For fans of the Bard, Death by Shakespeare: Snakebites, Stabbings, and Broken Hearts is the book they didn’t know they always wanted to read. A chemist with a penchant for poisonings (as in her book A Is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie), Kathryn Harkup dives deep into the details behind everything Shakespeare—his plays, poems, biography and the English history that provides the scaffolding—and unearths the science and stagecraft behind the more than 250 deaths his characters experience or inflict.
For those who have found Will’s way with language difficult to digest, this is the book that may change all that, focused as it is on the action. Harkup quotes liberally from Shakespeare’s famous and obscure works alike, but these excerpts serve as more of a springboard for the blood, guts and gore that so enthralled Shakespeare’s first audiences in Elizabethan England. Murders, suicides, executions, swordplay, snakebites, poisons and poxes: They are all here and exquisitely detailed, even the ones that didn’t actually take place onstage. Beheadings, for example, were too messy to enact during performances; instead, the head would appear in the hands of an actor, as proof of death. (Theater companies kept plenty of spare heads.) Burning witches at the stake also would have been too dangerous for both theater and audience. Thus, in Henry VI, Part 1, Joan of Arc meets her fiery fate offstage.
Why did Claudius choose Old Hamlet’s ear as the vessel for his poisoning? What were the three witches in Macbeth throwing in that cauldron, exactly? As for the doomed lovers, Romeo and Juliet, what was in that stuff the sympathetic friar shared? Harkup has answers. Lady Macbeth, Othello, Richard III, Cleopatra—all have their moments, now embellished with the help of Harkup’s chemistry expertise.
Yet Harkup is much more than a chemist. Looking over Shakespeare’s shoulder at the history in the Henry and Richard plays, she fills in so many details about the battles, treacheries, debaucheries and inflictions of those days that the plays become more vibrant for it. She ends with a thoughtful look at the way Shakespeare touched on sensitive topics, like depression and suicide in Hamlet—a reminder that the Bard’s words stay with us because he was always ahead of his time.