Kathryn Harkup on Death by Shakespeare

Book jacket for Death by Shakespeare by Kathryn Harkup
Death by Shakespeare, by Dr. Kathryn Harkup

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Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 144

It’s quite a list: Hanged. Prison fever. Stabbed. Stabbed. Poisoned. Beheaded. Beheaded. “Malady of France.” Cannonball. Burnt. Bitten. Eaten. Mauled. Shakespeare wrote about a lot of things, but he really wrote a lot about death.

Chemist and science communicator Dr. Kathryn Harkup’s new book is Death By Shakespeare. In it, she takes her readers through a fulsome exploration of death in the plays and provides plenty of grizzly explanations of just what causes it all. We talk to her about some of those deaths, dying in Shakespeare’s world, and why gruesome deaths feature so prominently in stories from Shakespeare to CSI. Harkup is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

Listen to Shakespeare Unlimited on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Soundcloud, NPR One, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Dr. Kathryn Harkup is a chemist, author, and science communicator. Death by Shakespeare: Snakebites, Stabbings and Broken Hearts (published in the US by Bloomsbury Sigma, 2020) is the third in her series of books joining popular fiction and science, which also includes A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie and Making the Monster: The Science Behind Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

From our Shakespeare Unlimited podcast. Published May 12, 2020. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, “Death is Certain,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer.

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Listen to our interview with Gail Kern Paster and Barbara Traister about medicine and health in Shakespeare's time.

Shakespeare Unlimited: Elizabethan Street Fighting
Listen to our interview with Vanessa McMahon and Casey Kaleba about duels and brawls in the streets of Shakespeare's England.


MICHAEL WITMORE: Okay, let’s see: There’s a hanging. There’s prison fever. There’s a stabbing. There’s another stabbing. There’s a poisoning. Beheaded. Beheaded. “Malady of France.” Cannonball. Burnt at the stake…

From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director. Shakespeare wrote about a lot of things. Love. Ambition. Doubt. Magic. And inevitably, and vividly, he wrote about death. Death by natural causes. Death by royal decree. Near death. Faked deaths. There is a lot of death in Shakespeare.

Dr. Kathryn Harkup, a chemist and science communicator, has a new book out—part of a series of books she’s written joining popular fiction and science. She has a book on the deaths in Agatha Christie mysteries, one on the science in Frankenstein, and now she’s written Death by Shakespeare. In it, she takes the novice Shakespeare reader through a fulsome exploration of death in the plays, and she takes the novice science reader through plenty of grizzly explanations of just what causes all that death. I think you’ll agree, it’s the kind of material that rom-com fans will find fascinating and horror movie fans will think is just so cool.

I should mention, when we talked with Dr. Harkup recently, she was locked down in her apartment in Spain. Our host, Barbara Bogaev, was recording from her garage in Los Angeles. If their audio quality or mine, for that matter, is something less than what you’ve come to expect from us, we hope you’ll understand, under the circumstances.

We call this podcast episode “Death is Certain.”


BARBARA BOGAEV: I've been thinking just this week that coronavirus is going to be one of the defining moments in my children’s lives, and that Shakespeare was also marked by a pandemic. He was born in a plague year, and it sounds like from what you write that he was lucky to survive.

KATHRYN HARKUP: Absolutely. The year he was born, something like 10 percent of the population of his hometown was wiped out. Young kids, especially babies, were particularly vulnerable because they hadn’t built up any immunity. I think people were just plain terrified, and the kind of weird and wonderful remedies and protections that they took shows that that wasn’t an awful lot of rational thought going on at times. All sorts of crazy ideas.

BOGAEV: Right. I think I heard that you’d kill a chicken and stick it in your armpit and just keep it there for weeks.

HARKUP: Yeah. Poor chicken. Poor armpit.

BOGAEV: Wow, and life expectancy, it wasn’t great anyway in the 16th and 17th centuries. You talk about life expectancy in really specific, stark terms.

