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Death by Shakespeare : snakebites, stabbings…
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Death by Shakespeare : snakebites, stabbings and broken hearts (editie 2020)

door Kathryn Harkup

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Death by Shakespeare: Snakebites, Stabbings, and Broken Hearts by Kathryn Harkup is a 2020 Bloomsbury SIGMA publication.

Incredibly Fascinating!

I am nowhere close to being an expert on Shakespeare, knowing the bare basics at best. Yet, when this book popped up on my radar, I thought it sounded interesting.

This book is a well-researched, detailed study of the various means in which Shakespeare killed off his characters, and how historically and scientifically authentic those death scenes were, compared to the knowledge we have at our disposal today.

While Shakespeare is known for both comedies and tragedies, high drama, intrigue, romance and heartbreak, as we well know, death sells, and Shakespeare provided plenty of it. There were executions, battles, poisonings, plagues, and suicides, to name a few.

I’m not sure how often the authenticity or accuracy of Shakespeare’s death scenes have been questioned or scrutinized over the years, but this author has taken the Herculean task to heart, and her findings are quite surprising.

So, how well did the Bard do? Was he way of course, or astonishingly close to the mark?

Well, you’ll have to read the book to find out. I will give you a few hints, though. Shakespeare did have a few sources at his disposal, providing him with inside information on various subjects, which did help add legitimacy to his writing.

On the other hand, he was woefully off base in some cases- but one also should consider that some scenes were embellished upon by the stage performers, more for dramatic effect than for accuracy.

I’m wondering how many people are taught this information when studying Shakespeare. If they are not, they are missing out on some of the finer points of his writing. People living in the 1500s may have taken things at face value, but they did have the advantage of fully understanding some of the little inside jokes- and I’m not sure how aware the modern student might be of the full context of those nuances.

Overall, trust me, you don’t have to know a lot about Shakespeare, or even like Shakespeare to enjoy this book. The science is a big promotional point, I’ve noticed, and I agree the author really did pay attention to detail and it is obvious she knows her stuff. For me, though, the history is what appealed to me the most.

Because of the subject matter one might think this book is a bit morbid, and yes, there are some pretty lurid and gross descriptions and details included in the book. Despite that, I learned a great many things I might never have discovered otherwise, and the presentations was actually quite entertaining!

I don’t recall how I stumbled across this book, but I’m very glad I did!

4 stars ( )
  gpangel | Mar 31, 2021 |
In this mix of history, science, and literature, Kathryn Harkup takes us on a tour of Shakespeare's works focusing entirely on the deaths and the science behind them. After a brief introduction to Shakespeare and his times, she explores the familiar relationship people of the Elizabethan era had with death in its many forms and then delves into the major types of death in Shakespeare's works. Whether she's exploring the explosion of syphilis in the 1500s, what actually kills someone when they're strangled, or if it's possible for someone to die of grief, Harkup's writing is understandable for the layperson and downright fascinating if you're into slightly macabre facts. For those people who find themselves at the centre of the Venn diagram of Shakespeare fans and fans of Mary Roach's Stiff. Also, if you're looking for a table outlining every character who dies and how in Shakespeare's works, you're going to love the appendix to this book. ( )
  MickyFine | Feb 9, 2021 |
Rating of 4.95. Excellent discussion of Death in the Context of Shakespeare's plays and what his fellow citizens experienced living in Tudor London. The only thing missing, for me at least, was photos of staged plays to accompany discussion of the various types of death. ( )
  Steve_Walker | Sep 13, 2020 |
"Death By Shakespeare: Snakebites, Stabbings and Broken Hearts," by Kathryn Harkup, is what it says it is: a book about all the ways in which William Shakespeare killed off characters in his plays and sonnets. Ms. Harkup, a chemist, first describes the Bard’s life and times, and then moves on to how he could have come to know about the effects of certain types of death (i.e., how some poisons work, or what kinds of methods the state used to execute people - something everyone in his time would have known because executions were common and public) and whether some of his more fanciful killings could be effective. Ms. Harkup writes in a lively style, bringing in quotes from the plays and then dissecting them. There are extensive bottom-of-the-page notes to add more context to the main text, as well as a useful appendix in which she lists all of the killed characters in each play and the means of their deaths. There are no academic notes, but she does include a very extensive bibliography that includes material from Shakespeare’s own time right up through to our present, with particular emphasis on medical discoveries made in the 1800s. I found the book a fascinating read, but must warn that it is full of graphic descriptions of gory, disgusting deaths, so it is definitely not for the faint of heart! ( )
  thefirstalicat | Aug 16, 2020 |
Magnificent attention to detail! This book offers an amazing look at the science behind the deaths in Shakespeare’s plays.

But let’s start at the beginning. Before even going into Shakespeare’s literary treatment of death, this book explores the idea of death as it would have been understood in Shakespeare’s day. This was a time when public executions were common occurrences, and theatre-goers who would watch Romeo and Juliet die on the stage might just as easily have witnessed actual deaths on a scaffold. Death was present, and talked about, and seen all around. It wasn’t something that was only ever euphemistically referred to in hushed tones—it was part of the fabric of society, and a deeply personal part of everyone’s life. Shakespeare’s very profession had been shaped by death. He was a playwright struggling to support himself and his family during at time when going to the theatre was often illegal. Due to the large numbers of people dying from the plague, all sorts of public gatherings, including theatres, were banned. This was the time when Shakespeare would turn to writing poetry to support himself and his family. Then the disease would die down, he’d return to London, and he’d continue to write plays until the next major outbreak. And the disease didn’t just shape his profession: it also killed his only son when he was only 11 years old. Death was a very intimate part of Shakespeare’s life. No wonder it turned up so often in his plays.

In describing his plays, the scope and the depth of this book surprised me immensely. It covers all the deaths that Shakespeare used in all his plays, and it divides them into chapters based on type, such as poison, execution, war, bear attack, etc. (And yes, I’m serious about those bears.) Everything is grounded in context: the death-related excerpts of Shakespeare’s plays are given in context of the larger plot, and, in the case of the histories, Shakespeare’s details are compared with those of the historical record. Then, the death, as described by Shakespeare, is given a very thorough scientific analysis. How many of Shakespeare’s deaths are realistic? (Quite a lot, it seems.) How about when he’s vague: what are the different possible explanations? (Did I mention that this book has a lot of fascinating conjecture? So many possibilities!) Can Claudius really have poisoned his brother by pouring it in his EAR? Do poisons even work that way? (No spoilers here. You’ll have to read the book to find this one out!) Parts of this book are morbid and gruesome, but mostly it’s a highly readable and clear scientific analysis. It makes connections to modern cases and treats the deaths, as much as possible, with dignity and respect. All in all, a compelling look at the many ways to shuffle off this mortal coil. ( )
1 stem MuuMuuMousie | May 26, 2020 |
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