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Shakespeare in Lab - an interview with Dr Kathryn Harkup

Dr Kathryn Harkup is a science communicator with background in chemistry. and author of several popular books exploring various scientific tropes in literature and movies. In December 2022, she was a special guest of the Silesian Science Festival KATOWICE, where she gave fascinating lectures on science in James Bond movies and the use of poisons in Agatha Christie’s books.

In the foreword to your latest book Superspy Science you wrote: There will be times in this book when I write about Bond and his world, as though they are real. Isn't it true for your other books too?

It's very easy to get submersed into that world and start imagining those characters moving around for real, how they would act and how they would be. Some people who read my book on Frankenstein were annoyed by the fact that I talked as if Victor Frankenstein was a real person creating monsters, so I put a little disclaimer at the front to say that I know the Bond world is not real. I'm not delusional, it just becomes a habit.

Did people also say that you treated Shakespeare's characters as if they were real?

No, I've had complaints about other things in Shakespeare, because many people have their own theories about him. It’s difficult to have much certainty about someone who lived four centuries ago. I've had e-emails asking if I realise that it was Elizabeth I who wrote all the plays, or saying that I got the poison that killed Hamlet's father wrong. A lot of what's in the plays is open to speculation because of the time since it was written, but also because Shakespeare was being deliberately ambiguous a lot of the time. So it is open to interpretation and to what you feel about it.

Movie studies, literary studies, culture studies, history, chemistry, physics, pharmaceutics, medicine, science, technology – this is a quick list of the fields explored in your books. Would you say that in your case the freedom to explore is the main difference between being a chemist and being a former chemist?

I haven't been in a lab for two decades and I don't keep up-to-date with new developments in the field, so I could not walk back into a chemistry job now. I used to love being in a lab, trying to figure out what was going on with a reaction, but I’m now in lots of different fields and that's what I love about my life. I wasn't confined to chemistry in the past, but it takes up a lot of your time and I have broad interests which I am now able to indulge to a greater extent than when I was a chemist, so ‘former chemist’ is simply acknowledging to other chemists that they are the experts and I am not.

From the perspective of how your career has turned into exploring different fields of study, do you think you would have now chosen a different path - history or drama, for example?

I don't regret my time with chemistry. I enjoyed it, and it got to me to where I am, but if I had the time and money, I would very much like to go back and do other degrees. I would sit in the lecture theatres and absorb as much information as my brain could cope with. I've always loved learning.

And if you had to choose just one field of study?

It would probably be English literature.

You write books about English icons: Shakespeare, Agatha Christie, Frankenstein, James Bond. Do you consider yourself kind of a cultural ambassador of your country by the choice of your subjects?

I don't necessarily sell English culture. I mock it quite frequently, because there’s a lot to be mocked about it. So I don't see myself as a cultural ambassador, but I have picked up genres that are quintessentially English, when you list them all together. It wasn’t conscious. I should probably look further abroad.

I would also say that James Bond is quite international, produced by Americans, with international cast. Interestingly, he has been played by a Scotsman, a Welshman, an Irishman, an Australian and a South African. Also, he rarely spends any time in British locations. It's usually abroad, though it is a very British colonial attitude of an Englishman, wandering wherever he wants.

Are Shakespeare's sword fights more exciting than Bond’s duels against villains?

If we could transport ourselves in time (although I'm not sure I’d like to go back, because I don't think London was a nice place to be 400 years ago), with those actors who were absolute masters of real sword fighting, there was a genuine danger that something could go wrong. It was spectacular for the audience because of the closeness and the skill involved. The Bond stuff – stunts, fights and chase sequences – is impressive, but the camera can stop at any time, start again and change the angle to hide the wires or the cushion that people are going to fall on. On Shakespeare’s stage there was nothing to hide behind, just two people fighting with their swords. There was a kind of rawness and immediacy quite thrilling to watch at the time.

Okładka książki

Covers of the books 'A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie', 'Death By Shakespeare: Snakebites, Stabbings and Broken Hearts', and 'Superspy Science: Science, Death and Tech in the World of James Bond' by Kathryn Harkup

How would you compare the use of poisons in Shakespeare’s and Agatha Christie’s books?

Shakespeare's use is a lot less central to what's going on. His plays are all about characters and the situations that these people find themselves in, how they survive or don't the experience they're going through. The poisons there are almost incidents that happen, and people come to terms with that, whereas poisoning in Agatha Christie is much more central: that is the puzzle, that is why we read her books to figure out whodunnit. Her characters are great, but not in the same league as Shakespeare; they do what they need to do and present us with a great puzzle, but the emphasis is very different.

The use of poison in Hamlet is particularly interesting: it gets dropped in an ear or put on a sword tip. The language around the description of old Hamlet's poisoning is really suggestive: it makes you think about other plots that are going on within the castle of Elsinore. The intrigue is brought out in the description of this poison, creeping through the veins, and that's almost a metaphor for the evil within Elsinore, creeping through the castle and bringing down the old king’s rule. The symptoms in Agatha Christie are clues. They tell us when the person might have been poisoned or how the poison could have been given. The fact that Shakespeare got details about poisons wrong doesn't matter to me at all: it wouldn't matter if Christie made them up either, because she writes fiction. I am in awe of Agatha Christie that she bothered to get her facts right, but I’m also am in awe of Shakespeare that he created things and built such intrigues. Poisons in Shakespeare’s and in Christie’s works serve very different functions, but they are both used expertly in their own ways.