HARKUP: Yes. The average life expectancy across England at the time was 38, which it didn’t mean you got to 38 and dropped dead. What it meant was, unfortunately, the most vulnerable time was around birth. So the longer you survived, the greater your chances of surviving even longer.

So if you made it to 30, there was a chance you would see 40. If you saw 40, there was a better chance that you would see 50, and so on. Thirty-eight was for the whole of England, but it was quite patchy. If you lived in London, you might not see your 30th birthday.

BOGAEV: So Shakespeare did pretty well at 53.

HARKUP: Yeah, he did exceptionally well. But his birth to quite a well-to-do family and certainly genetically—the women in his family survived to extraordinary ages. So maybe he had a bit of a genetic advantage as well.

BOGAEV: Yeah. Well, you do lay out in the book just how much death and gore, and just plain grisliness ordinary people were exposed to in Shakespeare’s time. I feel like we should give a trigger warning with this part of the interview—maybe the whole interview.

Tell us more about that, because it influenced how Shakespeare wrote about and staged violence and death in his plays; just the atmosphere that they were all swimming in. For instance, everyone in Elizabethan England would have witnessed death in their own homes, you write, of a family member or seeing someone stabbed on the street, or whatever.

HARKUP: Absolutely. Death was something that the majority of people, I think, would have seen up close and personal, apart from an awful lot of disease that was floating around at the time, which they didn’t really have any treatment for. Certainly no effective medicines. So there was that consideration, but there was an awful lot of violence as well.

[CLIP from Romeo and Juliet, from The Folger Shakespeare audio editions.]

Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?

I do bite my thumb, sir.

Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?

HARKUP: There was a lot of tension around, and every adult male was armed. The scenes that you see in Romeo and Juliet of, you know, the Montagues and the Capulets fighting on the street, this is not contrived part of the plot. It is a not unrealistic representation of what Shakespeare might have witnessed on the streets of London.

[Clip continues]

Draw if you be men.—Gregory, remember
thy washing blow.

HARKUP: There was also capital punishment, was very prevalent at the time. It was done in public, so public hangings. Even decapitated criminals—their heads were put on spikes above London Bridge. So if you wanted to go from London proper to go and see a play, you would literally walk underneath the heads of these criminals.

BOGAEV: Right. And there was also a lot of violent entertainment. I mean, real competition for the theater.

HARKUP: Well, this is it. I think if you can go and see a hanging for free, you can go and watch a bear maul dogs and dogs maul a bear for the price of a penny. Theaters had to compete with that, and they had to give the audience what it wanted.

BOGAEV: I want to talk about that in a minute, but getting back to this idea that most people had seen a death in their own home; you say if you were sick, you very rarely died in the hospital. People died in their own homes. Who did go to the hospital?

HARKUP: It was only the poorest. It was basically a way of separating the very, very sick from the nervous rich who didn’t want to catch anything. Most people would have been nursed at home. They would have had friends and relatives come and visit them in their last moments to look after them and talk to them and reassure them. It might sound quite grisly by today’s standards, but actually, people understood what death looked like.

BOGAEV: And how do you see this in Shakespeare’s writing? And you talk about two examples of Shakespeare’s intimate familiarity with final moments of life. The first is Queen Katherine in Henry VIII.

[CLIP from Henry VIII, from The Complete Arkangel Shakespeare.]

Do you note
How much her Grace is altered on the sudden?
How long her face is drawn? How pale she looks,
And of an earthy cold? Mark her eyes.

She is going, wench. Pray, pray.

HARKUP: Katherine of Aragon, who has been ostracized and abandoned by Henry VIII and left alone pretty much to die in a castle. Two officials turn up to tell her—give her an update of the latest news, and it’s clear that Katherine’s dying.

[Clip continues]

Mine eyes grow dim. Farewell,
My lord. —Griffith, farewell. —Nay, Patience,
You must not leave me yet.

HARKUP: Her eyesight slowly fades and she makes a few gasps and that’s the end.

[Clip continues]

Although unqueened, yet like
A queen and daughter to a king inter me.
I can no more.

