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Interview With an Author: Kathryn Harkup

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Author and chemist, Dr. Kathryn Harkup and her latest book, Death By Shakespeare
Author and chemist, Dr. Kathryn Harkup and her latest book, Death By Shakespeare

Dr. Kathryn Harkup is a chemist and author. She completed a doctorate on her favorite chemicals, phosphines, and went on to further postdoctoral research before realizing that talking, writing, and demonstrating science appealed a bit more than hours slaving over a hot fume-hood. Kathryn’s first book was the international best-seller A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie, which was shortlisted for a Mystery Readers International Macavity Award and a BMA Book Award. She has also written Making the Monster: The Science of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Her latest book is Death by Shakespeare: Snakebites, Stabbings and Broken Hearts and she recently agreed to talk about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for Death By Shakespeare?

I was giving a talk in a school, probably about poisons or Frankenstein. Afterward, I was chatting to the headteacher who, knowing my interest in death and the macabre, showed me a pie chart of all the ways to die in Shakespeare. He nudged me and said, ‘you could write a book about that,’ and, to cut a long story short, I did.

How long did it take you to do the necessary research and then write Death By Shakespeare?

It took me six weeks just to make my way through the complete works and add in a sticky tab every time someone died or looked like they might be about to. That was before I even put in a proposal. Once it was accepted it was a good two years of research and writing. The research could easily have gone on forever, there are so many books on Shakespeare. I had to stop at some point because there were also books on forensic pathology, history, disease and other subjects to be read as well. I’m usually still researching things and writing at the same time. It might sound chaotic but I’m fairly organized about what has to be done in what order, and reading gives me a break from writing and vice versa.

What was the most interesting or surprising thing that you learned about William Shakespeare and/or his work of the time in which he lived/worked during your research?

I think one of the most shocking things I found out was during my research on capital punishment. In Shakespeare’s day, anyone found guilty of a felony could receive a death sentence as well as having all their worldly goods seized by the crown. To avoid leaving their family destitute, some people who were accused of a crime refused to give a plea. Without a plea, the case could not go ahead and they would keep their money, but they would still be punished - by being pressed to death under a huge weight. It was a common enough occurrence that the space where this punishment was carried out in Newgate prison became known as the press yard.

Do you have a favorite of Shakespeare’s plays or poems

Twelfth Night. I’ve seen so many productions and I’m still not bored of it. It’s brilliant, daft and genuinely funny. "If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction."

Do you have a favorite adaptation (television, motion picture or theatre production)?

There are so many it’s difficult to choose but a few spring immediately to mind: Ian McKellen in the film of Richard III was terrifyingly brilliant. Mark Rylance and Stephen Fry as Lady Olivia and Malvolio in the Globe Theatre’s 2012 production of Twelfth Night. Mark Rylance (again) as Henry V in a Globe production I saw years ago but I still remember the drums and cheering crowds.

Do you have an idea or theory regarding why/how Shakespeare’s works have become so ingrained in western culture and his contemporaries and their works have been mostly forgotten?

I have no theory to offer. I’m sure there are many factors that have contributed to the Bard’s longevity. The fact that people are still finding new ways to interpret, stage and adapt his work after four hundred years shows how robust and deep his work is. His extreme quotability must also have helped his plays survive the passage of time. And, the characters he created seem much more like real people with real internal lives than those created by his contemporaries. Or, as Shakespeare might have put it:

Thy gift, thy tables, are within my brain
Full character'd with lasting memory,
Which shall above that idle rank remain
Beyond all date, even to eternity; —Sonnet 122.

What’s currently on your nightstand?

Eric by Terry Pratchett, for a bit of light relief; The Spy by James Fenimore Cooper, and Periodic Tales by Hugh Aldersey-Williams, both for research.

What is the question that you're always hoping you'll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?

There are three lines in Twelfth Night that I am slightly obsessed with. I really want to tell people about them because they illustrate how brilliant Shakespeare was at conveying layers of meaning in such an elegant way. Olivia is talking to the fool about her relative, Sir Toby:

Go thou and seek the crowner, and let him sit o' my
coz; for he's in the third degree of drink, he's
drowned: go, look after him.

One way of interpreting it is as a joke about Sir Toby’s drinking and drowning his sorrows. The crowner is the coroner, a person who judges whether a death is accidental, or due to natural or unnatural (murderous) causes. Another way to see it is as a concern for Toby’s health. And then there is a third way—Shakespeare was probably making a political comment on who should inherit the throne after Queen Elizabeth’s death. The crowner should decide if Elizabeth’s cousin, the King of Scotland, should succeed her.

What are you working on now?

Vampires, James Bond and chemical elements, though not necessarily all for the same project.

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