Death by Shakespeare, Poison

1964 Russian Adaptation of Hamlet
1964 Russian Adaptation of Hamlet


I’ll touch my point
With this contagion, that if I gall him slightly,
It may be death.

Last week we looked at the mystery of Shakespeare’s death so I thought this week we’d look at how Shakespeare uses death in his work. Shakespeare was no stranger to death; the year he was born the plague spread across the English countryside. Not able to leave their home and thus their livelihood, his parents must have been beside themselves hoping the sickness would pass sparing their young children’s lives. This was Shakespeare’s introduction to the world.


One of Shakespeare’s first introductions to London may have been a view of death. Coming from Stratford-upon-Avon, young Will would have arrived at the western side of London. Here, on the edge of the city sat Tyburn, the site for public execution. The dominating feature of Tyburn was the infamous “Tyburn Tree”, a three sided- gibbt from which up to nine people could be hung at once. Not the sort of sight we would want to view today, but in Shakespeare’s day Tyburn housed a seating area public viewing. This and the nearby bear-baiting arena were two violent forms of public entertainment. Death during Shakespeare’s time was equally mournful and mirthful, depending on one’s point of view. It was in every sense a large part of everyday life. And just as it does in today’s movies, death played a large role in Elizabethan theater. Of all of Shakespeare’s plays, only a handful lacks a death, either on or off stage.

You could say that death dictated life. Between war, disease, lack of medical know-how, execution, and murder, living was a dangerous job. You had to worry about disease or a simple infection. If the political winds changed you could find yourself hung, boiled, burned or quartered for attending the wrong church or supporting the wrong leader. A trip to a nearby town could get you killed as highwaymen took your money and your life. Is there any wonder as to why there are over 744 deaths in Shakespeare’s plays?

Yet of the many ways to die the one that seems most insidious to our modern sensibilities is death by poison (Seems,” madam? Nay, it is; I know not “seems). At least in America it really, really freaks us out; even the possibility of poison leaves us scared and damaged. It’s the only murder device we want our government and businesses to control.

Back in the 1974 American parents were frozen in fear when a child (yes, one child and yes, that is one child too many) was poisoned to death by eating a potassium cyanide-laced Pixy Stix given to him by his own father who wanted to collect some insurance money. This murder and the urban legends about drug-laced candy that sprang from it still haunts our collective psyche. I remember not being able to eat any candy until it was first inspected, and god forbid some nice lady try to pass out homemade treats. After 1974, the popcorn ball, an American classic was deemed calamus non grata as a Halloween treat. To this day, some sheriff’s departments and hospitals will offer free X-ray scans of candy on Halloween night. Many parents, who grew up during the candy scare will not let their kids partake in the trick-or-treat tradition and instead host block parties or as my neighbor does, buy their kids extra candy as a Halloween treat.

Between September and October of 1982 6 adults and one child died from taking potassium cyanide-laced Tylenol; these murders led to the tamper proof packaging and hard gel caplets we now have on our shelves. Each year, hundreds of people die in gun related accidents, but yet we don’t insist that our gun manufactures come up with innovated safety measures, but if even if only one person is poisoned we act as if the apocalypse is upon us and the four horsemen are wielding syringes.

By contrast, up to the late 19th century, death by poison was a common form of murder, which was why nobility often employed tasters. Before governments set strict control over the use of poison herbs, flowers, and chemicals, poison was a clean and effective means of ridding yourself of an abusive spouse, political or economic rival or just about anyone else you wanted to see shuffle off their mortal coil with little chance of being caught. All you had to do was visit the right apothecary or herbalist. If you could read, there were plenty of herbal guides that talked about effects of certain plants, most of which could be found growing wild.

There little doubt Shakespeare knew about poisons plants; he grew up in the country and as we know from his plays, used his knowledge about local plants in many of his them. Shakespeare used poison as both a murder weapon and a suicide aid. Oddly, there are few deaths by poison in Shakespeare’s plays, but he does mention the word several times. With help from OpenSource Shakespeare and some macabre reading on my part, we can map out a concordance of Shakespeare’s use of Poison.

Cup of St.John
Cup of St.John

Use of the word

Shakespeare uses the word 84 times in 27 plays, 1 sonnet & 2 poems

All’s Well That Ends Well
Antony and Cleopatra
As You Like It
Comedy of Errors
Henry IV, Part II
Henry VI, Part I
Henry VI, Part II
Henry VIII
King John
King Lear
Merchant of Venice
Merry Wives of Windsor
Much Ado about Nothing
Rape of Lucrece
Richard II
Richard III
Romeo and Juliet
Timon of Athens
Titus Andronicus
Twelfth Night
Venus and Adonis

Winter’s Tale

Murder by poison

The Victims 

King Hamlet, Hamlet, Laertes, Claudius, and Gertrude (although I sometimes wonder if this should be considered suicide by poison; I have a feeling she knew what was in the wine by the time she drank it).
King Lear

Suicide by poison

Romeo & Juliet
Antony and Cleopatra
Chairman and Cleopatra (okay Cleopatra dies by venom, but only because she couldn’t get that damn pill bottle opened)

Botched attempts

Richard II
Richard II
Henry VI part II
The Duke of Humphrey (To be fair this one is less of a botched attempt as it is a plan that did not sit well with Beaufort’s fellow conspirators or maybe they distrusted him as much as they distrusted Humphrey).

One we are glad we didn’t have to see

Desdemona (Othello decides to poison her but Iago talks him into smothering her instead).

