Book Review: Death By Shakespeare: Snakebits, Stabbings and Broken Hearts. (Also the Plague)

“Plague shaped Shakespeare’s life,” Kathryn Harkup writes in her new book.
Death By Shakespeare: Snakebites, Stabbings and Broken Hearts (Bloomsbury Sigma, 368 pages, May 2020 publication date.) The first outbreak of the Plague during Shakespeare’s lifetime occurred three months after his birth in 1564, and he was among only one-third of the children in the town of Stratford-upon-Avon to survive. He was just starting to make his name as a playwright in London in 1592, when there was a severe outbreak that resulted in the shuttering of the theaters – drying up opportunity for playwriting and thus pushing the Bard to become a poet, which arguably enhanced his writing when he returned to drama.
Plague was so common at the time that authorities decreed that theaters could reopen if the weekly death rate from the epidemic sunk below 50 for three consecutive weeks.
And so, Harkup says, it’s no surprise that the Plague pervades Shakespeare’s plays – though never graphically. “It is almost as though the topic were too terrifying to mention or show onstage,” she writes. Instead, the Plague figures in many of the insults that are featured in every one of Shakespeare’s play. The mortally wounded Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet shouts out “A plague o’both your houses.”
The Bard had no trouble directly mentioning and showing other diseases, such as malaria, called ague at the time, which the author has counted in eight of his plays.
Diseases are just some of the remarkable variety of ways that Shakespeare’s characters die. One reason for this is that death confronted Elizabethans far more intimately than it does nowadays (the author of course writing pre-pandemic.)
Harkup, who has a Ph.D in chemistry, and has written two previous books on much the same model – “A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie,” and “Making the Monster: The Science of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” – devotes some dense pages to analyzing the Bard’s depictions of deaths for their accuracy. Bottom line: The Bard was pretty accurate, with more extensive medical knowledge than any other playwright in his day, perhaps in part because his daughter married a doctor.
“Shakespeare’s plays are littered with the bodies of characters who have died of grief, remorse, love or some other strong emotion,” she writes in chapter 10, the penultimate chapter. “More than one character appears to die of a guilty conscience. For example, in Richard II, the ‘Abbot of Westminster/with clog of conscience and sour melancholy/Has yielded up his body to the grave.'” Harkup spends the rest of the chapter, some 20 pages,offering medical diagnoses for specific incidents in the plays.
Harkup even provides analyses of the fake deaths in the plays. She explains that, without the tools of modern medicine, it wasn’t easy to detect when somebody was dead, rather than in a coma, and so it wasn’t just fanciful that Shakespeare’s characters could be mistaken for dead, or convincingly fake their deaths. On the other hand, the author spends five pages suggesting various drugs that Juliet used to fake her death, and explaining the reasons why each was impossible or unlikely. A poison found in puffer fish called TTX could have produced the effect, but puffer fish weren’t known in England for another two centuries. “One remote possibility is that trade with south-east Asia brought the knowledge, or rumour, of such substances into Europe much earlier and inspired stories of death-simulating potions.”
She speculates in a similar exhaustive manner about the specific cause of Shakespeare’s own death (she makes a methodical if not wholly committed case for typhoid fever), but points out that the age at which he died, 52, was far older than the average life expectancy of the time.
“Death by Shakespeare” doesn’t just fact-check the playwright’s scripts. The author uses death as the lens by which to describe life in Elizabethan England – the conditions, the attitudes, the practices surrounding death.
The ostensible reason for doing this is to provide a historical context in order to understand Shakespeare’s choices. Only one of Shakespeare’s characters dies in a hospital (Doll in Henry V), because sixteenth century London had only three hospitals, one for the insane, all strictly for the poor, and “few of those who entered expected to leave.”
The conditions of theatergoing itself at the time, described graphically, also illuminates the playwright’s choices. A trip to the theater would have been an assault on all the senses. A combination of foul smells from the nearby polluted river, bearbaiting arenas and the neighborhood breweries and tanneries (known collectively as the ‘stink trades’) would have pervaded the air.A “foul and pestilent congregation of vapours” as Hamlet put it.
The performers used real swords, and the author catalogues several accidentai audience injuries, even fatalities.
When the playwright referred to the stage as “this unworthy scaffold” in Henry V, he was comparing it to sites of execution, observes the author, who says Elizabethan playwrights were competing with audiences that went to bear-baiting and that “the public could witness floggings, dismemberment and executions of criminals for free.” This, she says, is why Shakespeare’s plays are so bloody.In Henry VI, three different decapitated heads are brought on stage.
But “Death by Shakespeare” often goes way beyond anything connected to the playwright or the theater. Some of the information is intriguing, if ghastly. The barber poles that you still see outside barber shops were created when barbers were also surgeons. The red and white striped poles signified the blood and bandages of their profession. But the chapter on the Plague offers detailed scientific explanations of the causes and effects of the Plague, and its history in Europe, and gets graphic in a way that Shakespeare’s plays never did — far more than I really wanted to know, despite (or maybe because of) its newfound relevance.

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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