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Home :: Archive :: 1998 :: July ::
Re: Poison
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 9.0651  Tuesday, 14 July 1998.

[1]     From:   David Lindley <
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        Date:   Monday, 13 Jul 1998 20:27:17 GMT
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.0643  Re: Poison

[2]     From:   Peter Groves <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 14 Jul 1998 09:04:55 +1000
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.0643  Re: Poison

[3]     From:   Lisa Hopkins <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 14 Jul 1998 10:31:00 +0100
        Subj:   Poison


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           David Lindley <
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Date:           Monday, 13 Jul 1998 20:27:17 GMT
Subject: 9.0643  Re: Poison
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.0643  Re: Poison

Surely the main point about 'poison' is not what recipe was used, but
the particular and complex set of beliefs, fears and anxieties that
Early Modern England had about what poisons might or might not do?  One
might list, for example, the specific cultural association between
poison and Italy; the contempt for poisoning as a 'cowardly' weapon (or
more specifically an 'unmanly' and secret attack - the precursor of the
classic detective-novel statement that 'poison is a woman's weapon); the
fear of the poison given to work 'some time after' (as in Cymbeline);
and, of course, the 'pseudo-poison' which produces apparent death, but
from which recovery follows.

One can see these associations and fears operating in any number of
contexts - the suggestion that Prince Henry was poisoned; the
fascination of the Overbury affair and so on.

David Lindley,
University of Leeds

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[2]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Peter Groves <
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Date:           Tuesday, 14 Jul 1998 09:04:55 +1000
Subject: 9.0643  Re: Poison
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.0643  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.

Isn't "justified paranoia" a tad paradoxical?  Paranoia thrives on
ignorance and credulity, as in the case of the witch-hunts.  No doubt
there were pockets of pharmacological expertise, particularly in the
country, but the evidence seems to suggest that the playgoing public was
extraordinarily credulous about poisons, as about potions in general
(consider the bizarre symptoms of hebenon-poisoning reported by the
Ghost in <Hamlet>, or the grotesque pregnancy-test in <The Changeling>.

[3]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Lisa Hopkins <
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Date:           Tuesday, 14 Jul 1998 10:31:00 +0100
Subject:        Poison

Being 36 myself, I'm very glad to hear that Stephanie Hughes thinks that
I ought not to die yet, but being also a doctor's daughter, I know that
there are quite a lot of things that can kill you fairly suddenly at any
age, and I don't think it's safe to assume that Lord Strange must have
been poisoned.  He may have been, of course, and, perhaps more to the
point, a lot of people thought he had been, but there could be other
explanations beside witchcraft and poison.  One might, for instance,
notice that he had some Tudor blood, and that a number of people with
that ancestry died young and suddenly (e.g. James V of Scotland) or
suffered from repeated serious illness (e.g. Mary Queen of Scots).  At
one time, some at least of these cases were attributed to the metabolic
disorder porphyria (the thing that's supposed to have caused the madness
of George III), which I believe can sometimes cause sudden death, but I
don't know if that's still accepted.  Incidentally, I also wonder
whether, if Shakespeare did write 'hebenon' when it should have been
'hebon', that perhaps suggests that he didn't actually know very much
about poisons (unless the error was introduced by someone else).  And as
for Larry Weiss's suggestion about a special interest in dermatology, if
you accept the attribution of the German death-mask (which is of course
fiercely contested) that would suggest that Shakespeare suffered from
one or more deformities of the eye area or tear duct (sorry, rather out
of my depth here on the detail, but you get the idea), and might
therefore have been sensitised on the subject of faces and skin.

Lisa Hopkins
Sheffield Hallam University

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