Book: Death by Shakespeare: Snakebites, Stabbings and Broken Hearts (2020)
Author: Kathryn Harkup
Publication Info: 2020, Bloomsbury Publishing
Genres: Nonfiction, Popular Science, Literary, Historical
My Rating: 3.5-4 stars
Today’s review is for Death by Shakespeare: Snakebites, Stabbings and Broken Hearts by Kathryn Harkup, published by Bloomsbury Publishing in 2020. This book is nonfiction/popular science, and the author is a scientist. As I stated in my review on Instagram, readers do not need a strong background in Shakespearean works or science to get value from this book.
The premise of this book is to explore the numerous (and sometimes creative) ways in which William Shakespeare killed off his characters or wrote of death in his works. Death is a major theme in Shakespearean works, as well as other plays at the time. As the blurb states: “…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 theater was a fairly likely scenario.”
An in-depth look at the science behind the creative methods Shakespeare used to kill off his characters.
In Death By Shakespeare, Kathryn Harkup, best-selling author of A is for Arsenic and expert on the more gruesome side of science, turns her expertise to Shakespeare and the creative methods he used to kill off his characters. Is death by snakebite really as serene as Cleopatra made it seem? How did Juliet appear dead for 72 hours only to be revived in perfect health? Can you really kill someone by pouring poison in their ear? How long would it take before Lady Macbeth died from lack of sleep? Readers will find out exactly how all the iconic death scenes that have thrilled audiences for centuries would play out in real life.
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 theater was a fairly likely scenario. Death is one of the major themes that reoccurs constantly throughout Shakespeare’s canon, and he certainly didn’t shy away from portraying the bloody reality of death on the stage. He didn’t have to invent gruesome or novel ways to kill off his characters when everyday experience provided plenty of inspiration.
Shakespeare’s era was also a time of huge scientific advance. The human body, its construction and how it was affected by disease came under scrutiny, overturning more than a thousand years of received Greek wisdom, and Shakespeare himself hinted at these new scientific discoveries and medical advances in his writing, such as circulation of the blood and treatments for syphilis.
Shakespeare found 74 different ways to kill off his characters, and audiences today still enjoy the same reactions–shock, sadness, fear–that they did over 400 years ago when these plays were first performed. But how realistic are these deaths, and did Shakespeare have the science to back them up?
As a result of this consistent and constant theme, this book’s aim to explore the ways characters died is separated into themes. Scientific, historical, and literary context provides insight on various themes. Many times, I found the historical context to be very interesting and informative! The scientific information adds insight on both the logic and legitimacy of methods of killing or dying, as well as shedding light on technology or medical capacities of Shakespearean time. The blurb on Goodreads says: “Shakespeare found 74 different ways to kill off his characters, and audiences today still enjoy the same reactions–shock, sadness, fear–that they did over 400 years ago when these plays were first performed. But how realistic are these deaths, and did Shakespeare have the science to back them up?”
I am the first to admit that even as a big reader, I am not a hardcore Shakespeare fan. I know most of the popular plays and poems, but I am not up-to-date on the Bard facts. Yet, I found great value in reading this book because you don’t have to be! Harkup did an excellent job of combining science, history, and literary interpretation. The straightforward writing style was appropriate for readers from a variety of backgrounds. Some chapters included some morbid details that made me a bit queasy, and I will admit I found some passages too heavy to read. Yet, on the whole, I took some value from reading this exploration and want to further my knowledge of medical advancements in Britain.
One key takeaway that I gained from reading this book: life imitates art, art imitates life. It is interesting to hear academic research connecting the dots on how Shakespeare or theatre-goers may have been influenced by their daily lives. It’s interesting to hear what entertained them, what they were scared of… what they did that would scare us!
All in all, I think this is a pretty decent 4 star read. I am a fan of this author’s writing style, which is a great balance between informative and entertaining. I highly suggest this book even to those without a background in Shakespeare or medical science; in fact, it would be a good primer for these subjects if one had a casual interest.