4 Star, Historical, Literature, Nonfiction, October '20, Reviews

Death by Shakespeare Review

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Hello bookbees! It’s been a while, I know. Life has been very crazy for me recently (as I’m sure it has for lots of people) and I have got dreadfully behind on both reading and reviewing books. I might do a separate life update post, just because I don’t want to overwhelm this review with details of my life. It is the book we’re here for after all!

Death by Shakespeare by Kathryn Harkup is a nonfiction book about exactly what it says in the title. Shakespeare, for anyone who has managed to avoid any reference to him while in the world of literature, was a poet and writer in Elizabethan England. He wrote a lot of sonnets and plays, which people think are quite good generally. Death by Shakespeare goes through the different methods of death Shakespeare’s characters experience and how they would have worked and been received in Shakespeare’s time. Goodreads describes it as:

In Death By Shakespeare, Kathryn Harkup, best-selling author of A is for Arsenic and expert on the more gruesome side of science, turns her expertise to Shakespeare and the creative methods he used to kill off his characters. Is death by snakebite really as serene as Cleopatra made it seem? How did Juliet appear dead for 72 hours only to be revived in perfect health? Can you really kill someone by pouring poison in their ear? How long would it take before Lady Macbeth died from lack of sleep? Readers will find out exactly how all the iconic death scenes that have thrilled audiences for centuries would play out in real life.

For the full blurb, click here (opens in new tab).

The book is structured so that each method of death had its own chapter, and within that chapter Harkup would give the historical context around that method of death, how it would work in real life and onstage, as well as going into some detail about a famous character or two who died in that way in Shakespeare’s plays. The book does not assume much knowledge about Shakespeare or his plays, so even if you’ve never actually read any of it, this is a fascinating book about death and theatre in Shakespeare’s time.

I thought I knew a decent amount about Shakespeare. Like most other British students, I have studied several Shakespeare plays over the years and that tends to involve making a poster or something about his life at some point. It turns out, there is much to Shakespeare’s life I did not know, and it was fascinating to learn these details and how they affected his writing. This includes how his son-in-law was a doctor so he might have got medical knowledge from him, and Shakespeare’s rivals at the time of his writing. Who knew most plays in Shakespeare’s times were only done once unless they were very popular, so playwrights had to constantly be writing new plays! The sheer volume astounds me.

I learnt a lot about the human body and its medical conditions/diseases in this book. If you don’t like blood, or stabbings, or poison and other unpleasant ends, I don’t think this is the book for you. However, if you are interested in Elizabethan England, Shakespeare, historical theatre, or death, I highly recommend this book. It is in depth without being overly wordy, and it’s certainly an interesting conversation starter. A great example of a fun and interesting nonfiction book in a rather random, niche subject.

I hope you’re all doing well in these chaotic times and have found some books to take solace in as lockdown rules go up and down like a yoyo! I’d love to hear what you’ve been reading or your thoughts on Shakespeare, so use the links below to let me know.

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