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I read an account recently that talked about what William Shakespeare (1564-1616) might have written had he lived longer, beyond the age of 52. Did Shakespeare die prematurely, as suggested? The age of 52 seems young to us, but what about to the Elizabethans? It seems that both Shakespeare’s parents lived to see 70, and there are many older persons in Shakespeare’s family tree. Yet the average life expectancy of that period was about 36 years.
A word needs to be said about “average life expectancy”. It is not a fact, but a very different thing, a statistic. Every Elizabethan did not go on healthily till age 36 then suddenly die. Many lived into their 80s, but many more died in childhood, or from disease. The figure 36 is derived from dividing a representative number of Elizabethan lifespans by the number of people sampled and extrapolating that figure to the entire known population.
Keeping the population low (and decreasing the statistical lifespan) was disease. Five major epidemics raged throughout Shakespeare’s lifetime. Plague, which killed about 25% of London’s population on some of its visitations, and may have killed as large a proportion of the population of continental Europe the century before; smallpox, which left the Queen and many others pocked and bald; syphilis, which Elizabethans called the pox; typhus, which was an epidemic 1616, the year Shakespeare died, and earlier; and malaria, called the ague. People then had no idea how infection was carried, they rarely washed, and protected themselves from contagion by smelling nosegays, a strongly scented handkerchief or bunch of flowers. Infection was imagined as a punishment sent by god in the form of an invisible mist to strike down sinners. For that reason the most common remedy was to go to church and pray for deliverance. Ironically, this gathering in church helped spread disease from infected people to uninfected ones, as also happened at the popular theatres. The plague virus for example was in the bloodstream of fleas on the black rat. The rat was merely the carrier. When the infected flea moved from rat to person, or from person to person, they bit to draw blood, and in so doing injected their infected blood into humans’ bloodstream.
Another major form of infection was through childbirth. Many mothers and children died during birth or shortly after. Here also the idea of infection was not associated with lack of cleanliness. Antiseptic was not a concept that occurred to Elizabethans (though known to Hippocrates). In fact, current medical practise was to let blood as a cure for almost all disease. Disease was thought to be an excess of one of the four humours, and letting blood allowed this excess to evaporate. For that reason physicians were not alarmed by childbirth haemorrhage for example (haima is Greek for blood), unless it continued for too long, by which time it was often too late to save the mother.
In this context it seems Shakespeare was most fortunate in his health, and exceptional in his lifespan. He moved about 1590 from rural Stratford to London, centre of most epidemics, and a truly filthy city, with decaying corpses of animals disintegrating in the street, and raw sewage discharged there daily. Among the people Shakespeare knew in London, Robert Greene died in 1592, aged 34, probably of the plague. Christopher Marlowe died aged 28, in 1592 also, murdered. Thomas Kyd died two years later in 1594, aged 36, allegedly from the effects of torture. George Peele died 1596, aged 40, of the pox. Henry Chettle died 1607 aged 43. Francis Beaumont died 1616 aged 32. (Average life expectancy of this sample by the way is 35.5 years).
The Shakespeare family tree, as suggested by online genealogists, a pdf (download to see full size)
Nobody knows the cause of death of most Elizabethans. It either wasn’t known to contemporary medical science, or wasn’t recorded, or referred to by an inexact name like “the pox”. But although there’s no way of telling between hereditary, DNA dictated, lifespan, and lives terminated prematurely by disease or accident, the idea of his premature death started me investigating William Shakespeare’s family tree. I used internet sources to make the tree, and as usual, what I reproduce here should be treated with caution. Genealogists rarely give their sources on the internet, and some have a definite bee in their bonnet. I have collated quite a few trees to make this one, and edited out improbabilities, such as those involving the Hall family and their emigration to America (not proven). Because I have given a pdf version of a genealogical file (GEDCOM) I have annotated it with some of the details it contains which was not displayed in the pdf. The initial ‘b’ stands for baptism, and ‘d’ stands for burial: most details have been found in church parish registers which record this kind of ceremony.
Probably because Shakespeare’s life has been so closely studied, we know quite a bit about his family. I counted almost 300 people in the tree I derived, though many of these are conjectural connections. The families are all from Warwickshire, and Shakespeares, Webbs and Ardens go back, in the case of the Ardens, to the 1400s. The villages of Stratford, Snittersfield and Shottery all reoccur as residences.
