Kathryn Harkup is a chemist and author. She completed a PhD then a postdoc at the University of York before realising that talking, writing and demonstrating science appealed far more than spending hours slaving over a hot fume-hood. Kathryn went on to run outreach in engineering, computing, physics and maths at the University of Surrey, which involved writing talks on science and engineering topics that would appeal to bored teenagers, and she is now a science communicator delivering talks and workshops on the quirky side of science.
You’re following your incredibly successful A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie and Making the Monster: The Science of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein with a book about the numerous ways in which Shakespeare killed off his characters. What is it about death, ‘the undiscovered country’, and the macabre that attracts you most?
It’s a fascinating topic and with so many aspects to it - cultural attitudes to death, legal, political, historical and, of course, the scientific processes of death itself. I think death and the macabre interests more people than would like to admit it. Just look at the proportion of news stories that deal with fatalities from disease, natural disaster, accident or crime. Murder mysteries on TV or in books seem to have an enduring popularity. Perhaps we are all wanting to know about the seemingly unknowable.
Death by Shakespeare is written in such an engaging and accessible style, and yet it’s anchored in fine literary scholarship, theatre history, and science. Can you tell us about your relationship with Shakespeare, your first encounter with him etc.?
I think like most people my introduction to Shakespeare was probably at school. We read A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet in class. I seem to remember being initially sceptical but grudgingly acknowledging that I quite enjoyed them. As I got older I saw more of the plays performed and there were a few stand-out moments; watching Ian McKellen as Richard III in the film adaptation of the play; going to the Globe to see Mark Rylance as Henry V with the crowd fully engaged and cheering on the English side, that got me really hooked on Shakespeare’s works. The more I saw and read about the plays the more fascinated I became.
How might modern readers of your book perceive death differently to people living in Shakespeare’s time?
I think we are much more detached from death today. Death has been professionalised. It is sanitised and screened off to protect the living from seeing something they might find distressing. But that also means we don’t know what to expect or what to say and how to behave around the dying. In Shakespeare’s day people witnessed death regularly. They nursed loved ones in their last moments and knew that when their time came there would be loved ones there to care for them. In many ways I think this knowledge would have been very consoling.
One of the many great things about Death by Shakespeare is the fact you acknowledge that Shakespeare collaborated and engaged with other writers throughout the book. How do Shakespeare’s deaths compare to those found in the works of contemporaries like Thomas Kyd, Christopher Marlowe, and George Peele?
Compared to his contemporaries Shakespeare often seems quite reserved when it comes to death. He certainly wasn’t as bloodthirsty as Peele and less willing to show the executions on stage than Kyd. Shakespeare took most of the plot for The Merchant of Venice from Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta but removed the murders attributed to the Shylock character. Having said that, overall Shakespeare probably killed off more characters than his contemporaries and in a greater variety of ways. I think his use of death is more nuanced than his contemporaries. Death is more than getting rid of an inconvenient character, or illustrating the evil nature of a villain. Shakespeare’s deaths have an impact not just on the plot but on the characters within the play, their internal life and their relationships with others.
"I’m fascinated by Duke Humphrey’s death in Henry VI Part 2 because the forensic examination of the body is like CSI Shakespeare."— Kathryn Harkup
Do you have a favourite death in Shakespeare’s works?
I love [exit pursued by a bear] in The Winter’s Tale because its ridiculous. I’m fascinated by Duke Humphrey’s death in Henry VI Part 2 because the forensic examination of the body is like CSI Shakespeare. But writing about Richard III’s murderous antics was a lot of fun, perhaps more fun than it should have been when you consider what a truly horrible character he is.
Shakespeare sometimes alters the ways in which characters die in his sources. Did any examples of Shakespeare doing this really stand out to you and, if so, what do these changes tell us about Shakespeare’s approach to staging death?
One of the more obvious ones for me is the death of Desdemona at Othello’s hands. In the original story it is the Iago character who actually did the deed and then pulled the ceiling down on top of the body to make it look like an accident. Pulling a ceiling down on stage would be impossible so Shakespeare had to change it somehow. But by making Othello responsible for Desdemona’s death, and committing it in such an intimate way, by smothering her in her bed, he added so much more to the story. He changed the whole dynamic between the characters and gave us centuries of discussion over guilt, responsibility and motive.
While researching this book, were there any aspects of Elizabethan stagecraft that intrigued or surprised you in particular?
One thing that stood out to me was how creative and sophisticated Elizabethan and Jacobean stagecraft could be. The image of the big empty stage of the Globe, the ‘sterile promontory’ as Hamlet puts it, may seem basic and boring by modern standards of theatre design, but they could do so much with it. The level of planning that was needed to ensure everyone was on stage at the right time when actors played more than one role; or when a playwright wanted to show a particularly bloody death but couldn’t ruin the costumes and actors needed time to clean up before they appeared again, and keeping the plot going but with the bare minimum of props because everything had to be packed up and transported. To manage all that and still have an entertaining play that engages the audiences? It’s staggering.
Buy your copy of Kathryn's new book, Death by Shakespeare: Snakebites, Stabbings and Broken Hearts at the Shakespeare Bookshop Published by Bloomsbury Sigma.