--- That is the Question
You probably heard the rumors already: Shakespeare was a homosexual, he was unfaithful to his wife, and he was also said to have led a very risky sexual lifestyle.
Now comes John J. Ross, who is an infectious disease specialist at Caritas St. Elizabeth's Medical Center in Boston, who has written an article in the February 2005 issue of the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases saying that he has studied thoroughly Shakespeare’s description of syphilis in his literary works, and found them to be clinically precise.
So the flash report should now read as "MEDICAL MISADVENTURE WITH MERCURY KILLS LITERARY GIANT," right?
Shakespeare's Chancre: Did the Bard Have Syphilis? John J. Ross, Division of Infectious Diseases, Caritas Saint Elizabeth's Medical Center,
Tufts University School of Medicine, Boston, Massachusetts
Shakespeare's obsessive interest in syphilis, his clinically exact knowledge of its manifestations, the final poems of the sonnets, and contemporary gossip all suggest that he was infected with "the infinite malady." The psychological impact of venereal disease may explain the misogyny and revulsion from sex so prominent in the writings of Shakespeare's tragic period.
This article examines the possibility that Shakespeare received successful treatment for syphilis and advances the following new hypothesis: Shakespeare's late-life decrease in artistic production, tremor, social withdrawal, and alopecia were due to MERCURY POISONING from syphilis treatment. He may also have had anasarca due to mercury-related membranous nephropathy. This medical misadventure may have prematurely ended the career of the greatest writer in the English language.
[From the Clinical Infectious Diseases, Feb 2005 ]
Ross wrote that the tremor in Shakespeare's hands, his balding head (from falling hair) could point to the strong possibility that he was gradually getting poisoned with mercury which was used as a curative agent for syphilis during his time. He emphasized that the anasarca (generalized swelling or edema of the whole body) might be due to a kidney pathology --- also a result of mercury poisoning.
The actual date of Shakespeare's birth is not known, but the baptismal register of the Holy Trinity parish church, in Stratford-upon-Avon, shows that a certain Gulielmus filius Johannes Shakespeare was baptized on April 26, 1564. He was said to have died at the age of 52 on 23 April 1616, and that the nature of his final illness remains unknown.
Syphilis or not, I remain a fan of the Bard's works. The Ross study, however, is commendable in that it is the first diligent study I've read on how the great literary artist died and what could have afflicted him.
Questions on syphilis are answered here.