Did the Bard have syphilis? 'King Lear' strongly hints he did
The vile lines spat out by Lear in the play point to Shakespeare having got up to no good in the East End of London
Shakespeare used vile language about women in King Lear because he was bitter about contracting syphilis, a leading scholar has suggested.
The play is peppered with derogatory lines about women, and Lear rages that beneath the waist “there’s hell, there’s darkness, there’s the sulfurous pit”, while wishing sterility on Goneril, his daughter, and calling her “a plague-sore, an embossed carbuncle, in my corrupted blood”.
In a discussion with actor Sir Antony Sher at the Cheltenham Literature Festival about Shakespeare’s misogyny, Professor Sir Jonathan Bate, Oxford academic and authority on the Bard, said syphilis could be the explanation.
Sher said the anti-female language in the play is “startling”.
“I don’t believe that in a modern play you could write that now. And there’s something so visceral in the way Shakespeare has Lear saying it, that I began to wonder if there was some autobiographic stuff there – whether he had some problem with women,” he said.
Bate said: “I do think you’re on to something around that. There are just little bits of circumstantial evidence: a couple of the late sonnets have reference to the mercury baths, which is where you went when you caught syphilis. There’s a whiff of scandal around Shakespeare in the end of King James’s reign.
“His hair falls out; it’s also the case, it seems, that he wasn’t at court much with the actors and there was a law that if someone was suspected of being infected with syphilis, which was endemic at the time, they weren’t allowed within 400 yards of the monarch. So it is just possible that he got up to no good somewhere in the East End of London and caught that.”
Bate said it could explain the “outbursts of anger and also outbursts of sexual disgust” in the play. “It’s painful to read, especially so nowadays where we’re so attuned to misogyny.”
Sher added that there was also “a belief that [Shakespeare] was actually gay, which of course doesn’t mean that he was anti-women but can be added to the literature”.
– © The Daily Telegraph