Death by Shakespeare, Poison

1964 Russian Adaptation of Hamlet
1964 Russian Adaptation of Hamlet


I’ll touch my point
With this contagion, that if I gall him slightly,
It may be death.

Last week we looked at the mystery of Shakespeare’s death so I thought this week we’d look at how Shakespeare uses death in his work. Shakespeare was no stranger to death; the year he was born the plague spread across the English countryside. Not able to leave their home and thus their livelihood, his parents must have been beside themselves hoping the sickness would pass sparing their young children’s lives. This was Shakespeare’s introduction to the world.


One of Shakespeare’s first introductions to London may have been a view of death. Coming from Stratford-upon-Avon, young Will would have arrived at the western side of London. Here, on the edge of the city sat Tyburn, the site for public execution. The dominating feature of Tyburn was the infamous “Tyburn Tree”, a three sided- gibbt from which up to nine people could be hung at once. Not the sort of sight we would want to view today, but in Shakespeare’s day Tyburn housed a seating area public viewing. This and the nearby bear-baiting arena were two violent forms of public entertainment. Death during Shakespeare’s time was equally mournful and mirthful, depending on one’s point of view. It was in every sense a large part of everyday life. And just as it does in today’s movies, death played a large role in Elizabethan theater. Of all of Shakespeare’s plays, only a handful lacks a death, either on or off stage.

You could say that death dictated life. Between war, disease, lack of medical know-how, execution, and murder, living was a dangerous job. You had to worry about disease or a simple infection. If the political winds changed you could find yourself hung, boiled, burned or quartered for attending the wrong church or supporting the wrong leader. A trip to a nearby town could get you killed as highwaymen took your money and your life. Is there any wonder as to why there are over 744 deaths in Shakespeare’s plays?

Yet of the many ways to die the one that seems most insidious to our modern sensibilities is death by poison (Seems,” madam? Nay, it is; I know not “seems). At least in America it really, really freaks us out; even the possibility of poison leaves us scared and damaged. It’s the only murder device we want our government and businesses to control.

Back in the 1974 American parents were frozen in fear when a child (yes, one child and yes, that is one child too many) was poisoned to death by eating a potassium cyanide-laced Pixy Stix given to him by his own father who wanted to collect some insurance money. This murder and the urban legends about drug-laced candy that sprang from it still haunts our collective psyche. I remember not being able to eat any candy until it was first inspected, and god forbid some nice lady try to pass out homemade treats. After 1974, the popcorn ball, an American classic was deemed calamus non grata as a Halloween treat. To this day, some sheriff’s departments and hospitals will offer free X-ray scans of candy on Halloween night. Many parents, who grew up during the candy scare will not let their kids partake in the trick-or-treat tradition and instead host block parties or as my neighbor does, buy their kids extra candy as a Halloween treat.

Between September and October of 1982 6 adults and one child died from taking potassium cyanide-laced Tylenol; these murders led to the tamper proof packaging and hard gel caplets we now have on our shelves. Each year, hundreds of people die in gun related accidents, but yet we don’t insist that our gun manufactures come up with innovated safety measures, but if even if only one person is poisoned we act as if the apocalypse is upon us and the four horsemen are wielding syringes.

By contrast, up to the late 19th century, death by poison was a common form of murder, which was why nobility often employed tasters. Before governments set strict control over the use of poison herbs, flowers, and chemicals, poison was a clean and effective means of ridding yourself of an abusive spouse, political or economic rival or just about anyone else you wanted to see shuffle off their mortal coil with little chance of being caught. All you had to do was visit the right apothecary or herbalist. If you could read, there were plenty of herbal guides that talked about effects of certain plants, most of which could be found growing wild.

There little doubt Shakespeare knew about poisons plants; he grew up in the country and as we know from his plays, used his knowledge about local plants in many of his them. Shakespeare used poison as both a murder weapon and a suicide aid. Oddly, there are few deaths by poison in Shakespeare’s plays, but he does mention the word several times. With help from OpenSource Shakespeare and some macabre reading on my part, we can map out a concordance of Shakespeare’s use of Poison.

