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.
Hamlet

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.

Tyburn_tree

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
Coriolanus
Cymbeline
Hamlet
Henry IV, Part II
Henry VI, Part I
Henry VI, Part II
Henry VIII
King John
King Lear
Macbeth
Merchant of Venice
Merry Wives of Windsor
Much Ado about Nothing
Othello
Pericles
Rape of Lucrece
Richard II
Richard III
Romeo and Juliet
Tempest
Timon of Athens
Titus Andronicus
Twelfth Night
Venus and Adonis

Winter’s Tale

Murder by poison

The Victims 

Hamlet
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
Regan

Suicide by poison

Romeo & Juliet
Romeo
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

Othello
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

Shakespeare Hidden in Plain Sight

First folio

Who among us hasn’t dreamt about finding a hidden treasure buried within the shelving of some dusty old used bookstore or thrift shop? Or suddenly eyed our old artwork with curiosity and longing after hearing about a lost map or valuable document found underneath a god-awful painting?

These kinds of finds don’t happen every day, but they do happen often enough that the idea of it happening to us isn’t all that farfetched and may be why many people love to haunt yard sales and antique stores.

My own mother has experienced this kind of luck, if only in a small way, several times. She and a friend used to go to barn sales out in the Midwest just for the fun of looking at old farm equipment but came home twice with very old Maxwell Parish prints housed in a expensive antique frames. She bought them for under $40.00, far less than they appraise for. I now have them hanging with my modern Parish prints.

Not very long ago my mother visited a thrift shop in California; something she rarely does and saw what looked like a Swarovski clock only this clock was priced at 99¢. She picked it up on impulse; it looked so much like the real thing she thought it would go with the other pieces of Swarovski she has in her living room. If my mother had a smart phone she could have looked it up…, but I digress. As it turns out, it was indeed a Swarovski collectable clock. As my mother tells the story:

Just as the clerk rang up my 99¢ item and commented on its beauty the manager happened to glance over. Her eyes widened as she saw me hand the clerk a dollar and some change and barked, “That’s not 99¢, that’s $99 and a bargain at that!” I smiled at her and pointed to the sign near the register that read “Prices as Marked”. The clock was clearly marked at 99¢ and 99¢ is what I walked out paying

417gP6fmywL._SX300_

Granted, nothing my mother has found has had any worldwide implications or changed what we think we know about an artist or valuable legal document, I use her to illustrate what can happen if we keep our eyes out for possible buried treasure hidden in plain sight. And, this is exactly what happened earlier this year with one of the first Shakespeare folios. It was found hidden in plain sight at Mount Stuart House on the Scottish Isle of Bute. According to the BBC

The trust, which runs the Gothic revival house, had been researching the collection of books, paintings and historic items and called in experts from Oxford University to assess the authenticity of what had been claimed as a First Folio.

At first experts didn’t believe this was a first edition folio but on examination they were astounded to find out that this book is truly is one of roughly 750 books published in 1623. Only 230 others are known to exist, but it is possible there are more. Only last year one was found in a Jesuit library in St Omer in France.

So the next time you happen to attend an estate or library sale be on the look out for a book that looks like a First Folio. Who knows, it may be your Willy Shakespeare Golden Ticket.

BBC News Shakespeare First Folio discovered on Scottish island

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