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Home :: Archive :: 1998 :: July ::
Re: Poison
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 9.0643  Monday, 13 July 1998.

[1]     From:   Louis Swilley <
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        Date:   Friday, 10 Jul 1998 13:49:03 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.0637  Re: Poison

[2]     From:   Stephanie Hughes <
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        Date:   Friday, 10 Jul 1998 12:08:24 -0700
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.0637  Re: Poison

[3]     From:   June Schlueter <
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        Date:   Monday, 13 Jul 1998 10:46:46 -0400
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.0637  Re: Poison


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Louis Swilley <
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Date:           Friday, 10 Jul 1998 13:49:03 -0500
Subject: 9.0637  Re: Poison
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.0637  Re: Poison

>With all due respect to Marilyn A. Bonomi, the question about what
>poison may be implied in the final scene of *Romeo and Juliet* is not
>really as insubstantial as she assumes and doesn't deserve quite the
>amount of scorn she heaped upon it.
>
>We might well accept it as a plot device, but it is still one that has
>to be acted. A player is certainly going to want to know the most
>concrete information possible, even if it involves a good deal of
>speculation. It is (from the point of view of this actor/director) a
>perfectly scholarly question to wonder what poisons were in common use,
>which had a place in the public imagination, and if there is any
>information available about which poisons Shakespeare might have had a
>working knowledge.
>
>A good deal of time went into trying to find this information out for a
>production that I directed several years ago, because the Romeo was
>intelligently concerned about how this scene should be played. His final
>monologue is actually rather long, especially since we were (for the
>purposes of scholarly investigation) using the Folio text. We were
>unable to find the information from "Shakespearean" sources, but did
>eventually get some help from the medical community about the nature of
>symptoms of various kinds of poisons. The actor eventually played a
>rather grimly realistic death scene that was startlingly effective and
>far from the romantic cliche. I make no claims for this to be the
>definitive way to play the scene, but it is an interesting way. My point
>is only that you don't get to production answers by dismissing the
>questions as a "plot device." The question seems to me quite legitimate,
>and worth some exploration.


The question may indeed be worthwhile to one researching the poisons
available in Shakespeare's time, but for a director and actor of the
play, the manner of Romeo's death should have to do primarily with the
point/s about the character and the ideas about the play that the
director is attempting to realize in his production.   I can imagine
that if the director wished to show that Romeo is punished for his
errors, or something of that order, he well might have him suffering a
ghastly death; whereas, if the director sees the play as, for example,
placing the blame on situations beyond the tragic lovers, he well might
well have Romeo merely fall asleep.  Of course there could be other
reasons for any interpretation of the death throes, but whatever the
presentation of the event,  it should arise out of a sense of
consistency of interpretation of the other facts of the play, not out of
a desire for technical accuracy in producing an authentic death image of
death from a real poison available in Shakespearean pharmacopeia.  (I
presume that if all poisons of the period were known to have the effect
of the victim's flopping about for several minutes like a beached fish,
any director, however dedicated to historical authenticity, would choose
another way, history be damned.)

[2]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Stephanie Hughes <
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Date:           Friday, 10 Jul 1998 12:08:24 -0700
Subject: 9.0637  Re: Poison
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.0637  Re: Poison

I agree that seeking to know the kind of poison involved in the R&J
death scene is not a frivolous question, and I'm wondering if one of the
books on Shakespeare's botany might offer clues. Ordinary folk in the
Renaissance in general knew much more than ordinary people do today
about which substances kill and which ones cure, and as a result, there
was a great deal of paranoia about poisoning, perhaps justified. It
seems fairly clear, for instance, that Lord Strange (of the Lord
Strange's men, the source of the largest share of players to join the
Lord Chamberlain's men after Strange's death), was poisoned.  He was
only 36 years old, and we can hardly credit witchcraft, which was the
popular explanation at the time.

Stephanie Hughes

[3]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           June Schlueter <
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Date:           Monday, 13 Jul 1998 10:46:46 -0400
Subject: 9.0637  Re: Poison
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.0637  Re: Poison

The poison could have been "hebenon" (as in Hamlet), which is an
alkaloid of tobacco; the crude oil is "Nicotia nin," which causes death
by the failure of respiration.  Or it could have been "hebon" (as in The
Jew of Malta-Shakespeare might have meant "hebon" when he said "hebenon"
in Hamlet), which is the juice of the yew, a rapidly fatal poison.  You
might also check into "aconite." The suggestions come from a 100-year
old pamphlet on Shakespeare and medicine which I recently acquired.

June Schlueter, Shakespeare Bulletin, Lafayette College, Easton, PA
18042
 

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