Book Review: Death by Shakespeare by Kathryn Harkup

Award-winning scholar and chemist Kathryn Harkup examines the multitude of methods Shakespeare used to kill off his characters in her newest piece of non-fiction, Death by Shakespeare: Snakebites, Stabbings and Broken Hearts.

When it comes to dramatic death scenes, few screenwriters have surpassed William Shakespeare.

He raised that bar sky high four hundred years ago, with demises ranging from the realistically tragic (Ophelia’s drowning in Hamlet) to the action-packed (any of the stirring battles in his history plays), the downright bizarre (Antigonus’ legendary “exit, pursued by a bear” in The Winter’s Tale), and bloodbaths worthy of the greatest Giallo films (Titus Andronicus).

All told, Shakespeare concocted 74 different ways of killing off his characters. And award-winning scholar/chemist Kathryn Harkup examines them all in her newest piece of non-fiction, Death by Shakespeare: Snakebites, Stabbings and Broken Hearts.

The Bard killed off over 250 named characters in his plays and poems… In many respects he reflected the time he was writing in. He lived in an unenviable era as far as death and violence were concerned. Unlike today, bears, sword fights and executions could be responsible for the untimely end of Londoners in Elizabethan and Jacobean times.

 

In other ways the reality of life and death in Renaissance England is poorly reflected in his literary output. Plague and the majority of contagious diseases are all but ignored. But Shakespeare was not documenting the life and death he saw around him. He wrote to entertain the thousands of people who packed themselves into the playhouses day in and day out.

 

Every death included in his work, and the manner of it, serves a dramatic purpose. Some deaths show the injustices of life and others bring justice to those who have done wrong. There are accidents, planned deaths and unavoidable deaths. Some are passed over quickly, while others are described in detail. His first loyalty was to the drama itself; historical accuracy and realism were only secondary considerations. The comedies, in places, stretch credibility, but every fantastical moment adds to the enjoyment of the play. His histories play havoc with timelines and motives, but all the essential historical elements are still there. The tragedies may seem bloody and violent, but they are no more so than modern TV series.

 

And, among all the drama and theatricality, there are some extraordinary insights into the processes of death. The accuracy of some of the minutiae that he included suggests Shakespeare had observed them first-hand.

Over the course of 11 chapters, Harkup delves into the history and science behind his characters’ final curtain calls. Each section focuses on a specific cause of death—medical cures gone wrong, executions, murder, war, disease, poisonings, suicide, broken hearts, and the freakishly odd—with illustrative passages from the plays themselves.

Can you really succumb from poison poured into an ear? How realistic is it to die of sleeplessness, or from grief? Would death via snakebite be as serene as Cleopatra’s suicide suggested? Was life in Elizabethan England as brutal and swiftly ended as those depicted in the Bard’s stories?

Shakespeare understood death in a way that perhaps we don’t today. The playwright lived in a time when lives were often short and death was a social event. He… knew what (death) looked, sounded and smelled like. Today death is sanitized, screened off and seldom talked about. Often the detail is hidden from us completely. People living in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries visited the sick and dying and were personally involved in caring for friends and relatives in their last moments. They also witnessed public executions, saw street brawls and lived in constant fear of visitations from the plague.

 

With limited effective medical treatments available, the grim reality of death, from even the most trivial of illnesses and infections, was well known, up close and in detail. Death was a familiar feature of everyday life—‘To die is as common as to live’ (Edward III)—and Shakespeare didn’t shy away from describing it.

Harkup takes a deep dive into how the world’s most famous playwright was influenced by both the knowledge of his time and his own personal experiences when it came time to kill off his characters.

As with her previous books (A is for Arsenic and Making the Monster), Harkup does a tremendous job of presenting a wide array of research in a way that is both informative and entertaining. Her background in chemistry and science is obvious, but this is just as much historical and literary non-fiction, too, rich was intriguing asides, brief tangents, and footnotes that expand beyond the narrow focus of Shakespeare to take in the full scope of his time period and the works of his contemporaries and influences.

Further Reading: Review of Making the Monster by Kathryn Harkup

Death by Shakespeare is also a rather timely book for our current climate; many pages are devoted to the disruptive, deadly power of the plagues that, yes, plagued Shakespeare’s entire life, and reading this in the middle of your own quarantine can be quite unsettling.

During the 1564 outbreak, children and the elderly were particularly vulnerable, but everyone was terrified. In August the town council held an emergency session to discuss organizing relief for the victims, but they sat outside in the fresh air of the chapel garden to try and limit their chances of catching the disease.

No matter how times change, some things will always remain the same. (Obviously, Harkup couldn’t have predicted that her book would be released during a pandemic. But it certainly makes it a more compelling, eerie, and relatable read.)

Billions of words have already been written about the Bard and his plays over the last four centuries, and it’s tempting to suggest everything worth saying has already been said. But Death by Shakespeare is still a valuable addition to the scholastic pile. It’s accessible without being too simplified or pat, and the scientific, biological approach to the plays is a refreshing one.

Light enough to be a quick read for fun but hefty enough to educate, this is a book that any student would be happy to study for a class, and it’s a solid addition to any nonfiction or Shakespearean fan’s collection. Yet again, Harkup has delivered a satisfying, sterling examination of an iconic figure’s literary contributions to history.

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