Natural Plant Poisons in Shakespeare–Poison as Weapon and Symbol in the Tragedies

June 25, 2011 by  
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Wyeth's Wheel of Poisons

“The potent poison quite o’ercrows my spirit”:
Poison as Weapon and Symbol in Shakespeare’s Tragedies

Most homicides in Shakespeare are committed with cutting weapons, particularly swords. These deaths are obvious and fairly predictable, often accompanied by the victim’s familiar announcement “O, I am slain!”
But some of the more intriguing murders and suicides in the plays are accomplished with an even more insidious weapon: poison, choice of creative and cold-eyed killers. A handful of Shakespeare’s most memorable characters—some calculating, some passionate—employ it, and the concoctions they use vary in their chemistries, effects, and durations in bringing death. Further, poisons become powerful symbols of the evil and destruction found in the plays they infiltrate.
In his paper on poisons in Shakespeare, Dr. Tabor notes several books on herbs popular in the author’s day and informs us that he even lived near and may have known one, named Gerarde, who lived near him in London and published a book on herbs in 1597. Poisons and potients appear in a play early in the canon, Romeo and Juliet (1594-96). In the last act, inaccurately told by Balthasar that Juliet lies dead in the Capulet tomb, Romeo reaction is immediate:
Well, Juliet, I will lie with thee to-night.
Let’s see for means:
He remembers a Mantuan apothecary, one of those characters in Shakespeare briefly described but so memorable:
In tatter’d weeds, with overwhelming brows,
Culling of simples; meagre were his looks,
Sharp misery had worn him to the bones:
And in his needy shop a tortoise hung,
An alligator stuff’d, and other skins
Of ill-shaped fishes; and about his shelves
A beggarly account of empty boxes,
Green earthen pots, bladders and musty seeds,
Remnants of packthread and old cakes of roses,
Were thinly scatter’d, to make up a show.
Noting this penury, to myself I said
‘An if a man did need a poison now,
Whose sale is present death in Mantua,
Here lives a caitiff wretch would sell it him.’
O, this same thought did but forerun my need;
And this same needy man must sell it me.
Romeo summons the old man and tells him
let me have
A dram of poison, such soon-speeding gear
As will disperse itself through all the veins
That the life-weary taker may fall dead
And that the trunk may be discharged of breath
As violently as hasty powder fired
Doth hurry from the fatal cannon’s womb.

Sale of the poison is a capital offense, but Romeo, of a sudden forceful and philosophical, overbears the wretched man’s fear:
Art thou so bare and full of wretchedness,
And fear’st to die? famine is in thy cheeks,
Need and oppression starveth in thine eyes,
Contempt and beggary hangs upon thy back;
The world is not thy friend nor the world’s law;
The world affords no law to make thee rich;
Then be not poor, but break it, and take this.
The apothecary’s directions for applying the drug give us our first hint of the nature of the poison he sells:
Put this in any liquid thing you will,
And drink it off; and, if you had the strength
Of twenty men, it would dispatch you straight.

There is thy gold, worse poison to men’s souls,
Than these poor compounds that thou mayst not sell.
I sell thee poison; thou hast sold me none.
[aside] Come, cordial and not poison, go with me
To Juliet’s grave, for there must I use thee.

When Romeo drinks the concoction a few hours later, we see
how accurate the old drug-dealer’s description of its potency is:
O true apothecary!
Thy drugs are quick. Thus with a kiss I die.
What poison, widely known in Shakespeare’s day, is this—to emloy a popular t.v. commercial come on—fast acting? Our chemistry advisors are fairly sure on this one: potasium cyanide.


In this early play Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare found poison to be dramatically horrifying as well as easy for his actors to manipulate on stage. These advantages may have prompted him to use it again—and even more ambitiously—four years later in Hamlet. Here he uses three different poisons to dispatch five characters.
First, both in the Ghost’s description of his murder and in the player Gonzogo’s dumb-show in the play at the court, the murderer kills the sleeping king by pouring liquid poison in his ear. The bizarre act would have appealed to Shakespeare’s imagination. The Ghost describes the modus operandi and its graphic result:
Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole,
With juice of cursed hebenon in a vial,
And in the porches of my ears 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 doth posset
And curd, like eager droppings into milk,
The thin and wholesome blood: so did it mine;
And a most instant tetter bark’d about,
Most lazar-like, with vile and loathsome crust,
All my smooth body.

This time Shakespeare explicitly identifies the poison used—hebona, or henbane.


The close of a Shakespearean play, usually the fifth act, is often where poisons are used the most and with the deadliest effect. Such is case in Hamlet. Laertes, bent on revenge against Hamlet for killing his father Polonius, plots with Claudius to kill Hamlet. The two conspirators discover that they not only are inclined toward murder but also toward poison as a favorite weapon. Anticipating that he can kill or at least wound Hamlet with an unbated sword in a fencing bout, Laertes plans to double his chances:
And, for that purpose, I’ll anoint my sword.
I bought an unction of a mountebank,
So mortal that, but dip a knife in it,
Where it draws blood no cataplasm so rare,
Collected from all simples that have virtue
Under the moon, can save the thing from death
That is but scratch’d withal: I’ll touch my point
With this contagion, that, if I gall him slightly,
It may be death.
Dr. Tabor cites the herbalist Gerarde as identifying aconite or Woolfes bane as a principal poison for use on the points of swords and arrows, and so this element is a likely choice here. Laertes fatally inflicts Hamlet by stabbing him unguarded; then in turn Hamlet gets hold of the poisoned sword and wounds Laertes. Knowing that both their wounds are fatal, Laertes tells the Prince
Hamlet, thou art slain;
No medicine in the world can do thee good;
In thee there is not half an hour of life.
Tabor found this statement in Gerarde’s treatise:
If a man . . . be wounded with an arrowe or other instrument dipped in the juice heareof, [he] doth die within halfe an hower after remedilesse.
Within a few minues Hamlet says:
Oh, I die, Horatio,
The potent poison quite o’ercrows my spirit.
Addressing the horrified witnesses of these events, he says:
You that look pale and tremble at this chance,
That are but mutes or audience to this act,
Had I but time–as this fell sergeant, death,
Is strict in his arrest–O, I could tell you–
But let it be.
Analysts of aconite give a corresponding description of its effects:


Hamlet and Laertes, of course, are not the only ones to die in the scene, nor are they the only ones to die by poison. In his plot with Laertes to kill Hamlet, Claudius adds still another support to their plot to kill Hamlet during the fencing bout:
When in your motion you are hot and dry–
As make your bouts more violent to that end–
And that he calls for drink, I’ll have prepared him
A chalice for the nonce, whereon but sipping,
If he by chance escape your venom’d stuck,
Our purpose may hold there.
After Hamlet wins the first two passes, Claudius drops what he says is a pearl in a cup of wine to present to him, but when Hamlet defers drinking, Gertrude—to Claudius’ frustration—drinks it herself. Within a few minutes she collapses and says
the drink, the drink,–O my dear Hamlet,–
The drink, the drink! I am poison’d.
Informed by the dying Laertes that Claudius is behind all this mayhem, Hamlet exclaims
The point!–envenom’d too!
Then, venom, to thy work.
He stabs Claudius with the poisoned sword, and so the aconite claims a third victim. But with his own determination to have what Claudius ironically had called “a back or second, that might hold,” Hamlet also grabs the cup of poisoned wine and forces its contents down the king’s throat:
Here, thou incestuous, murderous, damned Dane,
Drink off this potion. Is thy union here?
Follow my mother.
In light of the information provided us by Gerarde and our various contemporary analysts, we calculate that Claudius dies from a combination of thrust from a sword, aconite from the sword’s point, and probably a Romeo’s-choice of potassium cyanide from the cup. Poetic justice rarely makes so strong an appearance.
Our last example of poison on Shakespeare’s stage is a quite different but equally deadly type. When Anthony and Cleopatra lose at Actium, they retreat to her palace. With Anthony dead and Octavius’ armies closing in, Cleopatra whispers to her maid Charmian to summon a clown who enters with a basket of figs. Inside are asps, members of the Cobra family, whose fangs drip with a concoction only a herpetologist could love:


The queen chooses one and says
Come, thou mortal wretch
With thy sharp teeth this knot intrinsicate
Of life at once untie:
Displeased with the asp’s sluggishness, she urges it to work more quickly:
poor venomous fool
Be angry, and dispatch.
And says to her mourning attendants
Peace, peace!
Dost thou not see my baby at my breast,
That sucks the nurse asleep?
Selecting an additional snake, she says

Nay, I will take thee too.

And applies it to her arm.
The venom of the two kill her quickly. Charmian, having adjusted the dead queen’s diadem, applies one of the asps to herself and, also impatiently nudging it to bite more quickly, soon dies as well.
Our scientific sources reveal how and why the venom that takes Cleopatra and her maid is so effective:
These examples are more than sufficient to demonstrate why Shakespeare was attracted to poison as a dramatic device, either magnifying instances of its killing historical persons such as Cleopatra or else creating fictional scenes of its use, as in Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet. Perhaps our look here at real poison supplied by our experts will add even more tension to these famous death scenes.
But the science we have seen would not by itself be as effective if we neglected the symbolic or metaphorical connections suggested by these concoctions.
The speed with which the apothecary’s drug takes away Romeo’s life blends with that play’s accelerated action. Both cyonide and the lovers’ story are as fast as the gunpowder explosion Romeo describes and the lightening to which Juliet alludes in the garden scene:

although I joy in thee,
I have no joy of this contract to-night:
It is too rash, too unadvised, too sudden;
Too like the lightning, which doth cease to be
Ere one can say ‘It lightens.’
The lovers’ meeting at the Sunday night party, their plede of love in the garden later that night, their wedding the next day, the tragedy of Mercutio and Tybalt immediately afterwards, the marriage consummatation that night, and their final parting at dawn Tuesday race by in no more than thirty-six hours. And with Capulet’s moving up the planned wedding of Juliet with with Paris by a day and Friar Lawrence’s counter plan of the forty-two hour potient, the lovers are dead by Friday morning.
The quick and lethal poison Romeo drinks, therefore, seems an appropriate symbol for such a schedule of both beauty and disaster.
As regards Hamlet, the acts of Claudius’ pouring hemlock in the ear of the king, Laertes’ stabbing Hamlet with an aconite-laced sword, Claudius’ dropping potasium chloride in wine intended to murder his step-son but inadvertently drunk by his queen, and the king’s execution by Hamlet’s simultaneiously injecting two different poisons into his system with tainted sword and cup are terrifyingly appropriate indicators of a world itself poisoned with evil.
Finally, the asp at Cleopatra’s breast, which she herself likens to a nursing child, suggests for her and Anthony a kind of love, but a love not only illicit but destructive, dangerous, and ultimately deadly.
Poison, then, as technical as our valued scholars’ chemical analysis may be, takes on also a poetically tragic nature beyond its chemical structure.

  • Winsor Pilates

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