Title: Death by Shakespeare: Snakebites, Stabbings and Broken Hearts
Author: Kathryn Harkup
Publisher: Bloomsbury Sigma
Published: 2nd July 2020
Synopsis: William Shakespeare found dozens of different ways to kill off his characters, and audiences today still enjoy the same reactions – shock, sadness, fear – that they did more than 400 years ago when these plays were first performed. But how realistic are these deaths, and did Shakespeare have the knowledge to back them up?
In the Bard’s day death was a part of everyday life. Plague, pestilence and public executions were a common occurrence, and the chances of seeing a dead or dying body on the way home from the theatre were high. It was also a time of important scientific progress. Shakespeare kept pace with anatomical and medical advances, and he included the latest scientific discoveries in his work, from blood circulation to treatments for syphilis. He certainly didn’t shy away from portraying the reality of death on stage, from the brutal to the mundane, and the spectacular to the silly.
Elizabethan London provides the backdrop for Death by Shakespeare, as Kathryn Harkup turns her discerning scientific eye to the Bard and the varied and creative ways his characters die. Was death by snakebite as serene as Shakespeare makes out? Could lack of sleep have killed Lady Macbeth? Can you really murder someone by pouring poison in their ear? Kathryn investigates what actual events may have inspired Shakespeare, what the accepted scientific knowledge of the time was, and how Elizabethan audiences would have responded to these death scenes. Death by Shakespeare will tell you all this and more in a rollercoaster of Elizabethan carnage, poison, swordplay and bloodshed, with an occasional death by bear-mauling for good measure.
Shakespeare probably has the most deaths of any author – over 250, as Kathryn Harkup states – at least the in-play ones whether they happen onstage or offstage behind the scenes or between scenes. In Death by Shakespeare, using history, science and the brad’s own plays, Harkup looks at the various ways the characters died, and the creative licence Shakespeare took with some of them in light of what he was likely to have known when he was writing, and what we know now of poisons and physiology.
With each method of death, Kathryn illustrates how it played out in the text of the play and how actors in the plays, especially in Elizabethan and Jacobean times, portrayed these deaths to avoid harm to them but make it look realistic for the play and the audience. It is filled with incredible attention to detail in this way, and in the way that the plague years affected Shakespeare and his writing, and the always present spectre of death that was around his life in an ever-present way. Much like our current situation with COVID-19, the plague years throughout Shakespeare’s life shut everything down and this was when Shakespeare would write some of his works. It touched him personally too – killing his eleven-year-old son, Hamnet.
The book divides each method into its own chapter, with an appendix that divides Shakespeare’s works into Comedies, Histories, Tragedies and Poems and outlines who died and how into tables – a good quick reference. In looking at the deaths, and how likely they would have been, or how they might have been, or should have been, executed, Kathryn Harkup has pulled so many things together to create an informative and intriguing book, on deaths and how realistic they are. The plays will be enriched by this knowledge and give depth to further discussion and analysis and interpretations. It was a fascinating read that gave the literary, historical and scientific aspects equal weighting, and made it easy to understand for all readers. I came to this book from a historical and literary stance but found that the author explained the scientific information in an easy to access and understand way. It is also good as a reference for writers in their own writing, and filled with random facts that might be useful for a trivia night – if you can remember them all!