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.
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Death by Shakespeare by Kathryn Harkup
The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare
Susannah Fullerton: William Shakespeare
Susannah Fullerton: Happy Birthday, William Shakespeare
Susannah Fullerton: William Shakespeare marries
Susannah Fullerton: April 1616 Was a Seriously Bad Month
Susannah Fullerton: King Lear is performed for the first time
Susannah Fullerton: First performance of Macbeth (perhaps)
Susannah Fullerton: To be or not to be …
Susannah Fullerton: William Shakespeare dies
Susannah Fullerton: Shakespeare’s First Folio