William Shakespeare found dozens of different ways to kill off his characters, and audiences today still enjoy the same reactions – shock, sadness, fear – that they did more than 400 years ago when these plays were first performed. But how realistic are these deaths, and did Shakespeare have the knowledge to back them up?
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 theatre were high. It was also a time of important scientific progress. Shakespeare kept pace with anatomical and medical advances, and he included the latest scientific discoveries in his work, from blood circulation to treatments for syphilis. He certainly didn't shy away from portraying the reality of death on stage, from the brutal to the mundane, and the spectacular to the silly.
Elizabethan London provides the backdrop for Death by Shakespeare, as Kathryn Harkup turns her discerning scientific eye to the Bard and the varied and creative ways his characters die. Was death by snakebite as serene as Shakespeare makes out? Could lack of sleep have killed Lady Macbeth? Can you really murder someone by pouring poison in their ear? Kathryn investigates what actual events may have inspired Shakespeare, what the accepted scientific knowledge of the time was, and how Elizabethan audiences would have responded to these death scenes. Death by Shakespeare will tell you all this and more in a rollercoaster of Elizabethan carnage, poison, swordplay and bloodshed, with an occasional death by bear-mauling for good measure.
Noting that "spectacular deaths, noble deaths, tragic deaths and even mundane deaths" alike appear in William Shakespeare's plays, chemist Harkup (A Is for Arsenic) analyzes all the gory details in her outstanding study. Harkup presents research not just into the lethal instruments employed by Shakespeare's characters, but into the hazardous living conditions with which his audience was familiar. The recurrent plagues, terrible weather, and rudimentary medical care of the age, she shows, are all referenced in the plays. If everyday life didn't do in Shakespeare's characters, they had hangings (Henry V), burning at the stake (Henry VI, Part 1), beheadings (Henry IV, Part 2), poisonings (Hamlet), and suffocation (Othello) to look forward to. Harkup covers each manner of death from a scientific perspective, speculating on, for instance, what an autopsy of King Lear's Cordelia would reveal. She also looks at the stagecraft involved in violent Elizabethan productions (sheep's blood was a popular choice), and devotes an appendix to listing each and every demise in the plays. Fans of the Bard are sure to devour this, but even those with only a passing familiarity with Shakespeare's oeuvre will find Harkup's survey tough to resist.