HARKUP: But it is very typical for the kind of experience that the average Tudor might have expected.

BOGAEV: And what about the death of Falstaff?

HARKUP: Oh, the death of Falstaff is—oh, it’s heartbreaking. You don’t even see it. It’s described by Mistress Quickly, who was there in those last moments.

[CLIP from Henry V, from The Complete Arkangel Shakespeare.]

He parted ev’n just between twelve and one, ev’n at the turning o’ th’ tide…

HARKUP: Because she knew what death looked like, she had experienced or witnessed this in others, she knew the signs in Falstaff.

[Clip continues]

For after I saw him fumble with the sheets and play with flowers.

HARKUP: He’s picking at the bedclothes quite obsessively, and this is an absolutely characteristic sign of people in their very last moments; this obsessive picking at objects.

[Clip continues]

I put my hand into the bed and felt them, and they were as cold as any stone. Then I felt to his knees, and upward and upward, and
all was as cold as any stone.

HARKUP: In terms of discussing death and the details of it, he’s very, very accurate because his audience would have known what to expect. They would have been very difficult to shock and very difficult to deceive, so he had to be on the money.

BOGAEV: And that did influence how they staged deaths, right? Also, how they used blood and what blood they used—it had to be very realistic.

[CLIP from the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Julius Caesar (2012).]

Romans, stoop,
And let us bathe our hands in Caesar’s blood.

HARKUP: If you’re going to have a bloody death like the death of Caesar, for example—stabbed 33 times—I mean, that’s messy.

[Clip continues]

“Peace, freedom, and liberty!”

Stoop then, and wash.

HARKUP: There would have been some fake bloods that could have been used, but they wouldn’t have been terribly convincing. And to be honest, why would you even bother when there would be abattoirs around the corner where you could just get hold of some blood?

It had to be very specific blood. It’s amazing. They knew the difference between cow’s blood or sheep’s blood. They always recommended using sheep’s blood in stage props because it didn’t clot as badly or as quickly as cow’s blood, so you could keep it longer backstage.

BOGAEV: Oh man. Moving away from the blood for the moment, because it is ironic; I would never know the difference between sheep’s blood now and any other kind of blood.

HARKUP: It was an absolute rabbit hole that I fell down, trying to figure out why sheep’s blood would stay unclotted for longer. I deeply regret that.

BOGAEV: In addition to all this death in Shakespeare, there are a lot of characters who appear to die when they aren’t dead, of course. Juliet is the most famous example of that. Who else?

[CLIP from Much Ado About Nothing, from the PBS Great Performances presentation of the Public Theater's Free Shakespeare in the Park. ]

Why, how now, cousin, wherefore sink you down?

HARKUP: There’s Hero in Much Ado About Nothing. She faints and everyone assumes that she’s died.

[Clip continues]

How doth the lady?

Dead, I think.—Help, uncle! —Hero, why Hero! Uncle!

HARKUP: Then she recovers and she’s able to use this to deceive people. So she lets everyone continue to think that she’s dead so that she can work it to her advantage, and she can get around back behind the scenes, all the time him thinking that she’s dead.

There are numerous faintings where people think, “Oh, that person’s dead,” but then they revive, or where someone… it’s in doubt. Hermoine in The Winter’s Tale, she faints, but the king says, “No, no, no, no, just a faint. Don’t worry, she’s not dead.” Because people needed reassuring. But there are a few other characters who do not intentionally fake their death, but they appear dead. And one of those is Imogene in Cymbeline.

[CLIP from Cymbeline, from The Complete Arkangel Shakespeare.]

Th’ imperious seas breeds monsters; for the dish
Poor tributary rivers as sweet fish.

HARKUP: She is given a box of medicines that is actually drugs that will make her appear dead.

[Clip continues]

I’ll now taste of thy drug.

HARKUP: And she wakes up much later next to the decapitated corpse of her husband.

[Clip continues]

A headless man? The garments of Posthumus?
I know the shape of ‘s leg.

HARKUP: Very complicated reasons, but it all turns out all right in the end.

