Books, Uncategorized

Review: Death By Shakespeare by Kathryn Harkup

Thank you to NetGalley and Bloomsbury Publishing for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review!


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 William 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? Harkup investigates what actual events may have inspired Shakespeare, what the accepted scientific knowledge of the time was, and how Elizabethan audiences would have responded to these death scenes. Death by Shakespeare reveals this and more in a rollercoaster of Elizabethan carnage, poison, swordplay and bloodshed, with an occasional death by bear-mauling for good measure.

In the Bard’s day death was a part of everyday life. Plague, pestilence and public executions were a common occurrence, and the chances of seeing a dead or dying body on the way home from the theater was a fairly likely scenario. Death is one of the major themes that reoccurs constantly throughout Shakespeare’s canon, and he certainly didn’t shy away from portraying the bloody reality of death on the stage. He didn’t have to invent gruesome or novel ways to kill off his characters when everyday experience provided plenty of inspiration.

Shakespeare’s era was also a time of huge scientific advance. The human body, its construction and how it was affected by disease came under scrutiny, overturning more than a thousand years of received Greek wisdom, and Shakespeare himself hinted at these new scientific discoveries and medical advances in his writing, such as circulation of the blood and treatments for syphilis.

Shakespeare found dozens of different ways to kill off his characters, and audiences today still enjoy the same reactions–shock, sadness, fear–that they did over 400 years ago when these plays were first performed. But how realistic are these deaths, and did Shakespeare have the science to back them up?


As a long-term lover of Shakespeare and his characters, this book was right up my street. Kathryn Harkup takes her readers on a fantastic journey through Elizabethan and Jacobean London, intertwining science, social history and literature.

She starts by laying out Shakespeare’s life and his consequent rise to fame, giving us an insight into the living conditions he lived in and setting the stage for his later plays (pun intended..!). This book, whilst incredibly academic and insightful, isn’t written pretentiously and is engaging and easy to follow, splitting it into different methods of death within the plays. There is a lot of information presented, but it is explained clearly despite relying on a lot of medical history and theory. I loved how each death in Shakespeare had an explanation with it.

Harkup uses social history to explain how audiences would have reacted to certain deaths and lines, helping to give even more significance to scenes that a modern audience may overlook. She discusses how plays would have been staged, from the use of blood, falling from heights, body parts, and how to portray large battles. I found this fascinating as it adds an extra layer to each play as you read it. Shakespeare used real life events within his plays, and Harkup helps to dispel any misinformation and manipulation of history he used to create a more dramatic play.

The only negative I have about this play is that some information is repeated in different sections which made it feel like I was re-reading sections. It is always relevant, but it felt tedious during those parts, maybe a small reference would have worked better?

Overall, I thought this book was a fascinating insight into Shakespeare’s plays, his life, and the methods of death that were used within his plays. I was surprised at how accurate a lot of them were and the detail that Harkup went into to dispell the false science Shakespeare sometimes used. I rated this book 4 stars and will be reading more Shakespeare plays soon so I can appreciate the contexts of each.


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