Did Shakespeare Have Syphilis?

Shakespeare acquired an uncanny obsession with syphilis late in life, perhaps along with a few bacteria of his own

The earliest known portrayal of patients suffering from syphilis, from Vienna in 1498.
The earliest known portrayal of patients suffering from syphilis, from Vienna in 1498. Bartholomäus Steber

Before penicillin arrived on the scene, syphilis was a very real horror for philandering citizens. By the early 1500s, syphilis filled every corner of Europe. Called the “Great Pox,” it permeated all corners of society. Beginning with an open ulcer, it soon manifested as a rash all over the skin. Eventually, the disease’s tertiary phase set in, striking victims down three to fifteen years after their fateful encounter with the bacterium, leaving them grossly disfigured, blind or insane.

The poet Charles Baudelaire died from the disease, as did writer Guy de Maupassant, painter Edouard Manet and bon vivant Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Now, a new book, Shakespeare’s Tremor and Orwell’s Cough, questions: did Shakespeare, too, suffer from this disease?

The only medical hint that points in this direction is Shakespeare’s signature. During his final years, his signature displayed a marked tremor, PBS writes. His behavior, however, provided further evidence. Compared to other Elizabethans of his age—who no doubt all harbored a healthy fear of the horrific disease—Shakespeare took syphilis obsession to an extreme. His love life, too, further supports the possibility:

According to contemporary gossip, Shakespeare was not only notoriously promiscuous, but was also part of a love triangle in which all three parties contracted venereal disease. The standard Elizabethan treatment for syphilis was mercury; as the saying goes, “a night with Venus, a lifetime with Mercury.” Mercury’s more alarming adverse effects include drooling, gum disease, personality changes, and tremor.

Short of exhuming Shakespeare’s corpse, we may never know if the playwright suffered from syphilis or if the disease was just a rather odd muse of his. As D.H. Lawrence speculated in 1929:

I am convinced that the secret awareness of syphilis, and the utter secret terror and horror of it, has had an enormous and incalculable effect on the English consciousness, and on the American. Even when the fear has never been formulated, there it has lain, potent and overmastering. I am convinced that some of Shakespeare’s horror and despair, in his tragedies, arose form the shock of his consciousness of syphilis. I don’t suggest for one moment Shakespeare ever contracted syphilis. I have never had syphilis myself. Yet I know and confess how profound is my fear of the disease, and more than fear, my horror. In fact, I don’t think I am so very much afraid of it. I am more horrified, inwardly and deeply, of the idea of its existence.

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