BOGAEV: Right. There’s a real lesson there. Don’t do this, kids.

HARKUP: Yeah, absolutely. Definite life lessons. Don’t swallow medicines unless you know exactly what they’re for, and try not to wake up next to the decapitated corpse of your dead husband.

BOGAEV: Well, these are very helpful for plot and for a playwright. But is there any kind of medical history or impetus to this—where this idea came from? Because did people really know when life ceased? What death was at the time?

HARKUP: Well, it’s still quite difficult to diagnose death. That seems ridiculous to say, but actually, death—it’s not light switch moment. It is a process. Actually, deciding when that process has got to a point where there is no return is medically quite difficult.

Back in Shakespeare’s day, it would have been quite straightforward in that when the heart stopped, you were considered dead. But actually, detecting a heartbeat was very difficult because they didn’t have stethoscopes or any real way of measuring very faint heartbeats.

There also seems to have been quite a strong belief that certain drugs could fake death. Drugs that would otherwise be highly toxic and would cause death could be somehow moderated in some way so that you would just appear dead and you could revive later. As far as I can make out, there was no drug at the time that could do this, but it’s a common theme in lots of plays, not just in Shakespeare. So there must have been an idea from somewhere.

One theory is a drug called tetrodotoxin, which is in pufferfish. It can slow your heartbeat and slow your breathing to a point where it’s very difficult to tell if the person is alive or dead. The problem is that pufferfish weren’t really known about in the UK until Cook’s voyages in the 18th century. So how Shakespeare got hold of this knowledge, if he did, is a bit of a mystery.

BOGAEV: Well, I was going to say, not only Romeo and Juliet, but also isn’t there a drug mentioned in Antony and Cleopatra?

HARKUP: I think you might be talking about mandragora. Cleopatra talks about some drugs that will send you to sleep. “I will sleep out my Antony’s absence,” or something like that. So there were drugs that could cause unconsciousness, and maybe for the untrained eye, that looked like death. But actually, Juliet’s is much more sophisticated.

[CLIP from Romeo and Juliet, from The Folger Shakespeare audio editions.]

Hold, daughter, I do spy a kind of hope,
Which craves as desperate an execution
As that is desperate which we would prevent.

HARKUP: The drug, when it’s given to Juliet by the friar, he actually lists all of the symptoms she can expect. It’s not just unconsciousness. She’ll go cold. There’ll be no pulse.

[Clip continues]

And this distilling liquor drink thou off;
When presently through all thy veins shall run
A cold and drowsy humor for no pulse
Shall keep his native progress, but surcease.
No warmth, no breath shall testify thou livest.
The roses in thy lips and cheeks shall fade
To paly ashes, thy eyes’ windows fall
Like death when he shuts up the day of life.

BOGAEV: And when you look at that list that the friar reels out, does it seem medically valid?

HARKUP: The closest, as I say, would be tetrodotoxin. It would match an awful lot of the symptoms, apart from the coldness, maybe, or they might get coldness in the extremities, because the blood isn’t pumping very well.

But as I say, tetrodotoxin’s really not known in Shakespeare’s day. Unless, of course, through trade with the East, rumors of such things had arrived. So maybe he was incorporating ideas and gossip of such things that he’d heard around town.

BOGAEV: Well, moving on to other kinds of death in Shakespeare. We did a whole podcast on murder in Shakespeare’s time, so we’re not going to look at every street fight in this interview. But there is one particular murder that you write about that I do want to focus on because of the way it’s presented, and that’s the murder of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, by the Earl of Suffolk in Henry VI, Part 2. And it’s great. You describe it as CSI: Shakespeare.

[CLIP from Henry VI, Part Two, from The Complete Arkangel Shakespeare.]

Come hither, gracious sovereign. View this body.

HARKUP: It’s astonishing. This is a few hundred years before the concept of whodunits and murder mysteries has really arrived. And there is Shakespeare writing about a scene where you have a dead body and you have a group of people gathered around, searching for evidence, basically, to see if this body was killed by natural causes or criminal causes.

