Although syphilis is relatively uncommon now, it was rampant five centuries ago, transmitted from country to country by sailors, soldiers and merchants. Symptoms of syphilis can include genital lesions; rashes on the torso, palms, and soles of the feet; neurological problems; and destroyed facial tissue. Shakespeare alluded to sexually transmitted disease (STD) symptoms--and treatments--in several of his plays and poems, including Troilus and Cressida, As You Like It, and Sonnets.
Mentions of the "pox," the "malady of France," the "infinite malady," and the "hoar leprosy" in his writings seem to indicate that the Bard knew--perhaps from personal experience--how torturous venereal disease could be. "Shakespeare's knowledge of syphilis is clinically precise," said John Ross, MD, author of the study. A line in Sonnet 154, "Love's fire heats water," apparently refers to an STD causing burning urination.
In Shakespeare's time, one of the treatments for syphilis, inhalation of mercury vapor, was worse than the disease. Dr. Ross suggests that Shakespeare's tremulous signature on his will, his social withdrawal in later years, and even his baldness might all be due to a mild degree of mercury vapor poisoning.
However, it doesn't seem likely that Shakespeare's death at 52 years of age was due to an STD. In fact, the alternative Elizabethan practice of using very hot baths to treat syphilitic people "would have been at least somewhat effective and perhaps highly effective," according to Dr. Ross, of Caritas St. Elizabeth's Medical Center in Boston, because high, fever-causing temperatures can kill the organisms that cause syphilis. (There is a reference to a "seething bath" curing "strange maladies" in Sonnet 153.) Shakespeare was also an actor, and he appeared in plays until at least 1603, said Dr. Ross. "It's unlikely that he would have been performing if he had been suffering from the ravages of tertiary syphilis." Nor did the Bard exhibit the mental problems toward the end of his life that would indicate severe mercury poisoning, judging from the quality of his writing, so any mercury treatment he received was probably limited.
Were Shakespeare's remains to be examined today, evidence of infection might be obtained by examining the shinbones for the damage typical of an advanced case of syphilis or by testing for elevated levels of mercury that could indicate STD treatment. Until then, "it's something that can't be proven or disproven," Dr. Ross said, but Shakespeare's own warning on his gravestone ("Blessed be the man that spares these stones,/And cursed be he that moves my bones") might give pause to those who would try to find out.
Founded in 1979, Clinical Infectious Diseases publishes clinical articles twice monthly in a variety of areas of infectious disease, and is one of the most highly regarded journals in this specialty. It is published under the auspices of the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA). Based in Alexandria, Virginia, IDSA is a professional society representing about 8,000 physicians and scientists who specialize in infectious diseases. For more information, visit www.idsociety.org.