Poison on the early modern English stage

Plants, paints and potions

Editors:
Bill Angus
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Lisa Hopkins,
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Kibrina Davey
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The most famous play in English literature centres on the poisoning of Hamlet’s father. It is only one of many examples of poisoning in plays of the period; there are male poisoners and female poisoners, innocent victims and guilty ones, foreign ones and home-bred ones. This is not surprising given that poisoning was easy to stage and to act, but it also allows plays to explore a number of important contemporary issues. The death of Hamlet’s father occurs in a garden, specifically in an orchard. This is one of a number of sinister uses of fruit and flowers in the plays of Shakespeare and of other early modern playwrights, partly as a consequence of the loss of horticultural knowledge resulting from the dissolution of the monasteries and partly as a result of the many new plants being brought into English gardens through travel, trade, and attempts at colonisation. There were also fears about venom, about venereal infection, and about the ways in which soporifics troubled the distinction between sleep and death. The death of Hamlet’s father is also one of several examples of the ear being particularly vulnerable to poison, an idea explored here through plays featuring informers; finally, as Hamlet painfully discovers, poisoning is remarkably difficult to prove. This book explores poisoning in early modern plays, the legal and epistemological issues it raises, and the cultural work it performs, which includes questions related to race, religion, nationality, gender, and the relationship of humans to the environment.

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