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Authority, informers and the poisoned ear
Bill Angus

This chapter explores the connection between the image of the poisoned ear that is associated with informers and the troubled nature of early modern authority. When The Duchess of Malfi’s Bosola makes Julia his informer, the Cardinal ominously warns her, ‘think what danger ’tis / To receive a prince’s secrets / … ’tis a secret / … like a ling’ring poison’. Though Bosola is the typically empowered informer of the early modern stage, he is too late to save Julia from the Cardinal’s murdering ruse of the poisoned Bible. As one form of poison leads to another, this killing device indicates not only a blasphemous betrayal of intimacy in the murder of his sexual partner, but also a general corruption of the idea of authority and moral truth. Such flagrant disregard for what is thought sacred, and this by authorities sanctified, is social poison in itself. Antonio describes this toxic court as a ‘common fountain’, of which he posits, ‘if’t chance / Some curs’d example poison ’t near the head, / Death, and diseases through the whole land spread’ (1.1.13–15 italics original). If the fountainhead of authority is poisoned, then so are all the wells. Looking at salutary examples in Duchess, Hoffmann and Hamlet, this chapter explores this idea and its converse: that if the poison can be neutralised at its source, then such a society may yet survive.

in Poison on the early modern English stage
Abstract only
Bill Angus
and
Lisa Hopkins

Provides an overview of the individual chapters and of the issues they raise. Also notes some prominent cases of real poisonings in the period.

in Poison on the early modern English stage
Plants, paints and potions

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.