Kathryn Harkup, Death by Shakespeare: Snakebites, Stabbings and Broken Hearts

Bloomsbury, July 2020, 340 pp. (plus an appendix, bibliography, acknowledgements  and index), ISBN: 9781472958211, p/bk, AUS$29.99

The great Bard is well known for his plays and his poetry. He is also a bloke well known for knocking off quite a few people as he told numerous stories of comedy, history and tragedy.

In Death by Shakespeare: Snakebites, Stabbings and Broken Hearts, Kathryn Harkup – chemist and science writer – has taken a close look at the numerous ways in which William Shakespeare dealt with those characters who had served their purpose. An equal opportunity writer, Shakespeare had no qualms in killing off the young, the old, the rich, the poor, men, women, the good, the not quite so good and the absolutely terrible. Harkup utilises her expertise as a scientist to explore how these eliminations fit with Shakespeare’s ideas of entertainment and within the broader context of everyday life in the Elizabethan era.

Harkup starts off with an excellent overview of what we do, and do not, know about Shakespeare before she gets down to business. Scenes of death and dying were more open in Shakespeare’s day than they are now, and while Shakespeare ‘may have understood little about the science of the process of death […] he knew what it looked, sounded and smelled like’ (p. 10).

So, how accurate are the methods of dispatch across the writer’s works? How does his knowledge of poisons, for example, stack up? Spoiler Alert: if you have not read or seen an adaptation of Hamlet, the ‘ear is a particularly poor choice for application’ of a poison (p. 263). Similarly, a broken heart or a lack of sleep might make us feel terrible but, comorbidities aside, these ailments are unlikely to kill us.

Some deaths, of course, are quite straightforward. For example, executions were common at the time that these plays were first performed, so beheadings, hangings and the odd drawing and quartering would have all seemed rather normal. Almost routine. War, too, was a shadow that lingered across Elizabethan England and so deaths on a wide range of battlefields, across place and time, would have not been unexpected by theatre patrons. Oh, and murder. So many murders.

Animals, then and now, can be dangerous. Adonis is gored by a boar in Venus and Adonis, Cleopatra and her loyal servant Charmain both fall to the bite of an asp, while Antigonus is the victim of the most famous stage direction of all time, ‘exit, pursued by a bear’, in The Winter’s Tale.

I must admit that – as I continue to work from home as the COVID-19 pandemic rages around the world – I found Harkup’s discussions on plague a tad confronting. A response that I feel is justified by Shakespeare himself who was ‘liberal with using plague as a general curse’ but made minimal references to the Black Death. Indeed, no playwright of the age ‘depicted plague in any realistic way or detailed its awful effects. It is almost as if though the topic were too terrifying to mention or show onstage’ (p. 210). But, in this and in every other type of death presented within this text Harkup’s knowledge of science is obvious and her skills as a science communicator are strong. She, in a rather strange twist, brings death to life.

In a world where forensic science articles, podcasts and television shows have firmly established themselves in the landscape of popular culture, Harkup’s contributions to the teaching of non-scientists about the science behind our lives and deaths are both elegant and engaging. Critically, Harkup is not trying to distract from our enjoyment of the literature she is exploring, she is trying to enrich our understanding of what we read. Interdisciplinarity has never been so much fun.

For those more interested in the hard facts, rather than all of the gory details, Harkup has also produced a quick guide to the deaths in Shakespeare’s works. An excellent appendix offers a table that lists Shakespeare’s plays and poems with characters who met untimely ends. Readers can quickly scroll through beheadings, drownings, smotherings, stabbings and more. There is also a very useful bibliography and an index.

Death by Shakespeare is a macabre but fascinating (and strangely delightful) lens through which to view Shakespeare’s creative outputs. If you enjoyed Harkup’s earlier efforts to look at literature through science – A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie (2015) or Making the Monster: The Science Behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (2018) – then this new book is an excellent choice. This volume is also for anyone interested in William Shakespeare and the world he lived in, from those studying Shakespeare for the first time through to those who know Bill well. It is also a timely reminder to stay away from bears.

Reviewed by Dr Rachel Franks, July 2020  



Purchase a copy of the book from the State Library of NSW’s shop during the month of August 2020 and receive a 10% discount using the code SP082020. Click here to go to The Library Shop online.





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