Jessica Apolloni
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Playing with poison
Murder, proof and confession in early modern revenge
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Italian poison plots inundated the early modern English stage. Anglo-Italian scholars such as Michele Marrapodi and Michael Redmond have examined how poison is representative of Italian corruption and court culture as well as the self-presentation of sprezzatura and Machiavellianism. This chapter builds from such scholarship to argue that the divide between outward appearance and intrinsic character central to Italianate theatre translates to a legal setting in poison plots. In particular, it investigates how English authors ‘played’ with Italian source materials and staging conventions to explore the fundamental uncertainties of motive, proof, and confession. When English authors dramatised murder by poison, they also dramatised a legal rhetoric of fear consistent with famous poison trials in both England and Italy – two environments where legal processes were increasingly pursuing forensic methods centring on proof and facts. The chapter analyses key moments in the staging of poison investigations – such as Hamlet’s strategy in using an Italian play to elicit Claudius’s confession or Webster’s portrayal of corrupt trials – to establish how such poison plots reveal communal fears of legal uncertainties. These include the inaccessibility of motive, like Iago’s refusal to offer a clear motive for his poisoning of Othello, but also the uncertainties inherent in false accusations and fraudulent confessions at the heart of faulty justice. The chapter connects these critical portrayals of the law to our continued fixation with establishing clear motive, analysing accusations, and eliciting confession – all processes infused with the same intangible, anxiety-provoking uncertainties of poison on the early modern stage.

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Poison on the early modern English stage

Plants, paints and potions


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