Anthony Archdeacon
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Poisonous intent, or how to get away with attempted murder on the early modern stage
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The plot device of an apparent death by poisoning which turns out to be faked using a sleeping potion was used on the early modern English stage numerous times, including famously, to tragic effect, in Romeo and Juliet. But it was also used (perhaps over-used) to comic effect in a number of plays staged in the early 1600s, including Dekker’s Satiromastix, The Fair Maid of Bristow and Dekker again in Part 1 of The Honest Whore. This chapter is concerned with two of this group where the would-be poisoner was a man, and the intended victim a married woman: Thomas Heywood’s How a Man May Chuse a Good Wife from a Bad and John Day’s Law-Tricks, or Who Would Have Thought It. Heywood’s play, with its apparently didactic messages about vice, virtue and the salvation of the soul has been used to show how Elizabethan theatre still owed much to the medieval morality play tradition. This essay argues instead that the plot device of the false poison was used to problematise the moral message, an effect seen in both plays. The essay also considers the legal implications, particularly in relation to the idea of criminal intent and mens rea which had become established in English law during the sixteenth century. The scornful attitudes expressed towards the law in both plays underscore the contentiousness of the comic conclusions.

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Poison on the early modern English stage

Plants, paints and potions


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