause of his death and to find evidence to support his theory that Shakespeare indulged in smoking marijuana.
So, where does the truth lie? Did William Shakespeare contract a fever after drinking with Ben Jonson and Michael Drayton? Or did someone slip him arsenic, or mercury? And if so, who would be so vile as to kill the great man? And why?
Despite the various camps that dispute the authorship of Shakespeare’s works, most scholars agree that the author of the plays historically attributed to William Shakespeare was the man from Stratford. The reasoning of those who contest that conclusion smacks of snobbery and elitism. They cannot comprehend how a boy from a Warwickshire village such as Stratford could write so well and so knowingly of life at court. But genius knows no economic class, nor is it a respecter of noble rank.
But back to the mystery. Shakespeare retired from the London theater scene around 1610. He is thought to have collaborated on a couple of plays after that date, but in the first decade of the 1600s he began making preparations to return to his birthplace. He invested in the Stratford tithes, buying a 1/10th share of all the farm produce from Stratford, Welcombe, and Bishopton for 440 pounds. It was an investment that, if Shakespeare had lived for its full 21 year term, would have doubled his money. But he had already shown evidence of how well Elizabethan theater had lined his pockets. He purchased New Place, the finest home in Stratford, in 1597.
He and Anne Hathaway had three children, but only two survived to adulthood—Susanna, his eldest, and Judith, one half of a set of twins. Hamnet, the other twin, died of unknown causes in 1596. Susanna married well to Dr. John Hall, the town physician. But Judith was a more problematic child. In early 1616, she became involved with a local ne’er-do-well, Thomas Quiney. The Quiney family was an old and respected one in Stratford, but every family has its black sheep, and Thomas Quiney was. Just before he and Judith married, he was hauled before the courts on a charge of bastardy. But fortunately, for him at least, the alleged mother and child died, freeing him to marry William Shakespeare’s daughter.
We can only imagine how Judith’s marriage to Quiney wreaked havoc on the bard’s carefully crafted image as a town father. In some ways, I suppose, it harkened back to his own youthful misadventures, ones that forced a marriage without the saying of the banns when Anne turned up pregnant. But Shakespeare’s displeasure manifested itself in a very material way. As he lay dying, he had his will revised to ensure that Quiney would not profit from his death.
Hamilton postulates that Shakespeare’s desire to cut Quiney out of the will gave the son-in-law motive to kill Shakespeare, though his father-in-law beat him to the punch by completing the revisions before he died. It would not be the first time in history that a wealthy man was murdered by someone hoping to profit from his estate.
What is the evidence? According to Hamilton, the revisions to Shakespeare’s will are not written in the hand of the scribe or clerk who originally wrote it. Indeed, Hamilton claims it was Shakespeare’s own hand that made those revisions. Leapfrogging from that into an analysis of the nature of the writing in those revisions, Hamilton and Baden claim that the degradation of the handwriting is indicative of someone suffering from poison. Other, more tangible, forensic evidence will only come if efforts to exhume Shakespeare succeed. However, there is no guarantee that any viable remains exist. After all, nearly 400 years have passed since his death.
That Quiney had a motive to kill Shakespeare is based almost totally on speculation, though it is an interesting concept. But we in 2012 cannot possibly know what lay in the hearts of those nearly four centuries in the grave, not unless they told us. And whatever happened to Shakespeare in 1616, all of the witnesses are far beyond giving testimony, unless the Church of England and all other authorities give permission to start digging.
But even if viable remains are exhumed, the evidence may be problematic, as researchers into the question of Napoleon Bonaparte’s death learned. People in the distant past regularly had greater levels of both arsenic and mercury in their systems than people of today. So, test results of any remains would be questionable.
Was William Shakespeare murdered? Possibly. And possibly not. Only a fortunate combination of forensic science, historical digging, and luck can tell the tale.
When Tony Hays isn’t traveling the world, teaching students, and adopting puppies, he takes time out to write the Arthurian Mystery series from Tor/Forge.
See all posts by Tony Hays for Criminal Element.