[Clip continues]

That he is dead, good Warwick, ‘tis too true;
But how he died God knows, not Henry.
Enter his chamber, view his breathless corpse,
And comment then upon his sudden death.

HARKUP: This is not a murder mystery. Everyone in the audience knows who killed Duke Humphrey, but the other characters in the play have no idea, and you can see the process of them working it out and describing everything.

[Clip continues]

I do believe that violent hands were laid
Upon the life of this thrice-famèd duke.

HARKUP: It has the added bonus, as well as all this kind of investigation and finding out—in terms of staging the play, if you have a body on stage and you can’t be bothered with all the detailed makeup; You have the person towards the back of the stage, and the audience is very distant. You can describe the appearance to the audience so they know it’s not just a straightforward death.

[Clip continues]

See how the blood is settled in his face.
Oft have I seen a timely-parted ghost,
Of ashy semblance, meager, pale, and bloodless,
Being all descended to the laboring heart,
Who, in the conflict that it holds with death,
Attracts the same for aidance ‘gainst the enemy.

BOGAEV: And it’s in great forensic detail.

[Clip continues]

His face is black and full of blood;
His eyeballs further out than when he lived,
Staring full ghastly, like a strangled man.

HARKUP: So it suggests that he’s been strangled in some way. Or an alternative theory, is that he was smothered kind of facedown and the blood has collected in his face and that he was turned over later.

[Clip continues]

On the sheets his hair, you see, is sticking;
His well-proportioned beard made rough and rugged,
Like to the summer’s corn by tempest lodged.
It cannot be but he was murdered here.

BOGAEV: Well, you really dig into the gory details, which I would imagine some people would enjoy and others wouldn’t. You talk about people being strangled and hanged or beaten to death. Is this something that you believe or have learned your readers want to read about?

HARKUP: I think in a strange way, some people do. Think of the popularity of murder mystery shows and detective dramas on TV. It’s always grisly murders and they always show a horrifying corpse. People do seem to want to know about this big, unknowable thing. We know that death will happen to all of us, but no one survives it to talk about it afterwards by its very nature. So I think maybe it's a safe way of exploring the unknowable, by seeing it on TV and in drama. People are fascinated by it.

BOGAEV: Well, maybe this only speaks to the kind of friends that I have, but the first thing that people asked me about your book was, “Oh, does she talk about hanging? What it was really like?”

HARKUP: Yeah. Yes, I do, in some quite horrible detail, because it is a horrible thing. I think it’s worth discussing in great detail and how horrible it is, because I hope we would learn from it and never, ever change our laws so that that would come back.

BOGAEV: And it is appalling, some of the things that we don’t know about it. You write that it was considered a great show of mercy and luck if you had family members at the hanging to pull on your feet so that it goes faster.

HARKUP: Yeah, it sounds horrible that you would have friends and family hastening your death, but it was such a miserable and prolonged way to die that this was actually a mercy. And does that serve justice? I doubt it very much.

BOGAEV: And I promise I’m going to stop, everyone listening, I’m going to stop asking these questions in a moment. We’re going to move on, but the second category of things people wanted to know about was having your head chopped off. That was a science. And the richer you are, you know, the luckier you were if you had someone who was really skilled at it. But everyone asked, how long can someone still be alive after their head is chopped off?

HARKUP: It’s a difficult experiment to carry out, ethically. Don’t try this at home. There have been examples, particularly using the guillotine in France, where doctors tried to establish how long people were conscious. There was a guy called Languille who was decapitated. A doctor went along and once the guillotine had dropped, this guy called out the name “Languille” and the eyes opened and fixed on the doctor. So… yeah. It’s not the quick, humane death that people may imagine.

BOGAEV: Okay, now that image is burned on my retinas.

HARKUP: Yeah, I’m sorry. Back in the Tudor days, it was even worse, because, like you said, you had to be skilled at this. It was usually important people who were beheaded, because it was seen as a mercy compared to the other methods that were available, but you still had to pay the executioner to use one blow. If you couldn’t afford to pay the executioner, they were very likely to hack about as much as they could. So yeah, truly barbaric.

