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Done in by the Bard

Cover of Death by Shakespeare:  Sna
A review of Death by Shakespeare: Snakebites, Stabbings, and Broken Hearts by Kathryn Harkup

One was killed by drowning. A few succumbed to grief. At least one fell and broke his neck, while others went by hanging, or in battle, or were stabbed. Some deaths were quite singular—a ‘burning quotidian tertian’, a ‘Malady of France’, a bear’s meal, and even a death from a surfeit of joy. All told, the killer had some 250 victims, not including the nameless souls that died without notice. No, this isn’t some horrid tale of a serial killer run amok, but the casualty list from William Shakespeare’s plays. Some of Shakespeare’s plays are famously more fatal than others—consider the gore fest that is Titus Andronicus—but death is a common recurrence throughout the playwright’s works, even in the supposedly happy romantic comedies and poems. Scientist Kathryn Harkup was curious at the many, many ways to kick the bucket in Shakespeare, and the general role that death played in daily life at the time the works were written. The resulting book, Death by Shakespeare: Snakebites, Stabbings and Broken Hearts, is in some ways similar to the plays Harkup writes about: a little lighthearted, shocking at times, and considerable food for thought.

Harkup has visited literary deaths previously, in her survey of Agatha Christie’s choice of poisons in A Is For Arsenic. While Dame Agatha concentrated on depicting death on the page, Harkup details Shakespeare’s greater challenge of depicting death in front of thousands of paying customers. It was more of a job than modern audiences might appreciate: Harkup notes that Elizabethan audiences would have been very familiar with death, often witnessing everything from natural death at home to violent confrontations in the street and the public executions of criminals. They would have expected convincing death scenes, and Harkup details the means by which stagecraft of the time would have done the job, all while keeping expensive costumes free from too much blood. More particularly, Harkup delves into the possibility of causes of death for some memorable demises. Could Lady Macbeth have actually died from sleeplessness? How hard is it to fall on your sword, as Brutus did? What poison would Romeo have consumed to work within the space of a few lines? And where might Cleopatra have placed her asp to have the endured the least amount of pain (and yes, there’s been an experiment to determine such things)? Harkup presents the science behind the these characters’ final exits, and how that science was or wasn’t understood in Shakespeare’s time. But she also never loses sight of the fact that it was Shakespeare’s language and startling understanding of human psychology that was just as effective in depicting a death as anything that could play out on stage. Lady Constance’s death from grief in the little-known King John seems one of those unbelievable deaths, but her heartfelt words on the death of her son could convince all but the most hard-hearted audience that she could succumb to her sorrow. Harkup wraps up her survey with a list of the plays and their deaths, real or threatened, and provides a solid bibliography for those who wish to dig deeper into individual topics or plays. Death by Shakespeare is a good pick for the casual Shakespeare fan or readers of popular science books. Those with an interest in plays and stagecraft, as well as a very specific look into one aspect of English history, will also find it appealing. 

Sep 26, 2022