Khristian S. Smith
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‘No healthsome air breathes in’
Spiritual poison in Romeo and Juliet
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This essay considers how Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech provides an important frame for the two potions in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. In response to Romeo’s mention of a dream, Mercutio references Mab to acknowledge the phenomenon of demonic sleep – that is, sleep affected by demons. Contemporary theories about sleep all maintain that the mind’s defences are inhibited at night. Wakefulness allows people to distract their minds, whereas sleep leaves people especially vulnerable to Satanic persuasion. Treatises on the interpretation of dreams conclude that the Devil’s delusions often seduce people to actions that prove destructive to themselves. The two potions in the play similarly corrupt the senses and understanding. Both still the blood, stop the heart, and induce oblivion, and the text suggests only distillation differentiates them. Despite this, Juliet’s concerns about her draft conform with the period’s belief that sleep is an imitation of death, and her apprehension indicates that the potion makes her especially susceptible to demonic influence. Unable to defend her body, she reasons the resorting spirits and noisome smells ‘together with the terror of the place’ will drive her to commit suicide upon waking (4.3.33–54). Examining contemporary medical tracts and theories on sleep as a frame for its readings, this essay argues the play’s representations of poison and sleep (and their mutual connections to the Devil) perform early modern anxieties about humans’ physical and spiritual vulnerabilities to demons.

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Poison on the early modern English stage

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