BOGAEV: Okay, let’s take a breath and a break from death and talk about health instead, in Shakespeare’s time. You say in your book that personal health was understandably something of a preoccupation for Elizabethans, and Shakespeare seems to have been more preoccupied than his fellow playwrights. What makes you think that?

HARKUP: There’s a wonderful paper that was written—I forget who by, I apologize. He went through Shakespeare’s plays, the plays of his contemporaries, and counted up all of the medical references. Shakespeare outstrips all of them. There are just dozens and dozens of references to disease, treatment, all kinds of medical professionals from midwives to apothecaries and surgeons and physicians.

So it seems to be, more than most, that he was preoccupied. It might be perhaps because he had a physician as a son-in-law, and could have incorporated that into his plays. But they’re usually quite subtle references. It’s almost like working out a code as to when he’s making some of these references, because the language has changed, but also the diseases that preoccupied the Tudors are not necessarily the diseases that worry us today.

BOGAEV: Although we should say that more plays were lost in the period than have survived, so it’s hard to make a generalization like this.

HARKUP: Oh, absolutely, yeah. There may be other plays that were written that were far more medically orientated than the ones that have survived. But of the ones that survived, Shakespeare seems more willing to include references to medical things than his contemporaries.

BOGAEV: And what are some examples of these subtle things that Shakespeare drops?

HARKUP: Okay. One of my favorite examples, it’s not a cut and dried interpretation of this particular passage, because this is the wonderful thing about Shakespeare. Many people can interpret things in many different ways. I’m talking about the death of Old Hamlet.

[CLIP from Hamlet, from The Folger Shakespeare audio editions.]

Sleeping within my orchard,
My custom always of the afternoon,
Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole,
With juice of cursèd hebona in a vial.

HARKUP: This is the accusation. His brother comes along and pours poison in his ear. And Old Hamlet describes in great detail what this poison does to him.

[Clip continues]

And with a sudden vigor it doth posset
And curd, like eager droppings into milk,
The thin and wholesome blood. So did it mine,
And a most instant tetter barked about…

HARKUP: The poison runs through his blood quicker than quicksilver. Quicksilver is a reference to mercury. Mercury was a treatment for syphilis, or they call it “the pox.” And of the symptoms of the pox were these pustules that would erupt all over your body, so there are lots of subtle references to pox symptoms and pox treatment within the description of Old Hamlet’s death. The implication might be that he has been infected with syphilis from his wife who is having an affair with Claudius, or it could just be these were the effects of the poison and this was the best way to describe it.

BOGAEV: Many layers to that. I’m glad you brought up syphilis.

HARKUP: Always happy to talk about syphilis.

BOGAEV: It’s always a good thing to talk about that. No, so I mean—syphilis, it comes up in the plays, it comes up in Troilus and Cressida, and we hear about Falstaff’s sleep apnea in Henry IV. As you say, Shakespeare drops references to diseases or workings of the body. But when you think about how many plague epidemics happened during the years when Shakespeare was writing, it just seemed strange that Shakespeare never wrote a plague play.

HARKUP: In some respects, it does strike me as strange, because it had such an overwhelming influence on his life from his birth through to his death. His whole profession hung in the balance on many occasions because his workplace was shut because of plague. He had sponsors, fellow actors, all sorts of people around him would have died of plague. So it seems strange that it isn’t talked about more.

It is referenced. Plague is wished on many things. Anything you really hate; a plague on it. A plague on these picked herrings. A plague on these drums. Whatever it might be. Or a plague on both your houses.

But it’s an insult. It’s an aside. It’s almost really, really dark humor, because I think the plague was probably just too awful to portray in any kind of realistic way on stage. People could see that horror for themselves and were living through it outside on the streets. Why pay a penny and see it all over again on the stage?

