Death by Shakespeare by Kathryn Harkup - An Extract

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Kathryn Harkup © Louis Christodoulou
Author: Kathryn Harkup © Louis Christodoulou

Kathryn Harkup, best-selling author of A is for Arsenic and Making the Monster, turns her discerning scientific eye to Shakespeare and the varied and creative ways his characters die. We are delighted to share with you an extract from Kathryn's book, Death by Shakespeare: Snakebites, Stabbings and Broken Hearts.


Chapter Eleven
Exit Pursued by a Bear

"If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction" - TWELFTH NIGHT, ACT 3, SCENE 4

Death by Shakespeare: Snakebites, Stabbings and Broken Hearts by Kathryn Harkup
In the above quote from Twelfth Night, Fabian acknowledges that not everything that happens in Shakespeare’s world is always realistic. This chapter follows his lead. It is all about the slightly ridiculous, perhaps unbelievable, deaths that you would have thought the product of a very fertile imagination. But sometimes fact is stranger than fiction.

Shakespeare certainly loved the fantastical and theatrical. From a writer who included fairies, living statues and a man with an ass’s head in his plays, surreal and strange goings-on are to be expected, and deaths are no exception. However, what seems implausible or strange for today’s theatre-goers would not always appear in the same light for Shakespeare’s audiences.

On a sliding scale of silliness, the deaths of two characters burnt to a crisp by a bolt of lightning seems a pretty ludicrous end, more suited to a comedy than a tragedy. It is almost a cartoon death where a Looney Tunes character is struck by lightning and instantly reduced to a pile of ash. People certainly are killed by lightning, but it is such a rare and unusual event that it seems strange to include it in a play. In fact, Shakespeare was following the events described in the source for his play, book eight of the Confessio Amantis by John Gower.

In Pericles, the eponymous hero travels to Antioch, in the very south of modern-day Turkey, to ask King Antiochus for his daughter’s hand in marriage. The King agrees, but first Pericles must solve a riddle. If he can’t find the answer, the punishment is death. Pericles accepts the challenge, but it is a trap. The riddle reads,

I am no viper, yet I feed
On mother’s flesh which did me breed.
I found that kindness in a father:
He’s father, son, and husband mild;
I mother, wife, and yet his child.
How they may be, and yet in two,
As you will live, resolve it you.
I sought a husband, in which labour

The answer to the riddle is that the King is having an incestuous relationship with his daughter. To reveal this would also mean death for Pericles. He manages to escape with his life and goes on the run. But he doesn’t have to worry long. In the second act news is brought to Pericles that Antiochus and his daughter have been killed: ‘When he was seated in a chariot / Of an inestimable value, and his daughter with him, / A fire from heaven came and shrivell’d up / Their bodies, even to loathing’.

Lightning appears to have not only killed the King and his daughter but badly burnt their bodies in the process. This might be what would be expected from a lightning strike, but it is rarely what happens. It might suggest that Shakespeare was not familiar with the effects of lightning on a body and was writing what his audience would expect to hear in such cases.

Lightning storms are relatively common near the equator, but not so much in more northern climes such as England. Deaths from lightning strikes in England are consequently rare, but not unheard of. It seems unlikely that Shakespeare would have witnessed the results of a fatal lightning strike personally. However, their rarity could have increased interest when they did occur. News and gossip about such events would have spread rapidly.

Lightning has been seen as a punishment or weapon of the gods since ancient times. It is hardly surprising that this natural phenomenon could inspire such dread. The awesome sight and tremendous power of lightning storms have thrilled and terrified for millennia. In many respects it is right to be fearful.

A bolt of lightning can carry 150,000 amps, tens of millions of volts, and incredible heat (28,000°C, hotter than the surface of the sun). It is no wonder that so much energy concentrated into a ray just 2–5cm (1–2in) across can cause a lot of damage. Lightning can rip trees apart and demolish buildings. There is certainly enough destructive energy to kill a person, even several people. It can kill via a direct strike or by a ‘side flash’, where the lightning strikes another object and then jumps to the victim, or by conduction through an object. What is perhaps most surprising about lightning strikes is that the majority of those who are struck survive.

Pulses of lightning are incredibly short-lived, existing for only milliseconds, so there is less time for damage to occur than from, for example, touching high-voltage cables. Lightning follows the path of least resistance to the ground and our skin offers a lot of resistance. Human beings are therefore not very good conductors of electricity. Sweat or rain-soaked clothes, however, are far better at conducting electricity and offer an easier pathway for the lightning. The energy from the lightning as it passes through can superheat the water into steam, causing clothes to be ripped off as though there has been an explosion. The skin can be burned, often severely, by the steam or by the energy of the electrical current forcing its way through a resistive material.

