Shakespeare may have had an STD

NEWS IN BRIEF — Posted Jan. 31, 2005

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English playwright William Shakespeare may have had syphilis, and 17th century treatment for the disease could have reduced his creative output in his later years and hastened his death, according to a study in the February Clinical Infectious Diseases.

John J. Ross, MD, author of the paper and an infectious disease specialist at Caritas St. Elizabeth's Medical Center in Boston, analyzed Shakespeare's writing, contemporary gossip about his relationships and reports on his health in his later years.

Dr. Ross found that fellow playwright Christopher Marlowe only mentioned the disease in six lines out of a total of seven plays. Shakespeare, however, talked about it for 55 lines in Measure for Measure, 61 lines in Troilus and Cressida and 67 lines in Timon of Athens.

Sixteenth-century gossip also acknowledged that the bard was not frequently intimate with his wife Anne Hathaway but that he may have sought outlets elsewhere.

Analysis of his handwriting on papers produced close to his death suggest significant tremor possibly caused by mercury, the treatment of the time for the infection. Mercury poisoning may also explain the writer's social withdrawal and baldness in his later years.

"This medical misadventure may have prematurely ended the career of the greatest writer in the English language," Dr. Ross wrote.

Note: This item originally appeared at

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