Would Shakespeare’s poisons and drugs work in reality?
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It’s the 450th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s birth, and drugs and potions played central parts in his work. But were they based on real substances? Scientists have tried to find out.

Hamlet’s father was poisoned by a substance poured into his ear while he slept. Juliet used a drug to fake her own death. And Titania fell in love with a man with the head of an ass after the juice of a flower was put in her eyes.

There’s little doubt that each of these botanical interventions provided good plot devices for William Shakespeare. What has been the subject of debate, however, is which specific substances the playwright was referring to, and whether they would have had the desired effect. Can the 400-or-so years of science since the Bard wrote these plays provide any clues or answers? Is it really possible to pour poison into the ear of a sleeping person without waking them up? Can a drug make you fall in love with someone you’d not otherwise consider attractive? And is there a substance which can make you appear dead without causing you harm?

Poisoned through his ear, Hamlet's father comes back as a ghost and commands the king to avenge his death (Thinkstock)

Poisoned through his ear, Hamlet's father comes back as a ghost and commands the king to avenge his death (Thinkstock)

Let’s start with Hamlet’s unlucky father. His ghost tells us what happened:

“Sleeping within my orchard,
My custom always of the afternoon,
Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole
With juice of cursed hebenon in a vial,
And in the porches of my ears did pour
The leperous distilment, whose effect
Holds such an enmity with blood of man...”

It’s hard to believe that the king wouldn’t feel the trickle of poison in his ear and immediately wake up to find his murderer leaning over him. But in 1950 a British specialist in ear anatomy examined this in detail in a paper entitled “Shakespeare on the ear, nose and throat”, and concluded that since the murder took place during his “secure hour” and he was “full of bread” he would have been in a deep sleep. If the substance was oily and the vial had been warmed to body temperature while Claudius the murderer clasped it in his hand, then he could well have remained asleep while it was poured into his ear.

What, all my pretty chickens...

A larger debate surrounds what real substance Shakespeare might have been referring to as “hebenon”. Candidates include hemlock, ebony, yew, deadly nightshade and henbane (so-named because it could kill a chicken). The leaves, bark and berries of yew trees are indeed poisonous, as of course are hemlock and deadly nightshade. Ebony is weaker and contains a resin, rather than the “juice” to which Shakespeare refers.  Henbane is part of the potato, tobacco and tomato family, and small amounts are used in modern medicine to help with various gastro-intestinal disorders due to its ability to slow down the movement of the stomach and intestines. If its principle constituent, hyoscyamine, was made into a very strong, concentrated extract, it could be lethal to humans as well as chickens.

Titania, the Queen of the Fairies, was given a drug that made her fall in love with the first thing she saw on awakening (XYX collection/Alamy)

Titania, the Queen of the Fairies, was given a drug that made her fall in love with the first thing she saw on awakening (XYX collection/Alamy)

But when it comes to Shakespeare’s description of the symptoms the king suffered, then only henbane and yew are probable candidates because they work very fast.  Shakespeare tells us he suffered “a vile and loathsome crust, all my smooth body”; however, none of these poisons would have that effect on the skin. So researchers such as David Macht, at Johns Hopkins University in the US, who investigated this question almost a century ago, have concluded that this loathsome crust was nothing more than poetic license.

Back in 1918, Macht was studying the absorption of drugs via different parts of the body and was so determined to discover whether Hamlet’s father could have been poisoned through the intact ear, that he set about doing his own experiments. He already had an interest in the absorption of medication through different parts of the body and in a series of experiments he gave dogs different substances via different orifices and then timed the speed of the onset of the dogs’ symptoms. What he discovered was that when a drug was administered via the urethra it induced vomiting in just a few minutes, compared with 30 minutes or more via the bladder. Several substances including nicotine and belladonna could be absorbed through the ear and he notes that a weaker tincture of henbane was at one time even used to cure earache via application to the ear

But there is some doubt that the poison would take hold fast enough unless the tympanic membrane inside the ear had been damaged in some way. In a much more recent paper from 2002 Argentinian researcher Basilo Aristidis Kotsias wonders whether Hamlet’s brother Claudius had heard that the King had hearing loss and had guessed that a damaged ear might provide the perfect route for the poison. Poetic license comes into play again in a Midsummer Night’s Dream when Titania, the Queen of the Fairies, is drugged at the behest of the King of the Fairies. She’s tricked into falling in love with the first thing she sees on awakening, which happens to be a peasant with an ass’s head. Elizabethan herbals cite everything from nettle seeds to sweet potatoes as inducing lust, but in this case Shakespeare tells us it was the wild pansy, Viola tricolor. It contains various active substances including flavonols, carboxylic acids and tannins. Although in folk medicine there’s a history of using the flower, also called love-in-idleness, for asthma and other respiratory problems, and high levels of substances called saponins and mucilages give it diuretic properties, there’s nothing to suggest it would make you fall in love.

Mixer creating a drug for Juliet that would fool her family into thinking she had died (Ivy Close Images/Alamy)

Mixer creating a drug for Juliet that would fool her family into thinking she had died (Ivy Close Images/Alamy)

Perchance to dream

Romeo and Juliet didn’t need any chemical assistance to help them fall for each other. Juliet did however (spoiler alert!) take a mystery drug as part of her attempt to fool her family into thinking she had died, a plan which backfired badly when Romeo found her and took his own life. Friar Laurence gave her the substance saying:

“And in this borrowed likeness of shrunk death
Thou shalt continue two and forty hours,
And then awake as from a pleasant sleep.”

This could have been Atropa belladonna, also known as sleeping nightshade. Back in 1597, in his book “The Herball or General Historie of Plantes” John Gerarde wrote that a small quantity leads to madness, while a moderate amount causes a “dead sleepe” and too much can kill. Other candidates suggested in the past are the seeds of the bulrush or the herb leopard’s bane, which was thought to kill panthers and wolves, but not humans. But none of these would induce a coma with a heartbeat so slow that it could be mistaken for death.

In truth we may never know whether the poisons and drugs in the plays were based on real substances, and if they were, which ones Shakespeare was referring to and whether they would have worked. And maybe it is better that way. After all, he was creating a collection of plays and sonnets exploring the human condition, which would stand the test of time, not compiling a herbal encyclopaedia.

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