A brisk, informative, and startling look at Shakespeare.



Chemist, journalist, and blogger Harkup examines the many ways Shakespeare chose to kill off his characters—something that happens in most of his plays.

“Shakespeare’s tragedies and histories,” writes the author, “are littered with the bodies of characters who got in the way of someone’s ambition or were cut down because of some perceived insult.” Readers will need a strong stomach to get through many of Harkup’s descriptions: of the process of hanging, drawing, and quartering, for example, where convicted individuals were cut down from the scaffold before death “and were still able to watch as their entrails and heart were drawn out of their abdomen and burnt on a fire in front of them.” Or consider the visceral effects of various poisons: Cyanide, for one, causes “massive cell death,” resulting in “headache, dizziness and convulsions, as well as vomiting and rapid pulse, before collapse and death.” Cleopatra’s snake bite was not likely to have been “soft as air,” as Shakespeare described it, since Egyptian cobra bites are very painful, especially on the breast, which is where Cleopatra placed the snake. Most of Shakespeare’s victims die in sword fights; Harkup notes that his actors were expected to be skilled at swordsmanship, and many trained at fencing schools. With battles an important feature in Shakespeare’s histories, it’s no wonder that death by sword recurred, but there were other causes, too, including smothering, beheading, drowning, and suicide. In an appendix, the author provides a chart listing all of the plays’ victims and the means by which they died. A few, like Othello, took their own lives out of guilt; others, like Lady Montague in Romeo and Juliet, died of grief. Besides investigating the plays, Harkup gives historical background about Elizabethan perils, such as executions, plague, syphilis, death in childbirth, tuberculosis, and infected wounds. She speculates about what Shakespeare knew about causes of death; like other contemporary playwrights, he did know that audiences loved violence.

A brisk, informative, and startling look at Shakespeare.

Pub Date: May 5, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-4729-5822-8

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Bloomsbury Sigma

Review Posted Online: Jan. 21, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2020

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From the national correspondent for PBS's MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour: a moving memoir of her youth in the Deep South and her role in desegregating the Univ. of Georgia. The eldest daughter of an army chaplain, Hunter-Gault was born in what she calls the ``first of many places that I would call `my place' ''—the small village of Due West, tucked away in a remote little corner of South Carolina. While her father served in Korea, Hunter-Gault and her mother moved first to Covington, Georgia, and then to Atlanta. In ``L.A.'' (lovely Atlanta), surrounded by her loving family and a close-knit black community, the author enjoyed a happy childhood participating in activities at church and at school, where her intellectual and leadership abilities soon were noticed by both faculty and peers. In high school, Hunter-Gault found herself studying the ``comic-strip character Brenda Starr as I might have studied a journalism textbook, had there been one.'' Determined to be a journalist, she applied to several colleges—all outside of Georgia, for ``to discourage the possibility that a black student would even think of applying to one of those white schools, the state provided money for black students'' to study out of state. Accepted at Michigan's Wayne State, the author was encouraged by local civil-rights leaders to apply, along with another classmate, to the Univ. of Georgia as well. Her application became a test of changing racial attitudes, as well as of the growing strength of the civil-rights movement in the South, and Gault became a national figure as she braved an onslaught of hostilities and harassment to become the first black woman to attend the university. A remarkably generous, fair-minded account of overcoming some of the biggest, and most intractable, obstacles ever deployed by southern racists. (Photographs—not seen.)

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 1992

ISBN: 0-374-17563-2

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 1992

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Necessarily swift and adumbrative as well as inclusive, focused, and graceful.


A light-speed tour of (mostly) Western poetry, from the 4,000-year-old Gilgamesh to the work of Australian poet Les Murray, who died in 2019.

In the latest entry in the publisher’s Little Histories series, Carey, an emeritus professor at Oxford whose books include What Good Are the Arts? and The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books, offers a quick definition of poetry—“relates to language as music relates to noise. It is language made special”—before diving in to poetry’s vast history. In most chapters, the author deals with only a few writers, but as the narrative progresses, he finds himself forced to deal with far more than a handful. In his chapter on 20th-century political poets, for example, he talks about 14 writers in seven pages. Carey displays a determination to inform us about who the best poets were—and what their best poems were. The word “greatest” appears continually; Chaucer was “the greatest medieval English poet,” and Langston Hughes was “the greatest male poet” of the Harlem Renaissance. For readers who need a refresher—or suggestions for the nightstand—Carey provides the best-known names and the most celebrated poems, including Paradise Lost (about which the author has written extensively), “Kubla Khan,” “Ozymandias,” “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads, which “changed the course of English poetry.” Carey explains some poetic technique (Hopkins’ “sprung rhythm”) and pauses occasionally to provide autobiographical tidbits—e.g., John Masefield, who wrote the famous “Sea Fever,” “hated the sea.” We learn, as well, about the sexuality of some poets (Auden was bisexual), and, especially later on, Carey discusses the demons that drove some of them, Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath among them. Refreshingly, he includes many women in the volume—all the way back to Sappho—and has especially kind words for Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop, who share a chapter.

Necessarily swift and adumbrative as well as inclusive, focused, and graceful.

Pub Date: April 21, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-300-23222-6

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Yale Univ.

Review Posted Online: Feb. 9, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2020

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