Shakespeare found dozens of different ways to kill off his characters. 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 knowledge to back them up?
In the Bard’s day death was a part of everyday life. Plague, pestilence and public executions were a common occurrence. It was also a time of important scientific advance. Shakespeare kept pace with new anatomical and medical theories and included the latest scientific ideas in his work. He certainly didn’t shy away from portraying the reality of death on stage, from the brutal to the mundane, and the spectacular to the silly.
Kathryn Harkup turns her scientific eye to the Bard and the varied and creative methods he used to kill off his characters. Was death by snakebite really as serene as Shakespeare makes out? Could lack of sleep have killed Lady Macbeth? Can you really murder someone by pouring poison in their ear?
Kathryn completed a doctorate on her favourite chemicals, phosphines, and went on to further postdoctoral research before switching to communicating rather than conducting scientific research. She writes and gives regular public talks on the disgusting and dangerous side of science.
Kathryn’s first book was the international best-seller A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie. She has also written Making the Monster: The Science of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Her third book is Death by Shakespeare: Snakebites, Stabbings and Broken Hearts.
Image: © Louis Christodoulou