cover image Death by Shakespeare: Snakebites, Stabbings, and Broken Hearts

Death by Shakespeare: Snakebites, Stabbings, and Broken Hearts

Kathryn Harkup. Bloomsbury Sigma, $28 (368p) ISBN 978-1-4729-5822-8

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. (May)