BOGAEV: This is on a completely different subject, but it really interested me while I was reading the book that you go down these rabbit holes of examples of diseases that Shakespeare alludes to in the play. You’ve mentioned a few of them, and you speculate on what they might have been, because they’re never named. Why’d you do that? Could you just not help yourself? I mean, was it just your curiosity driving you? Or does it change in some way how we think about his plays, or how you think about his plays?

HARKUP: It certainly changes my appreciation of his plays. I’ve always loved them, but actually seeing how many layers there are—how much death—I find fascinating. And it is a bit like, yeah, finding out secrets that are hidden.

I’m one of those probably annoying people that when I find something interesting, I want to share it with absolutely everybody until they’re sick to death of me. For me as well, I’m fascinated by science. And a lot of time when I say, “Oh, I’m a scientist,” you can see people’s brains and interest shut down. But I can sneak some science in using Shakespeare, for example.

BOGAEV: Ah, piggybacking on Shakespeare. Well, one of the medical mysteries that is so fascinating and comes up in this conversation is the “English sweating sickness.” Does it come up in Shakespeare, and what was it? I thought it might have been hantavirus. I thought we are starting to think it is, or suspect it was hantavirus.

HARKUP: I believe that’s the current suspicion, is that it was some form of hantavirus. But no one is really 100 percent sure, because it was only around for a few decades. It mostly killed the upper classes, and it only killed English, even in the English bits of France.

There are a few very oblique references to it in Shakespeare, and he was writing long after English sweating sickness had completely disappeared. So, he makes a reference in Measure For Measure.

[CLIP from Measure for Measure, from The Complete Arkangel Shakespeare.]

Thus, what with the war, what with the sweat, what with the gallows, and what with poverty, I am custom-shrunk.

HARKUP: But it’s interesting to me that if that is the disease that Shakespeare was referring to, he’s referring something that hadn’t been a problem for decades. But it was still such a big impact that the stories of that disease and that time had persisted in the public consciousness. He felt safe knowing his audience would recognize those references.

BOGAEV: What’s your favorite death in Shakespeare?

HARKUP: My favorite death in Shakespeare? Pretty gory, but cutting the throat and then baked into a pie.

BOGAEV: I thought you were going to say “Exit, pursued by a bear.”

HARKUP: Oh, I could say “exit pursued by a bear.” I can happily change my mind. Let’s go for exit pursued by a bear, because it’s ludicrous.

BOGAEV: Such a window into your preoccupations.

HARKUP: Oh yeah, dear God. Yeah, my Google history and my bookshelf of notes should never, ever be found by the police, I hope.

BOGAEV: That’s a hazard of your profession. You know, a lot of people in a crisis turn to reading Shakespeare. Other authors too, but many turn to Shakespeare for comfort. You’ve read him looking for death and violence and mayhem, and all of these other disturbing things. Do you ever turn to Shakespeare for comfort?

HARKUP: Oh, I very much do. I love Shakespeare. Even the death and the gore is reassuring, in a way, that that is not something I have to live with. I think even looking for the grisly can be comforting. People dying from diseases that we can now treat. Having a life expectancy beyond 38. I think all of that can be comforting.

But having said that, death and violence, yes, it is a significant part of Shakespeare’s work, but it’s quite a small part. There’s an awful lot of joy and humor and just wonder in his work that you can enjoy without all the grisly bits.

BOGAEV: Well, thank you so much for the joy and the gritty bits today. I really enjoyed talking with you.

HARKUP: Thank you.

BOGAEV: And I wish you health and safety there in Spain, and I hope that for you and your family.

HARKUP: And I hope everything goes well for everyone at this time.


WITMORE: Doctor Kathryn Harkup is a chemist, author, and science communicator. She is the author of three books: A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie; Making the Monster: The Science Behind Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and her newest, Death by Shakespeare: Snakebites, Stabbings and Broken Hearts, which was published in the US by Bloomsbury Sigma in 2020. She was interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

Our podcast episode, “Death Is Certain,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer.

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Thanks for listening. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.

Book jacket for Death by Shakespeare by Kathryn Harkup
Death by Shakespeare, by Dr. Kathryn Harkup

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