‘I will not poison thee with my attaint,
Nor fold my fault in cleanly-coin’d excuses;
My sable ground of sin I will not paint,
To hide the truth of this false night’s abuses:
My tongue shall utter all; mine eyes, like sluices,
As from a mountain-spring that feeds a dale,
Shall gush pure streams to purge my impure tale.
  Rape of Lucrece

Works Referenced

My poor dog-eared Folgers and Arden editions
OpenSource Shakespeare Concordance
PBS News How the Tylenol murder changed the way we consume medication

The Mystery of Shakespeare’s death

Is this Shakespeare's death mask? Professor Stanly Wells says "No".
Is this Shakespeare’s death mask? Professor Stanly Wells says “No”.

As you know 2016 marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. What we don’t know is the exact cause his untimely death. The man was 52 years old and from all accounts seemed to be in good health. Yes, he did retired early, but given that he was a wealthy man this shouldn’t be all that surprising. Perhaps he was burned out; London or the stage’s allure may have finally run thin. The quiet country life he escaped from as a young man may all of a sudden seem like the ideal place to escape to.

Shakespeare’s cause of death remains a mystery. What little factual information we have of his death comes from an entry in the diary of John Ward, the vicar of Holy Trinity Church in Stratford (where Shakespeare is buried). In the diary, Ward notes that “Shakespeare, Drayton, and Ben Jonson had a merry meeting and it seems drank too hard, for Shakespeare died of a fever there contracted.”

We know people just don’t catch fevers from drinking, unless the drinks in question contain some type of infectious bacteria, and given the hygienic practices of the day, this could be a possibility. Yet we know that Shakespeare amended his will only a month before his death. Is it possible Shakespeare knew he was dying?

Like with so many other “Shakespeare mystery’s” some scholars think that yes, not only did he know he was dying, they go on to suggest this is why he retired early and amended his will. We will get into another possible reason for this sudden change in a moment.

But first, let’s look at some other possibilities for his early death, or as some might say, death conspiracies.

Shakespeare’s own son –in- law John Hall is purported to claim:

I have formed the opinion that it was more likely than not in the nature of a cerebral hemorrhage or apoplexy that quickly deepened and soon became fatal. There are three reasons for this. Firstly, the hurried reconstruction and inter-lineated clauses of the Will not allowing time for it to be copied afresh before signature; Secondly, the earliest and clearest impressions of the Droeshout frontispiece of the First Folio show outstanding shadings, suggesting marked thickening of the left temporal artery– a sign of atheroma and arterio-sclerosis; and thirdly, such a termination is quite common in men who have undergone such continuous mental and physical strain over a prolonged period as our actor-manager-dramatist must have been subjected to throughout his, undoubtedly, strenuous career. Richard Burbage who daily shared the same theatrical life, himself died of such a seizure after twenty-four hours illness [in 1619]”

It has to be pointed out that of all people, Hall had the most to gain from a sudden death explanation. Hall was not only Shakespeare’s son-in-law; he was  the family doctor. To note that the playwright’s sudden death was caused by “mental and physical” strain” may have been an attempt to absolve himself of his father-in-laws death. He may have been trying to deflect blame in order to save his own reputation.

As I said earlier, Shakespeare amended his will a month before his death. This fact has led some scholars to believe the man was in very poor health and at death’s door. They point to his “shaky” signature as proof of their claim. The problem with this is two fold. One; Shakespeare’s signature always appears shaky, and two; Shakespeare’s youngest daughter had just become engaged, causing Shakespeare to adjust what he felt she was owed and to include provisions for any future children she may have.

They all look Shaky to me
They all look Shaky to me
  1. a)  From the 1612 Mountjoy suit deposition:  Willm Shackper
    b)  From the 1612 Blackfriars Gatehouse deed:  (William) Shakspear
    c)  From the 1612 Blackfriars mortgage:  Wm Shakspea
    d)  From the 1615 will, page 1:  William Shackspere
    e)  From the will, page 2:   Shakspere
    f)  From the will, page 3:  (by me William) Shakspear

Author Simon Andrew Sterling takes the prize for the most outlandish idea. In his 2013 book, “Who Killed Shakespeare”, Sterling not only suggests Shakespeare was murdered but was killed by Protestant spies, (Shakespeare being a closeted Catholic) “in order to curry favor with the court”. Sterling seems to have forgotten that Shakespeare’s theater group was called “The Kings Men” because he loved their plays, so killing the King’s favorite author would not be the best way to curry his favor.

Life in 17th century was surrounded by death. Despite the myth that 17th century life was short, the fact is, it was possible to live a long life, if you were lucky. Death could come in many forms: war; disease; (the plague broke out twice in Shakespeare’s life time) poverty; bad hygiene; and religious persecution just to name a few. Yet despite all of this, we know from records that wealthy people with access to a proper diet did live to see old age. So this again makes us wonder, just what did Shakespeare die of? Was it cancer, tuberculosis or god forbid, syphilis?

Let’s take one more look at the diary of John Ward. At first glance his words may sound silly, but records from 1616, the year of Shakespeare’s death, inform us that a new strain of typhus was spreading across England. The name of this mortal infection? The new fever. So yes, Shakespeare may have died of a fever after all.

Works referenced

C. Martin Mitchell,The Shakespeare Circle

Politicworm. Shakespeare Authorship

Shakespeare Birthplace Trust


Simon Andrew Sterling, Who Killed Shakespeare?




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