Though burns can be fatal, this is not usually what kills in the case of a lightning strike. The real danger is if the electricity can penetrate the skin and enter the body. Wet skin, from rain or sweat, has a much lower resistance than dry skin. But once inside the body, tissues full of water and electrolytes offer very little resistance to the flow of electricity. The nervous system, which normally operates on electrical signals less than a tenth of a volt, can be thrown into chaos. Lightning will take the shortest path through the body to the ground. If that path is through the brain or heart, you are in real trouble.

Over-stimulation of the brainstem, and in particular the medullary respiratory centre of the brain that controls breathing, can kill quickly. Respiratory arrest can also occur when the passage of current through the thorax causes the intercostal muscles and diaphragm to go into spasm or become paralysed. But these are rare occurrences and, if the victim can be reached in time, breathing can be supported artificially and they may survive. The majority of deaths from lightning strikes are thought to be due to electrical stimulation of the heart causing fibrillation (very rapid beating of the heart). Without correction from a defibrillator, fibrillation can lead to cardiac arrest and death. Before effective methods of cardiopulmonary resuscitation had been developed, individuals had little chance of recovering from such effects. They were unlucky.

For every person killed by lightning there are 10 or 20 more who survive. Some emerge from the experience relatively unscathed, but for others it can cause serious injury and lasting health problems, from deteriorating sight to tinnitus, depression, dizziness and fatigue. Why individuals have such different outcomes is not known.

In the play, if the King of Antioch and his daughter were sitting in their carriage when they were hit, their heads would have been the highest point and probably where the lightning struck. Both the brain and the heart would be in the direct path as the lightning moved down through the body to the ground. Most likely they were killed very quickly.

The damage to the bodies, ‘shrivell’d up’, is unusual. It is well known that injury from lightning is capricious and unpredictable. Two people can stand side by side during a flash and one may be mutilated and killed while the other is unharmed. The degree of damage to tissues is proportional to the actual quantity of electricity flowing through them. Even in fatal cases, the physical damage can range from virtually nothing to gross burning. Feather, or fern-like, patterns on the skin (sometimes called Lichtenburg figures) are well known but not as common as textbooks might suggest and usually disappear after a few days. Irregular red marks may follow skin creases, especially if they are damp from sweating. Metal objects close to the skin may leave burns and blistering or charring are also present in some cases, but deep burns are relatively uncommon.

Shakespeare adds an unusual little detail about the bodies: ‘for they so stunk, / That all those eyes adored them ere their fall / Scorn now their hand should give them burial’. It seems a strange thing to mention but it serves an artistic purpose, and may also show that he knew more about the effects of lightning strikes than it first appears.

The stink may well be artistic licence to highlight the corruption of the pair’s sin. But there may also be some truth behind it. In cases of death by lightning there is often a smell of singeing or burning about the body and its clothing. If burning is more extensive it will be far worse. The smell of a burnt body is both difficult to describe and unmistakable. It is a combination of burnt flesh, an unforgettable and awful stench, and burnt hair, an unpleasant sulphurous smell. Many firefighters testify that once smelled, it is impossible to forget.

And it may not be just the burning that makes the bodies in Pericles smell so bad. The body of a man killed by lightning in May 1666 was said to give off an appalling stench when surgeons came to dissect it. And given the conditions regularly encountered in seventeenth-century dissections, the smell must have been staggeringly bad to be worthy of comment. They carried on regardless and found burning to the skin but no damage to the internal organs. Another possibility for the bad odours is illustrated by a more recent case. It was theorised that lightning had struck a man on his belt buckle, where it had entered the body and ruptured his intestines through rapid expansion of the gases inside.

In a few short lines Shakespeare could convey an incredibly dramatic event far better than if he tried to depict it on the stage. Thunder and lightning storms could be mimicked in a theatre using sound effects and pyrotechnics, but showing a lightning bolt hitting two characters onstage would be difficult. It is much easier to have it described by someone else and also gives the opportunity to go into a little gross detail. To have the shrivelled, badly burnt bodies shown onstage would require special props to be made – not impossible, but expensive and hardly worth it when the audience can produce something far more macabre in their minds from the description.

The deaths of King Antiochus and his daughter may be seen as just punishment owing to the severity of their crimes. On this occasion it was divine retribution rather than a court of law that brought about their execution. Other Shakespearean characters willingly offer themselves up for strange deaths for more noble reasons.

If you've enjoyed this chapter and would like to read more...

Death by Shakespeare: Snakebites, Stabbings and Broken Hearts by Kathryn Harkup

Death by Shakespeare: Snakebites, Stabbings and Broken Hearts by Kathryn Harkup (Bloomsbury Sigma, Hardback, £16.99) is available to purchase from our Online Bookshop and in store.

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