Thursday, May 7, 2020

Kathryn Harkup's "Death by Shakespeare"

Kathryn Harkup is a chemist and author. She completed a doctorate on her favorite chemicals, phosphines, and went on to further postdoctoral research before realizing that talking, writing and demonstrating science appealed a bit more than hours slaving over a hot fume-hood. She writes and gives regular public talks on the disgusting and dangerous side of science.

Harkup’s first book was the international best-seller A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie, which was shortlisted for a Mystery Readers International Macavity Award and a BMA Book Award. She has also written Making the Monster: The Science of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Harkup applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Death by Shakespeare: Snakebites, Stabbings and Broken Hearts, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Death by Shakespeare discusses the deaths of two Shakespearean characters - Falstaff and Henry IV - one fictional and one who existed in real-life. The first half of the page looks at Mistress Quickly’s description of Falstaff’s death. It examines how the words Shakespeare wrote four hundred years ago can be interpreted or translated into modern understanding of diseases such as malaria and the sweating sickness. The second half of the page is the start of the discussion about the death of Henry IV and how Shakespeare had real-life events he could draw on to portray the death of the king, as opposed to the possibilities of pure invention he could use for the fictional Falstaff.

Page 99 is fairly typical of the book as a whole, in that it looks at putting the deaths of Shakespearean characters in some kind of context for the time it was written. The page illustrates pretty well my approach to looking at the deaths in Shakespeare, for example, why and how he portrayed them on stage and his possible sources. The page also shows how I looked for clues in the text as to what Shakespeare understood about death and disease and how his audience might have understood things differently to modern audiences. It also looks at the accuracy of the deaths in terms of historical record as well as the underlying science of the disease.

Some deaths, like that of Falstaff dying in a domestic setting surrounded by friends but without any medical professional attendants, are very different to what we might expect to happen today. Most deaths today occur in hospitals, but dying at home would have been the norm in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The very detailed description of the knight’s death contains some very specific medical diagnosis though the language used is no longer in common use. It might also seem surprising to hear such in-depth medical knowledge coming from a pub landlady like Mistress Quickly.

When it comes to the death of Henry IV, my discussion begins with what we know of the real-life events and how faithful Shakespeare was to the historical record. In other parts of the book it becomes clear that Shakespeare could play very fast and lose with historical facts when it suited him.

In the context of the book as a whole, I found it interesting how often death featured in Shakespeare’s work and how it is an integral part of the plays he wrote. I was curious as to how detailed and realistic Shakespeare chose to show his characters’ deaths. Whether a death took place on or off stage, how much information and explanation did his audience need, want or understand? What were probably obvious occurrences for a Shakespearean audience need considerably more explanation and interpretation for modern audiences and this is what the book tries to offer.
Visit Kathryn Harkup's website.

--Marshal Zeringue