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Home :: Archive :: 2000 :: April ::
Re: Early Modern Skin Disfigurements
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 11.0667  Monday, 3 April 2000.

[1]     From:   Frank Whigham <
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        Date:   Friday, 31 Mar 2000 11:29:09 -0600
        Subj:   Re: SHK 11.0646 Re: Early Modern Skin Disfigurements

[2]     From:   Melissa D. Aaron <
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        Date:   Friday, 31 Mar 2000 09:29:59 -0800
        Subj:   External Poisons

[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Frank Whigham <
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Date:           Friday, 31 Mar 2000 11:29:09 -0600
Subject: 11.0646 Re: Early Modern Skin Disfigurements
Comment:        Re: SHK 11.0646 Re: Early Modern Skin Disfigurements

As listmembers observe, there are certainly skin-ravaging agents that
get called poison, as, now, "poison ivy." Do we know if poison ivy or
poison oak or poison sumac (or other such agents) were present in early
modern England? I don't. But Webster's use of two such in WD
(Brachiano's helmet and also his picture, which poisons Isabella when
she kisses it) and the shirt of Nessus are good examples of the belief,
as well, perhaps, as the poison that the physician Lopez supposedly
prepared for Elizabeth in the 90s, to be delivered by anointing her
saddle-horn, as I recall. These would all lean toward the OED phrase
about the body "absorbing" the poison.

Larry Weiss speaks with what perhaps sounds like medical training as to
being unaware of any ingested poison that produces encrustation. If such
a poison is indeed a fiction, medically speaking, that perhaps raises
the issue of Shakespeare's purpose in producing such a specific version
of it.  Indeed, I've always figured that ingestion via the ear was just
such a fiction (instantly producing analogies with speech), but for all
I know such an introduction into the body does work with some poisonous
agents. In any case, given the striking way that the elder Hamlet's body
is encrusted, and its echo presented so strikingly with Pyrrhus (and
other similar details, "skin and film," etc.), getting some sense of the
operation of encrusting poisons (and so, perhaps, the meaning of
encrustation) seems worth trying to do, whether such poisons are
fictional or not (though this distinction seems important in itself).

That is to say: some poisons seem entirely fictional (such as those
which work by the operation of sight, as does the basilisk's look); some
traditional (such as the shirt of Nessus); and others (such as arsenic)
perfectly familiar "real" poisons. Somewhere among or between these
options we have confusing examples such as that which killed the elder
Hamlet, (sort of) ingested but producing outward encrustation. If
Shakespeare invents the details of this poison, they may then bear signs
of specific literary meaning, as the "poison in the ear" does. If some
agents appear to operate this way (working analogously with the kind of
effect that Gail Paster finds in humoral thinking), then those details
would help construe the Shakespeare item somewhat differently.

Frank Whigham

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Melissa D. Aaron <
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Date:           Friday, 31 Mar 2000 09:29:59 -0800
Subject:        External Poisons

>In reponse to Frank Whigham's query about poisons that destroy
>outwardly, it does appear that at least Webster believed that some
>poisons work this way. The poison sprinkled in Brachiano's helmet in THE
>WHITE DEVIL does.

There are a lot of different examples of this in revenge plays-the
poisoned portrait also in WHITE DEVIL, the poison spread on the bony
lady's chaps in THE REVENGER'S TRAGEDY (it does seem to be a sort of
corrosive) and my favorite;  the poisoned makeup in THE SECOND MAIDEN'S
TRAGEDY.  Estee Lauder, watch out!

As far as what these substances are supposed to be, I think they come
from the same imaginary pharmocopeia that supplies Friar Lawrence's zap
potion.

Melissa Aaron
 

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