Death By Shakespeare: Snakebites, Stabbings and Broken Hearts (2020) by Kathryn Harkup

This is perhaps something of an outside of the box kind of post for the blog, but it was hard to pass up, given my enjoyment of Harkup’s earlier book A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie (2015). As a regular reader of crime fiction, it is fair to say that death, be it accidental, natural or intentional, crops up an awful lot in my reading. Yet it also has to be said that, for me, at least, my attention is often drawn more to figuring out who did the deed, than the practicalities of the death itself. So, I actually found it very interesting to consider the biological aspects of the various deaths Shakespeare inflicts on his characters. Over 250 named characters meet their maker in Shakespeare’s body of work, so Harkup has plenty of material at her disposal. This book also grabbed my attention as it combines scientific information with historical context, which provides the reader with the bigger and the smaller picture.

Perceptions and attitudes towards life and death have undoubtedly changed since Shakespeare’s times; an aspect Harkup thoughtfully engages with. Near the beginning of the book she writes that Shakespeare:

‘may have understood little about the science of the process of death but he knew what it looked, sounded and smelled like. Today death is sanitised, 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.

Spectacular deaths, noble deaths, tragic deaths and even mundane deaths are all included in his plays, sometimes in astonishing detail. This book will explore them all.’

I was not entirely surprised to learn that life expectancy was only 38 years old at the time and that making it through childhood was considered ‘an achievement.’ Harkup’s introduction considers Shakespeare’s personal and cultural context in its widest sense and provides some unusual snippets of information when it comes to social aspects, including real life deaths which occurred in the theatre audience and the various options theatres had for depicting blood in scenes whilst keeping costumes clean. The reader is also reminded of how theatres at the time were competing with executions and bear-baiting pits for ticket sales. This chapter could perhaps have been shortened though.

The first manner of death considered are illnesses and their treatment, taking in the difficulties of establishing death in the first place, whilst the subsequent chapter moves the focus to death by execution. The scientific know-how explored in the book is easy to comprehend and engagingly written; a comment I make as someone who is not usually interested in science.

Of course, the chapter crime fiction fans will be racing ahead to read is chapter 5, which examines the murders which take place in Shakespeare’s play, (though death by poisoning has its own separate chapter). This chapter reminds us of how crime narratives have been popular for a very long time, though experienced in different ways. Harkup writes that:

‘To narrow things down a little bit this chapter will look at Shakespeare ’s accounts of deaths brought about as a deliberate, planned act by another person – murder with malice aforethought – and how not to get away with it. Some of Shakespeare’s murders are notable because attempts are made at forensic examination to determine the cause. Other deaths are interesting because Shakespeare was happy to lay the blame on a specific person, even if historically there was some doubt in the matter.’

Harkup’s use of examples from Shakespeare’s works reveals a writer who has done their homework and I enjoyed how Shakespeare’s lesser known plays are frequently looked at, as well as his more famous ones. One of the less well-known plays included in this chapter is Henry VI Part II, which features the Earl of Suffolk murdering the Duke of Gloucester. I’m not as drawn in by Shakespeare’s historical plays, yet Harkup’s comments on this one ensure reader enthusiasm and engagement:

‘In the play Duke Humphrey is found dead in his bed. The body is closely examined to determine if the cause was natural or if there has been foul play. It is part forensic examination and part whodunit, all played out in a few short moments. It is almost the prototype police or detective drama, with investigation, suspicion and accusation, but this is not a Shakespearean murder mystery. The idea of a detective drama, where the reader or audience is also ignorant of the culprit and can play along to see if they guess before the characters, was invented in the nineteenth century. Shakespeare never created any mystery over who was responsible for the death; it was well advertised to the audience even if the characters in the play are ignorant. But the investigation of Duke Humphrey’s body is not a million miles from modern detective dramas that show forensic experts and detectives crowding round a dead body, looking for evidence of the cause of death and who might be responsible.’

Other plays included in the discussion are King Lear, Othello and Richard III, the latter of which put me in mind of Roy Horniman’s Kind Hearts and Coronets (1907) and Henry Wade’s Heir Presumptive (1935). This was a very enjoyable chapter and I wish it could have been a little longer.

The historical detail increases in the next chapter which concerns itself with death in battles and wars and includes topics such as English vs. Italian sword fighting, as well as the practicalities of depicting a full-on battle on stage. Harkup’s research is evidenced in the way she considers what real life battles were like versus how they were written about, with ‘individual experience’ being emphasised more on stage. This chapter also looks at the realities of war wounds and the ways they were treated back then. In addition I feel an understanding of topics like these, helps readers to understand many of the allusions Shakespeare makes to common knowledge and ideas of the time.

