Death by Shakespeare: Snakebites, Stabbings and Broken Hearts (2020) is the third book by Kathryn Harkup that looks at the science and medical history behind a theme. Her first book, the fantastic, A is for Arsenic looked at the works of Agatha Christie. Making the Monster looked at the history of medicine and surgery against the backdrop of Frankenstein, and this third book looks at – as the title says – the deaths in the works of Shakespeare.

I had been underwhelmed by Making the Monster. However, Death by Shakespeare was utterly disappointing.

Sure, there were some interesting bits in it, but let me list a few things that really irritated me:

I don’t do gore, and this book dwells on the gore factor even more than Harkup’s disappointing Making the Monster: The Science Behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Sure, I had to expect that there would be detailed descriptions of blood and guts, but these can be described without revelling in evoking the gruesomeness of the torture and methods of execution described. (Btw, The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister’s Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine by Lindsey Fitzharris is an excellent alternative read to Making the Monster.)

I don’t like the structure of the book. I love A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie because it is divided into clear chapters that tell the reader which subject/poison will be addressed and which of Christie’s books will be discussed. This allows readers to avoid (for the most part) spoilers for books that one hasn’t read, yet. Not so in this book. I nearly lost the will to continue reading after four (FOUR!) chapters of introduction to the Elizabethan theatre and times. Subsequent chapters were no more clear about what the context or focus of the chapters were about. Structually, the book could have done with better organisation – either by play or by “cause of death” or similar categorisation.

I think Harkup’s interpretation of some of the plays is….questionable. (And I’m told that “questionable” is a charitable description.) Or at least, the way it is presented is so brief that it seems to only provide one aspect, which isn’t discussed in great detail, and so gives off the impression that there is only one angle. It is difficult to explain this but the instance where this irked me most is when Harkup talks about “infanticide and witchcraft” and adds a footnote to say that:
“Lady Macbeth is an example of a Shakespearean character who may have been guilty of infanticide. The text is vague and has been a rich source of speculation over Lady Macbeth’s character and motives for her actions.”

Why make this a footnote? In a book about Shakespeare’s characters and their crimes, why not elaborate?

But no, instead we get the details of what happens to a human body when burned at the stake (as this section in the chapter refers to witchcraft). And I do mean DETAILS! Details as in degree by the degree… I had to skip the rest of that particular section.

Alternatively, if interpretation and providing context of the scenes that Harkup picked wasn’t at the heart of the book (and it clearly isn’t), then why give the impression that it is? Why not add a disclaimer or preamble to explain that literary criticism or interpretation for scenes mentioned is best sought elesewhere?
No disrespect to the author, but literary analysis of Shakespearean plays is not her field of expertise. Yet, the book comes across at times as providing authoritative insight into the plays. The book really fails at this.

Lastly, I had a big issue with spoilers in this book.
I have read the majority but not yet all of the plays. Even if I had read all, I hate spoilers.
Now, I don’t care that this is Shakespeare and that most (or is it many now?) people will know what happens in the most famous plays. Part of the fun is finding out what happens as you read or watch the plays. To be surprised by the twists, to try and follow the characters’ motivations.
Just as in a Christie Whodunnit, spoilers should have been avoided or at least presented with a “heads up” so they can be skipped.
Harkup managed to this (largely) in her first book.
Why not here?

I was really not impressed with this book. It’s almost like Harkup gave up. Or like she sold the idea of the book to the publishers and just couldn’t pull it off. It’s disappointing, because I loved her first book and she is a genuinely fab and clever author. Her author events – Poisoned Tea/Cocktail Parties etc. are absolutely brilliant.

I also have a suspicion that her editor wasn’t a great help with this book and could have helped making this a whole lot better. I like the idea of the book, but the execution is just really, really bad. (Morbid pun fully intended.)

This book was such a mess.