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 tha
Contact: Steve Baragona
Infectious Diseases Society of America