A dearth of evidence compels us to sift the plays for clues to his lifestyle, which may, in turn, help with the autopsy. Historians condemn this kind of detective work but their reasons seem pretty unfair. Imagine that the biographies of the last century’s leading dramatists had perished and we were trying to reconstruct their characters from their writings. We’d feel entitled to guess that Coward was a bit camp, that Beckett had his gloomy spells, that Pinter could get quite shirty, and that Stoppard enjoyed puns and had a brain the size of Canada. By the same token Shakespeare provides good evidence that he liked a drink. Many of his best-known characters are inseparable from booze: Mark Antony, Sir Toby Belch, Falstaff, Prince Hal and the other inmates of Mistress Quickly’s tavern. Macbeth is often played convincingly as a sot. Hamlet’s aversion to the bibulous culture of Elsinore may indicate the guilt of the penitent tippler. In Othello, alcohol is crucial to the story. The drunken antics of Cassio lead to his dismissal and this accelerates Iago’s plot against the Moor. But before we postulate that Shakespeare was ‘an addict’ who died of ‘alcohol abuse’ we should bear in mind a neglected fact of early modern history. Until the arrival of tea in the 18th century, the whole of Christendom was drunk all day, every day, because the only reliable means of sanitising water was fermentation. Where every drink contains alcohol, everyone is a problem drinker.
There’s a persistent rumour, which hasn’t quite the strength of a ‘tradition’, that Shakespeare succumbed to syphilis in later life. The evidence is scanty and it comes from a passage in Lear where the vagrant king delivers this salty outburst. ‘But to the girdle do the gods inherit,/ Beneath is all the fiend’s./ There’s hell, there’s darkness, there’s the sulphurous pit, burning, scalding, stench, corruption. Fie fie fie; pah pah!’ Whatever was itching Lear, it was worse than nits. And yet nothing in the later plays focuses on the nether regions with such rebarbative intensity. And in the final work, The Tempest, Shakespeare creates a central character of notably mellow and sanguine disposition. But Prospero’s serenity, if we grant ourselves permission to interpret the role as the author’s self-portrait (as Coleridge did), is perfectly compatible with the diagnosis of syphilis because, in its tertiary stage, the disease abandons its inflammatory assaults on the body and leaves the patient invisibly weakened and vulnerable to death by stroke or heart failure.