Dramatic poisonings

June 25, 2010, 4:36 pm


Death by Poison in Elizabethan Theatre. Ricci GR  Vesaslius: acta internationales historiae medicinae 2009;15(2):80-83.


This survey of poison in Elizabethan-age drama begins with what is of course the essential example — Hamlet’s encounter with his father’s ghost:

Ghost. Sleeping within my orchard,
My custom always of the afternoon,
Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole
With juice of cursed hebenon in a vial,
And in the porches of my ear did pour
The leperous distilment, whose effect
Holds such an enmity with blood of man
That swift as quicksilver it courses through
The natural gates and alleys of the body,
And with a sudden vigour it doth posset
And curd, like eager droppings into milk,
The thin and wholesome blood.

(Act I Scene v – Text from The Arden Shakespeare 1982)

According to the Arden edition, it is not quite clear what plant the Ghost is referring to with the word “hebenon”, although it could have been either henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) or the Yew tree. The fantastical story of a King murdered by having poison poured in his ear may have been based on a 1538 incident, in which the Duke of Urbino was said to have been killed in a similar fashion by his barber.

This somewhat interesting but poorly translated article also details poisonings in plays by Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, and John Webster.

The discussion of poisoning in classic drama for some reason brings to mind the memorably hilarious  “pellet with the poison” scene from Danny Kaye’s The Court Jester:

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