William’s grandfather Richard owned 80 acres of land at Snittersfield and had an estate worth £38 17s. at his death. He married a daughter, Abigail, of John Alexander Webb of Stratford, whose other daughter Mary married Robert Arden. The Ardens were local, minor nobility. Richard’s son John married Mary Arden, Robert’s daughter, and was involved with local politics in Stratford, eventually becoming mayor. Their family is of interest.
There were eight children. The first, Joan, lived two months; the second child Margaret only five months. Of the remaining six, four predeceased William, only his sister Joan surviving, to the age of 77. Gilbert died at 45 in 1612; Anne was only seven when she died 1571; Richard died in 1613 aged 38; and Edmond died 1607 aged 27. Three of William’s brother’s all died in the six years 1607-1613. In 1596, aged only 11, William’s own son Hamnet (or Hamlet) had died. To make up for these short lifespans, both John Shakespeare and Mary Arden lived to 70.
To digress, it seems an earlier version of the play Hamlet was being performed about 1598 (Hamlet, a revised version and the play we have today dates from about 1601). Shakespeare would have contributed to the earlier version (if he did not write it all). The play is about how Prince Hamlet’s mother has connived at the murder of his father, King Hamlet, leaving the prince to choose between rebellion or matricide. He is almost insane with grief as he berates his mother with the lust which has led to the death of the king. Hamlet Sadler was a friend of Shakespeare’s, and Hamlet, William’s son, was named for him and was his godson. Yet the coincidence of the name prompts one to imagine some furious resentment at wife’s or mother’s carelessness that might have affected and lost the life of William’s son, and found its way into some of the play’s powerful expression of grief.
Joan Shakespeare, William’s sister, married a hatter of Stratford called William Hart and had four children. Of these two died in childhood, one at age 39, and one, Thomas, died at 65. He married and had three children, and one of these, George Hart, survived to the age of 66, dying in 1702.
Of William’s own family, his daughter Susannah, Anne Hathaway’s almost bastard, but the child he seemed most fond of, married a Dr John Hall. The couple lived in Stratford and had two children, Elizabeth and John. Elizabeth lived to be 62, dying in 1670. She married twice, in 1626 a Thomas Nash, a local gentleman, and in 1649 a John Barnard. Dr Hall, whom it seems reasonable to think was consulted during William Shakespeare’s last illness, left notebooks detailing illnesses of notable people he had treated and in some cases cured. The volume covering the year Shakespeare died, 1616, has not survived.
William’s other daughter Judith lived to 77, married a local never-do-well called Thomas Quiney, son of an old friend of William’s, and had three sons. One died in childhood, the other two both died in 1639, aged 19 and 20 respectively, perhaps of the plague. Of 21 near relations, only one third lived to be older than Shakespeare, over 52. So it would seem he had a lifespan that was far from being exceptionally short.
As for disease, we have no idea of his cause of death. There’s a traditional tale he drank too much with Ben Johnson and caught a chill on the way home that killed him. It seems uncharacteristic of the man to get drunk. He seems much more like the careful type. He separated from the faction led by the earl of Essex long before it attempted rebellion. He was friends with both puritans and catholics. His contemporaries all referred to him in such phrases as “sweet Mr Shakespeare” or “honey-tongued Shakespeare” which, while referring actually to his verse (and in particular to his best seller narrative poems) indicate a person with a similar nature or the reference loses its point. Cautious, prudent, financially astute, pleasant and charming, Shakespeare seems to emerge as such a personality from contemporary references. Someone who would avoid infection and infected people, adopt basic hygiene, and in personal habits and in friendships, avoid excess. Not at all like the fantasies some people have of the kind of person who authored the world’s greatest dramas and causing them to try and find a more suitable contender to fit the fantasy. Fantasies which express unpleasant class snobbery, and assert that only members of the British upper classes could have written such great poetry.
It seems that when in 1610 Shakespeare wrote and produced the Tempest for the King’s Men he had in mind retirement. He had bought a substantial property in Stratford in 1597 in preparation for this retirement, and made investments in the area as well. For 20 years, 1590 to 1610, Shakespeare had followed the craft of poet, first as the most celebrated poet of the age under the patronage of the Earl of Southampton, then as a despised actor and playwright for the popular theatre of the day. This shift of career lost Shakespeare a lot of poetical credibility, but made him a lot of money. So I don’t think there is any question of a premature death which cut off the writing of more great works.