Cup of St.John
Cup of St.John

Use of the word

Shakespeare uses the word 84 times in 27 plays, 1 sonnet & 2 poems

All’s Well That Ends Well
Antony and Cleopatra
As You Like It
Comedy of Errors
Henry IV, Part II
Henry VI, Part I
Henry VI, Part II
Henry VIII
King John
King Lear
Merchant of Venice
Merry Wives of Windsor
Much Ado about Nothing
Rape of Lucrece
Richard II
Richard III
Romeo and Juliet
Timon of Athens
Titus Andronicus
Twelfth Night
Venus and Adonis

Winter’s Tale

Murder by poison

The Victims 

King Hamlet, Hamlet, Laertes, Claudius, and Gertrude (although I sometimes wonder if this should be considered suicide by poison; I have a feeling she knew what was in the wine by the time she drank it).
King Lear

Suicide by poison

Romeo & Juliet
Antony and Cleopatra
Chairman and Cleopatra (okay Cleopatra dies by venom, but only because she couldn’t get that damn pill bottle opened)

Botched attempts

Richard II
Richard II
Henry VI part II
The Duke of Humphrey (To be fair this one is less of a botched attempt as it is a plan that did not sit well with Beaufort’s fellow conspirators or maybe they distrusted him as much as they distrusted Humphrey).

One we are glad we didn’t have to see

Desdemona (Othello decides to poison her but Iago talks him into smothering her instead).

‘I will not poison thee with my attaint,
Nor fold my fault in cleanly-coin’d excuses;
My sable ground of sin I will not paint,
To hide the truth of this false night’s abuses:
My tongue shall utter all; mine eyes, like sluices,
As from a mountain-spring that feeds a dale,
Shall gush pure streams to purge my impure tale.
  Rape of Lucrece

Works Referenced

My poor dog-eared Folgers and Arden editions
OpenSource Shakespeare Concordance
PBS News How the Tylenol murder changed the way we consume medication

Author: sarij

I'm a writer, lifelong bibliophile ,and researcher. I hold a Bachelors in Humanities & History and a Master's in Humanities. When I'm not reading or talking about Shakespeare or history, you can usually find me in the garden discussing science or politics with my cat.

8 thoughts on “Death by Shakespeare, Poison”

  1. Pousoning was looked on as typically Italian, was it not? You know, the Borgias and what not. I seem to remember ‘The Duchess of Malfi’ as being singularly bloodthirsty, and poisoning must have figured in that! Great post, Sari, gave me pause for thought …

    Liked by 2 people

  2. It’s probably safer to say that poison was rumored to have been used many times up to the 19th century to kill off politically powerful people. The problem was that there were few, if any, reliable tests to determine whether someone was poisoned or not. So, any powerful person who died suddenly while young or middle-aged, especially if they had a severe digestive upset before dying or their flesh changed color afterwards, was an obvious candidate for rumors of poisoning.

    Still, it must have happened. And we know that once reliable tests were devised, police did catch people who still thought poisons couldn’t be detected.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I have not, so perhaps I am the one speaking from a false certainty on the subject, Sari. I took a look at a description of the book, and it does sound interesting. Between that and your recommendation, I should add it to my reading list. (Having just had someone else recommend “Marie Antoinette’s Head,” and just having read Mary Beard’s “SPQR,” I seem to be overrun with good history reads. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I did get to reading Deborah Blum’s “The Poisoner’s Handbook,” Sari. A good read. The combination of technical details on poisons, the various effects of Prohibition, and the social and political interplay of poisonings, government, and the pathologists, made for an interesting story. Some of these cases I’d heard about, like the “indestructible” Michael Molloy, others were unfamiliar, and hence liked all the more. If I’ve one criticism, it’s that one doesn’t get a good sense of how much NYC was in the lead on these matters, or following in the footsteps of others. The book talks about several occasions when Norris and Gettler pioneered tests or procedures; but did the rest of the country look to them, or develop independently?


  3. Although I’ve already mentioned it on Facebook, thanks for your warm words on your blog this day. I’m honored. And you’ll be happy to know your comment above led me to take out “The Poisoner’s Handbook” from the library. Having just finished “Macbeth” (this month’s calendar picture play), I’ll start reading “Poisoner’s” tonight.

    Liked by 1 person

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