Monday, May 11, 2020

CSI Shakespeare - The Case of the Dead Duke: Guest Post by Dr Kathryn Harkup

Kathryn Harkup:
CSI Shakespeare - The Case of the Dead Duke

There are more than a few murders in Shakespeare plays. From Othello suffocating his wife Desdemona in a jealous rage, to the cold calculated serial killings of Richard III, Shakespeare knew that a good murder would keep his audience interested. You might think brutal stabbings and bloody murder would be the order of the day, and for the most part you would be right. What you might be surprised to see in a Renaissance drama is a forensic examination and detailed detective work, but that is exactly what Shakespeare wrote.

There is a moment in Henry VI Part 2, where a group of people are gathered round the dead body of the Duke of Gloucester and looking for clues as to how he died. It is a lot like scenes in modern TV detective dramas where the pathologist and detectives speculate over cause of death. Even the scientific detail being discussed in this four hundred year old play is exactly the same kind of thing that would be examined in modern police procedurals, it’s just that the language is a little different.

Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, was Lord Protector of England, an extremely powerful man who had designs on the throne. In the play, to thwart the Duke’s dastardly plans, Suffolk accuses him of treason and he is arrested. But, before he can stand trial Humphrey is, rather conveniently, found dead in his bed. It might not be surprising to find the 56 year-old had expired of natural causes, after all, he was known to have lived life to the full, and was under the extreme stress of accusations of crimes that could lead to his execution. But on closer inspection, there are signs ‘that violent hands were laid / Upon the life of this thrice-famed duke.’

One of the characters gathered round the dead duke is Warwick, who takes the role of pathologist and comments on the appearance of the body: ‘see, his face is black and full of blood’. This is the sixteenth century way of discussing lividity, or the colour changes in the skin after death, which can be a useful indication of cause of death. Other indications of a violent death are cited by Warwick, including hands stretched out as if fighting off an attacker, a disordered beard that may indicate smothering, and hair sticking to the pillow as though sweaty from exertion. He concludes that ‘It cannot be but he was murdered here.’

Now everyone is convinced that the Duke was murdered and the drama quickly turns to speculations and accusations of who might be responsible for the death. It might sound like a murder mystery, where the audience tries to guess along with the characters in the drama, but this kind of detective fiction wasn’t invented until the nineteenth century. There is absolutely no mystery as to who killed poor Duke Humphrey, it was Suffolk. This isn’t a spoiler, Suffolk himself tells the audience exactly what he is going to do in the previous scene, but he had hoped to get away with it.

There is no mystery in the play and no big denouement scene at the end where the killer is revealed by a Belgian with magnificent moustaches. However, Shakespeare’s murderers, like murderers in any good detective drama, never get away with it. Elizabethans had a strong sense of justice and, even though Suffolk escapes the full penalty of the law, he cannot escape entirely. Banished from England and on his way to France, Suffolk gets his just deserts when he is captured and beheaded by pirates. Shakespeare may have missed a trick by not having a murder mystery in his plays, but murder mysteries are definitely missing out by not having more pirates in their plots.

Kathryn Harkup is a chemist and author who writes and gives regular public talks on the disgusting and dangerous side of science. She has written three books, A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie, Making the Monster: The Science of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and her new book, Death by Shakespeare: Snakebites, Stabbings and Broken Hearts, which is now on sale. In Death by Shakespeare, Harkup employs her vast expertise on the more gruesome side of science, this time focusing on Shakespeare, as she provides an in-depth look at the science behind the creative methods Shakespeare used to kill off his characters.

2 comments: said...

Titus Andronicus is my favorite for Shakespeare deaths.

Nancy Lynn Jarvis said...

Titus Andronicus is my favorite for Shakespeare killings.