This look at the family history of William Shakespeare left me with an impression of the four Shakespeare brothers. I wonder how alike they were, in appearance or temperament? William, the poet; Gilbert, two years younger, who followed William to London, where he opened a haberdashery business, but returned to Stratford a few years before him and probably looked as best he could after the business interests of his father John, and certainly after the business interests of William; Richard, ten years younger than William, who spent his life at Stratford, probably in the family trade of glover; and Edmond, 15 years younger, who followed William to London, where he worked as an actor, before dying of the plague. Only William married and had children. Could they all have been geniuses, literary or otherwise? Where did William’s way with words derive?
Another digression. In 1596 the Shakespeare family were granted the right to a coat of arms. This literally meant they were entitled to bear arms. Commoners had no such right, and were regarded as subversive if they gathered together carrying anything that could be used as a weapon. But the gentry had that right, and it was signified by the display of a coat showing their armourial bearing granted by the College of Heralds. The class of gentlemen were property owners and business people who had a stake in the stability of the nation. They served as magistrates and Justices of the Peace and formed the many committees that made decisions throughout England. John Shakespeare was entitled to apply for this status because of his civic offices in Stratford, and may have done so. But the grant was made only in 1596. John had gone through a period of financial difficulty but by this stage had recovered. William still had connections at the court in London in 1596, and it was probably he who saw the application through. John and his four sons were now entitled to call themselves “gentlemen”. It was a substantial rise of status for the Shakespeares. When the King’s Men started to publish plays they owned from about 1600, the plays were identified as by a major shareholder in the company and its chief playwright, “Mr. William Shakespeare”. The “Mr.” was important. Within 20 years all these gentlemen were to be dead, leaving no heirs. The status could only be maintained by female members of the family who were entitled to marry into the gentleman class. William’s sister Joan did so, as did his daughter Susannah. One of the many ways his daughter Judith disappointed him was by forming an alliance with Thomas Quiney, not quite a gentleman. The unkindest cut of all was that the grant was made in 1596, the year that the intended chief beneficiary of it, Hamnet Shakespeare, died. It seems a quaint distinction now, this gentleman status, but it was very important to the Shakespeares.
And what a career William had! For at least three generations the Shakespeares had shown exceptional business acumen and risen in the social as they did in the financial sphere. Then William left that world of the country gentry for that of the court poet. He surely had an invitation. One did not merely enter the circle of the Earl of Southampton. Once established, Shakespeare became the most celebrated poet of the age, even eclipsing earlier poets such as Sidney and Spenser. Then, in a violent break that must have scandalised all who knew him and earned him the dislike of Southampton, Shakespeare left the court and joined Burbage’s company of players around 1595, long before the Essex group became a traitorous one in 1601. Perhaps in revenge or spite, his sonnets were eventually leaked to a publisher and printed without his knowledge in what is probably an incomplete edition in 1609. The sonnets may have been in the possession of Southampton’s mother, who died in 1609 (the “Dark Lady”, anyone?). She had been married to Sir William Hervey (a candidate for the Mr W.H. of the Sonnets’ dedication). As a playwright Shakespeare was prolific and popular with audiences, and made his company a lot of money. The Shakespeare financial gift was showing in an unexpected way. As a sharer in the company Shakespeare had his portion of profits, and invested it wisely.
This is so unlike our idea of a great writer. We find it hard to accept but must. In Shakespeare’s day plays were not literature. They were rarely published, usually only to make money for the acting company when the theatres were closed. Accuracy was not looked for when publishing plays, and there was never an accepted version, but a choice was made between acting versions, writers’ versions and actor’s reconstructed versions: it didn’t matter. The company owned the plays, not the author. There was never an author, only collaborative authors. I think it unlikely that Shakespeare wrote every word of any play that bears his name. He collaborated on, added to, revised, conflated two plays and copied others’ plays. And his work in this way was good. Very good. He may have contributed but one brushstroke to the finished play. But it was a stroke of genius.
It was so good that his colleagues in the King’s Men did an extraordinary thing. They published his (really the King’s Men’s) collected works, an almost unprecedented step. The world was not very impressed. It took almost 150 years for the idea to arise that Shakespeare was a great writer. We still don’t know just why he is, but trying to find out is very rewarding.
A copy of the family tree I have used can be downloaded here, http://cl.ly/3j3d422p2e2x, as a GEDCOM file, for those with genealogical software.
©2013 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.