1 December 2022 Susannah

Death by Shakespeare

Antigonus chased by a bear, by Thomas Bragg

Some friends tell me that they cannot read crime novels because there is too much violence in them. Yet they still go and watch Shakespeare’s plays, and 39 of them are filled with gruesome deaths. I was intrigued by the book Death by Shakespeare: Snake-Bites, Stabbings and Broken Hearts, written by Dr Kathryn Harkup, science communicator, author and chemist, and published in 2020. My favourite stage direction in Shakespeare’s works comes from The Winter’s Tale – ‘Exit, pursued by a bear”. Antigonus flees before the bear, but we hear later that “the bear half dined on the gentleman”.

Did you know that Shakespeare killed off more than 250 named characters in his plays and poems, and many unnamed ones as well? They died in an amazing variety of ways – from a frenzy, grief, sword, childbirth, poison, falling from a horse, gored by a boar, drowning, smothering, lightning strikes, cannon balls, the hangman’s rope, starvation, syphilis, dismemberment, burned at the stake, throat cutting and beheading, insanity, snake bite, madness and even from joy. The deaths, Harkup argues, always serve an important dramatic purpose.

Death was far more visible to an Elizabethan than it is to us today. A tourist crossing London Bridge in 1592 counted 34 human heads on pikes there, the plague was a regular visitor to cities, most men carried a rapier for self-protection and street fights were common, and hangings and burnings were public events.

Yet when blood was involved, the Bard often preferred to kill his characters offstage (perhaps to keep bloodstains off costly costumes?). Shakespeare was actually less bloodthirsty than several of his contemporaries (Marlowe depicts Edward II dying from having a red-hot poker thrust up his anus). But he knew his audience enjoyed a bit of blood and gore – as a good businessman, he satisfied that demand.

Death by Shakespeare was a most interesting read, a stew of science, history, wit and literature, and a book I recommend, if you can cope with a few grisly details. Tell me your thoughts here in a comment.

I provide these links for convenience only and do not endorse or assume liability for the content or quality of these third-party sites. I only recommend books I have read and know. Some of these links may be affiliate links. If you buy a product by clicking on one of these links I may receive a small commission. It doesn’t cost you anything extra, but does help cover the cost of producing my free newsletter.

Leave a comment.

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until approved.
Featured image- 1807 print of A Winter’s Tale, Act III, Scene iii: Antigonus chased by a bear, by Thomas Bragg (printmaker) – Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Image Collection http://luna.folger.edu/luna/servlet/s/qnew27, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40992822; Death by Shakespeare: Snakebites, Stabbings and Broken Hearts by Kathryn Harkup, https://www.goodreads.com/en/book/show/52462653
Body image- Heads on Spikes on London Bridge 1882, The Prince and the Pauper by Mark Twain, published by James R. Osgood & Company, Boston, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3936095

Comments (6)

  1. Yvonne Calder

    I find modern novels, I presume in an attempt to be realistic add details that neither develop the plot or add to characterisation, I have in mind Patricia Cornwall who I can no longer tend. These depiction can be gratuitous. In the golden age of crime writing, every word added to readers understanding. Gratuitousdescription is easy to define; it is whenyoucan skip over pages and not lose your understanding of the story. Yvonne sydney australia

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I’ve jsut read one of Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher novels and felt like you – too many gratuitous words that did nothing to advance the plot. It was also full of typos, which was really annoying. So, yes, there are time we do need to skip.

  2. Susannah Fullerton

    There’s certainly a welter of corpses at the end of Hamlet! I agree that Ophelia’s death is very moving, partly because of that wonderful flower speech of the queens – “then did her garments, heavy with their drink …”
    Yes, I wonder how Shakespeare and Anne felt on their wedding day and if she had any inkling of the greatness he would attain?

  3. Lynda

    I find the end of Hamlet almost comical, as there are so many dead bodies (some still puffing from recent exertion) on stage. Ophelias lone death is more moving and it happens off-stage!

    So, Shakespeare and Anne’s 440th anniversary. Wondering about their hopes at that date…

  4. Vanessa Coldwell

    Thank you for the mention of Kathryn Harkup’s latest book here. I hadn’t heard of her and just looked up her books…I may have already ordered 2!The Frankenstein and Agatha Christie ones sound great too. I look forward to read some of her work. Vanessa- Wales, U.K.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *