Kathryn Harkup: Death by Shakespeare

Hmmm.  After having read and liked — though not loved — Harkup’s book on Agatha Christie’s use of poisons in her mysteries (A Is for Arsenic), it took the Shakespeare fan in me about a millisecond to snatch up this third book of hers when I came across it earlier this year … only to then decide, almost as quickly, to save it for the “Truly Terrifying” (or alternatively, “Paint It Black”) Halloween Bingo squares.  And as is so often the case, anticipation built over a period of time in the end doesn’t quite deliver the hoped-for bundle of goods.

My main bit of gripe is that Harkup doesn’t seem to have had a very clear picture for which audience she was writing this book.  On the one hand, she spends (I’m tempted to say, wastes) several chapters giving an abbreviated biography of Shakespeare and describing the London and the theatrical world in which he moved — NONE of which will be new to anyone even remotely familiar with the Bard and his life, time, and works (and all of which, thus, can only be of any use to a complete newbie to Shakespeare’s works) … and ALL of which I’ve seen discussed better, in greater detail and with a better-informed historical perspective by both Shakespearean scholars (most notably Stanley Wells) and general historians writing for a non-scholarly audience (e.g., Ian Mortimer and Liza Picard). (At least she doesn’t give any credence to the identity conspiracy theorists, but that still doesn’t stop her from using bits of unfounded speculation on the Bard’s life experience later in the book whenever she considers it expedient for a specific purpose.)  Similar things can be said for her comments on medicine in the Elizabethan age, which on the one hand is pretty much a staple in historical fiction set in the Plantagenet and Tudor eras; on the other hand, the details that I didn’t already know as historical fiction background, I’ve learned in greater depth by visiting Hall’s Croft, the home of Shakespeare’s daughter Susanna and her husband Dr. John Hall, who was a medical doctor (incidentally with rather advanced and well-informed views, compared to many of his contemporaries), who is widely believed to have provided his father in law with the requisite background knowledge for a plethora of deaths occurring in his plays, and whose professional equipment and records form part of the permanent exhibition on Elizabethan-era medicine that can now be visited in his former home in Stratford-upon-Avon.

On the other hand, when Harkup does finally get around to discussing Shakespeare’s portrayal of death and killings in his plays, she gives very little context to the majority of scenes she discusses, so anyone not intimately familiar with those plays (particularly the “histories”, which probably feature most widely overall in her book — and chiefly among these, the two “Henriads”) is soon going to be utterly lost as to the significance and context of the scene(s) under discussion.

Moreover, in at least one instance (Richard III and “The Princes in the Tower”) Harkup, while paying lip service to the idea that RIII perhaps “wasn’t quite as bad a tyrant as Shakespeare makes him out to be”, nevertheless falls into the very trap for which she poo-poos the medical analysis that established the bones found in the Tower in the early 20th century as those of “The Princes”, namely to reason from the desired result instead of dispassionately looking at the available evidence and letting the chips fall where they may.  This review isn’t the place for this particular bit of historical discussion, so let me just say that I am unable to take seriously any writer who, like Harkup, blandly describes the reign of Henry VII as “a new era of hope and peace for England” (or words to that effect), in either blissful ignorance or blissful disregard of, to name but a few examples,

(1) the cruelty of “Morton’s Fork”,
(2) Henry VII’s (and later his son’s) ruthless and systematic annihilation of the remaining representatives of the House of York (most notably, the execution — on demonstrably trumped-up charges — of his own closest rival for the throne, who at the time was a teenager, imprisoned in the Tower on Henry VII’s orders since his early childhood), or
(3) the fact that Henry VII (a) purposefully dated his reign from the day before his victory at Bosworth, which in one single stroke of the pen made every single combatant on Richard’s side a traitor to the crown, and (b) only crowned his wife Elizabeth queen a year after he himself had well and truly secured the crown, never mind that she had a much greater claim to the crown than he himself did to begin with.

(And let’s not even get into the inconvenient little detail that BOTH Richard III and Henry VII had their fans and detractors among the eminent writers, politicians and diplomats of the time, depending on who you were listening to and whom they were writing for, which is precisely one of the reasons why it’s so hard to determine what is self-servicing Tudor propaganda when it comes to Richard III and what is credible historical testimony.  Or the fact that Harkup blithely buys in virtually all of the things now actually known to be Tudor propaganda and hence, inherently unreliable …)

Anyway.  For what it is in terms of the actual discussion of Shakespeare’s use of death in his plays, it’s an interesting read. Unfortunately, way too much of that discussion gets lost in superfluous and, in part, downright irritating “white noise”.


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