Following on from this we get a chapter which homes in on infectious diseases, such as malaria, dysentery and the plague. This latter category made for particularly interesting reading, as I never realised how clever and sneaky the yersinia pestis bacteria is once it enters the human body; deceiving the immune system and all sorts. It makes Iago’s machinations look lackadaisical and half-hearted! The cultural attitude and anxiety around the play is also engagingly explored, alongside the relative silence there is in Shakespeare’s plays surrounding this infection.

We then arrive at the chapter which explores the poisons, which begins by discussing the unreliable nature of doctor diagnoses, with many poisonings no doubt being missed, but also many instances occurring where poisoning is incorrectly assumed to have taken place. Shakespeare’s descriptions of poisons and how they work is also taken to task at points. One significant example of this is Cleopatra’s death in Antony and Cleopatra, with Harkup pointing out how using an asp would not have been a less painful way out, especially given how Cleopatra manages to pick the most painful body parts to get bitten on! The use of modern scientific studies was very helpful at this juncture. Moreover, Harkup proves to be quite the sleuth in trying to deduce which poisons Shakespeare is referring to in his plays, based on the symptoms he describes his characters as having. Harkup’s detective work ranges from ingredients included in the witches’ cauldron in Macbeth and the poison Romeo drank and Juliet imbibed through kissing him in Romeo and Juliet to the poisonings in Hamlet. In regard to this last play it is mentioned that ‘Hamlet contains more poisonings than any other play’ and I was also very intrigued by her analysis that Old Hamlet may have suffered from syphilis. (May sound farfetched, but using the medical details in the play, Harkup makes a good case for its possibility.) This chapter also introduced me to Cymbeline, a play I only knew by name, but I was interested by the plot of queen turned killer.

Modern-day studies also prove of use in the next chapter which looks at suicides in Shakespeare’s plays, with Harkup talking about the death of Arthur in King John in light of studies conducted by NASA, which show the effects of falling from different heights. It is also far harder to die quickly by falling literally onto your sword, than imagined. So please don’t try it at home!

After that chapter we have one on extreme emotions causing death, or in some cases making characters assume death has occurred when it hasn’t. Harkup explores well the various ways emotional strain can lead to death, such as aggravating fatal genetic heart disorders and those suffering from QT syndrome. The Winter’s Tale, Romeo and Juliet and Cymbeline are weaved into this section which also looks at real life cases. Sleeping problems round off this chapter with Harkup threading Macbeth and Henry VIII into the mix, alongside studies which have been done to look at the range of consequences a lack of or no sleep, has on animals and humans over time.

The final chapter is entitled: Exit Pursued by a Bear, and it looks at some of the deaths which may seem ridiculous or improbable nowadays. This was quite an intriguing chapter and it is another which I wished was longer. When it comes to that famous death by bear Harkup brings an interesting sidelight to the scene through exploring the attitudes 16th and 17th people would have had towards bears and the encounters they may have had with them via performing bears and the sport of bear baiting. Bears escaping was not unheard of, which may have given that famous scene an extra sense of realism to some audience members. This chapter also looks at ‘two characters burnt to a crisp by a bolt of lightning,’ the difficulties of trying to tear a person apart, and the many dismemberments and the cannibalism in Titus Andronicus. Best leave the pork pie in the fridge for that section…

So overall, I would say this was a very interesting read and I hope this review has whetted your appetites for it. The type of information included and the way it is presented means the text is accessible to a wide audience, though fans of historical mystery fiction may find it of particular interest. You certainly don’t need to be an expert in all things Shakespearean, yet those with more knowledge will also find much to enjoy. The text straddles both reading groups well. In addition I think Harkup has researched her unusual angle on Shakespeare’s work well and I think it would also prove to be a very useful tool for students, not least for the fact that the book contains an appendix which summarises the deaths which occur in each play.

According to Amazon this book is due to be published on the 5th March, as an eBook and in hardback, so you haven’t got long to wait until you can get your hands on a copy.

Rating: 4.25/5

Source: Review Copy (Bloomsbury Sigma)

15 comments

  1. This sounds a very interesting read–of course, I am not familiar with all of Shakespeare’s plays so I wonder about the references to the lesser known/read ones. Death by bear should be an interesting one–I don’t know why that took me back to War and Peace and the group of spoiled rich young men who tied a policeman to a bear.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t think extensive prior knowledge is required to enjoyed this one. Harkup provides those extra details which would help someone not familiar with a given play to grasp what it is about. Though she doesn’t go overboard with this sort of thing, so Shakespeare buffs won’t will feel like they are reading lots of info they already know. She gets the balance right.

      Liked by 1 person

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