Having broken the vampire myth into pieces and answered questions on whether Dracula would be able to survive on a blood diet, are you still able to enjoy watching Dracula or Nosferatu movies like an average moviegoer, or do you keep saying to yourself: ‘No, this is not possible, this doesn't make sense’?

If I did that for every James Bond film, Agatha Christie adaptation or Shakespeare play that I watch, nobody would ever watch TV with me. You don’t go to a Superman film and complain that he shouldn't be able to fly because of gravity. That's not the point of the film, which is supposed to be pure entertainment.

What I love about vampire films today is looking for where their inspirations came from. There are such well-known tropes, the whole can’t-go-out-in-the-sunlight thing, beautiful vampires, ugly vampires, the finite life span. I watch these films and say: ‘Oh, you got that from somewhere else!’ It's interesting to see the cultural shifts and influences in vampire films, and I get more out of this than from saying: ‘Well, that's just not scientifically possible’.

In Superspy Science you wrote that for many people Goldfinger was an introduction to the laser technology. Can we still find the latest developments in Bond movies?

We may take it for granted today, but laser beam, which is such a brilliant, iconic object, was really new and exciting back then: something you could see and watch it do its thing. The advances in genetic manipulation are not objects, so while science moves ahead at a pace, it's very difficult to show on screen. Also, we're talking about highly complex things with quite subtle changes between two iterations.

I wonder if the sudden craze in rocket technology will see us go back to Doctor No. Will we put Bond back in space, because there seems to be a resurgence in this sort of technology at the moment? There are moments in Bond films that I've looked into and realized they were seeing into the future, like the Nasa shuttles shown in Moonraker a few decades ago, or the idea of tracking someone over a distance, a bit like GPS. It might not look as it was portrayed on screen but you can see the kernel of an idea that scientists have developed. Who knows, maybe one day there will be nanobots taking over and killing us?

In your books you often trace the whole history of a specific phenomenon, like hemlock in A is for Arsenic. Is there one specific era that fascinates you in particular?

I keep going back to the Enlightenment period when Mary Shelley was alive. There were huge advances in science happening at such a pace that the general public could scarcely keep up. I'm jealous of Mary Shelley in many respects, of the people she knew, and of the unusual but broad education she received as a child from all incredible people visiting her family home, telling stories and explaining things. It must have been an extraordinary time to live and watch science, chemistry in particular, lifting itself out of alchemy and becoming a proper, respected scientific discipline.

Is it important for you to write books about women who were very much ahead of their times, like Mary Shelley and Agatha Christie?

It might not have been my initial thought to show how brilliant Agatha Christie was as a woman, but I clearly saw how overlooked she had been from a technical point of view. Some people had acknowledged it, but very few, and it was in the sort of journals that not many people read. She is easily dismissed as a cosy crime writer who did quite well. Well, she did better than any other writer. She is the only woman who has had 3 plays running concurrently in West End in London. It is extraordinary to me how many academic textbooks I had available to read about Ian Fleming, and virtually none about Agatha Christie, even though she outsells him by a mile. There is a James Bond film on TV almost constantly, but there's also an Agatha Christie adaptation on all the time. They are comparable phenomena, and yet the amount of academic research on her is virtually non-existent in comparison to him.

Something else struck me when I was researching Mary Shelley. There was a lot of debate about the influence of Percy Shelley on her writing, but no one ever asks about Mary Shelley's influence on his poetry, even though she edited his entire works for release after he died, so every poem of his is seen through her lens.

Aren't you afraid that someone might take wrong cues from your book, like how to administer a poison effectively, e.g. put strychnine in somebody’s soup?

Thankfully, I'm mostly talking about historical things that happened decades ago and the laws have changed. It is very difficult to get hold of most of these substances. I miss out the key steps, so if you want to make heroin based on my book, you'll get stuck, because there's not enough detail to get you to the end of the process. I emphasize how very traceable a lot of this is, and what evidence you are going to have to counter in a courtroom, so I don't lose much sleep over it. I do occasionally think: should I have written that? However, the laws are there for a reason. Also, James Bond is just so ridiculous that I'm not worried that people are going to blow up Fort Knox on my advice. I don't think they're going to get very far.

You often point out mistakes of the past, e.g. the use of mercury for beauty or arsenic in wallpapers. Do we learn from our mistakes, or just keep inventing new ones?

It takes us too long to learn our lessons, but we do eventually learn them. The world is generally more comfortable to live in today than a century ago, so we are slowly learning about the environmental pollutants, the stuff we put in makeups, and the household products that we should treat with care.

We haven't reached the peak of knowledge yet. There's a lot of medicine that we use today but in 10-20 years’ time we'll be asking: ‘Dear god, what were we thinking?’ That's true of a lot of science throughout history: it wasn’t done maliciously, or because people thought it was brilliant. It was simply the best they had to offer.

What's your next take on culture?

I might be going back to Agatha. She was so prolific with her poisons that I don't think I'm done with it yet.

There's a lot to be explored in someone like Stanisław Lem. The science in Cyberiad, for instance, is absolutely phenomenal. I haven't read it in Polish, but I’m staggered by the English translation. There’s some beautiful poetry about thermodynamics, which is not easy to do.

That might be an interesting idea for you: to write a book about Stanisław Lem.

Who knows? I think the world needs more of this: exploring great literature and putting it into context.

Thank you very much for the interview.

Interview by Tomasz Grząślewicz

The interview was published in 'Gazeta Uniwersytecka UŚ (USil Magazine)' (issue no. 7 [307] April 2023).

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