‘I learned in Naples how to poison flowers’, says Lightborn in Marlowe’s Edward II, and it is in an orchard that Old Hamlet is poisoned. This essay will explore the uses of plants in Shakespeare’s last plays in order to argue that we are invited to perceive them as both potentially beneficial and potentially harmful, and that The Winter’s Tale and Cymbeline in particular represent gardens which have become sources of poison because proper plant lore has been banished from Cymbeline’s England and Polixenes’s Bohemia in ways which are emblematic of the religious change which had befallen Shakespeare’s own England, where plant lore had traditionally been in the hands of monks. In Romeo and Juliet, there is a whole scene set in a garden during the course of which Friar Laurence offers a long meditation on plants (2.3.1–12, 19–20). The play’s floral imagery includes Lady Capulet’s figuring of Paris as a flower; herb paris is indeed a flower, and this chapter traces Shakespeare’s knowledge of it to the botanist and recusant Thomas Hesketh (1560–1613). Drawing on recent work suggesting that the early modern garden was a safe space for the cultivation of belief as well as of plants, the chapter argues that Perdita’s refusal to plant gillyflowers emblematises a climate of religious and horticultural uncertainty in which gardens, once places of healing, have now become potential sources of poison.
The art of undying and the Machiavels in The Jew of Malta and Alphonsus, Emperor of Germany
The medical uses of opium, henbane, black poppy, mandrake, and belladonna for the inducement of sleep and the alleviation of pain were well-recognised in early modern England through a variety of writings. A credulous Elizabethan audience and stories travelling from the Continent helped in adding layers to stories of drugged victims who appeared dead for days, and the mystery of a pseudo-death followed by a quasi-resurrection had a tremendous appeal for contemporary audiences with a taste for the sensational and the macabre. Soporifics that ape the functions of poison by escorting the body into a mock-death state featured significantly in a wide range of early modern English drama. The supposedly envenomed potion that is deliberately administered to achieve a goal and the role such administrations play in early modern Machiavellian plays is the concern of this chapter. The Jew of Malta and Alphonsus, Emperor of Germany are the foregrounded texts, as these two plays focus on two contrasting aspects of these draughts: self-preservation (as in the case of Barabas) and as an aid to smooth the process of assassination (in the case of Alphonsus). By applying a post-humanist reading of Giorgio Agamben’s Homo Sacer, this chapter attempts to study, first, how contemporary Machiavels exploited this liminal status of the body by redefining the bounds of both ‘bare life’ and ‘qualified life’, and second, to examine why the staging of these mock-deaths based on the use of subdititious poisons was so recurrent a motif in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama.
Poisons and remedies in Margaret Cavendish’s drama
Delilah Bermudez Brataas
Margaret Cavendish’s Natures Pictures (1656) includes two heroines who strategically procure poison to attempt suicide to escape threatening men: Lady Miseria in ‘Assaulted and Pursued Chastity’ and the She-Anchoret. Cavendish was clearly familiar with the use of poison as a narrative detail in her romances, so her plays might well have been littered with poisonous death given the heavy influence of a long history of Renaissance tragedies. Cavendish wrote many more comic than tragic plays, but of the two she herself deemed tragicomedies, The Matrimonial Trouble contains her only use of poison. Throughout Cavendish’s many dramatic works, poison and its several variants – potions, venom, and draughts for good or ill – appear often, but not as a weapon. More often, she connects poison to words and their influence, and more specifically, to women’s words and the influence of their physical presence. This chapter traces Cavendish’s use of poison, as object and descriptive metaphor, as motif and literal action, in several of her dramatic works. It demonstrates that Cavendish’s use of ‘poison’ was strategically gendered, but also ambiguous given that she uses ‘poison’ in a similar way to her detailed discussion of remedies emerging from her personal experience and her interest in chemistry. In every instance, and in every form, we are left to consider the distinction between poison and remedy.
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.
Murder, proof and confession in early modern revenge
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.
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.
Poison, race and magic were materially and metaphorically linked in early modern English theatre. When Black bodies were racially simulated on stage, their characters were prevented from being accepted into what we might call the ‘white world order’ of their respective plays. That is, in cases of Black isolation – where Black characters were surrounded by an all-white, European, dramatis personae – Black bodies were seen as a poisonous toxin that contaminates the white populace, in particular white women. As such, Black bodies were themselves poisoned to preserve this white world order. This essay examines literal and ideological poisoning in Othello, William Berkeley’s The Lost Lady and Djanet Sears’s Harlem Duet. Othello and The Lost Lady, two plays of the early modern period that were performed by the King’s Men theatre company, extricate Blackness from their white, female, romantic leads. Harlem Duet, a modern response play to Shakespeare’s Othello, presents an alternative Black world order that is contaminated by a white, female, romantic antagonist necessitating the dissolution of a marriage and subsequent poisoning of Blackness. This essay demonstrates the paradox of poisoning Black bodies as a result of identifying them as poisonous themselves, through the medium of magic, specifically Egyptian magic. In the early modern imaginaryimagination, Egyptians were not only renowned for their expertise in mummification but also for their abilities in deploying magic to subjugate their victims. In order to purify the white, female body and preserve the white world order, the Black, Egyptian and often magical body must be poisoned.
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.
Venereal infection and the myth of the venomous woman in early modern literature
Dee Anna Phares
During the early modern period, syphilis went by many names, but one of the most common was lues venera or ‘plague of Venus’, which suggests not simply an illness associated with sexual intercourse, but one linked with the female deity who embodies erotic love. In popular literature, and even in some medical tracts, the bodies of women were often presented as little more than delivery systems for poison. Owing in part to a lack of lexical fixity within medical literature, ‘poison’ was used to describe not only venoms and toxins, but infections and contagious pathogens as well. Mistrust and misunderstanding of female anatomy in the period contributed to the misapprehension that women were immune from venereal infection yet capable of transmitting the disease. In numerous texts from the early modern period, narratives about the pox are yoked with the long-established trope of the ‘venomous woman’ or poison damsel, which features a female body that is literally toxic and even sometimes intentionally infused with poison so that she may be used as both assassin and assassin’s weapon. Within the plays, female sexuality is portrayed as predatory, coercive, and deadly. However, in the syphilis-savoured poison-damsel dramas of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, critiques of the feminine extend beyond the realm of sexual excess and into the arena of social mobility. In these works, the erotic and the economic merge so that female desire itself is rendered toxic – and for those infected with this poison, there is no hope for palliation, only extermination.