‘The potent poison
quite o’ercrows my spirit’: Poisons
John H. Parker, Ph.D.
Romeo and Juliet’s death: potassium cyanide
Cyanide makes the cells of an organism unable to use oxygen,
primarily through the inhibition of cytochrome c oxidase.
Inhalation of high concentrations of cyanide causes a coma with
seizures, apnea, and cardiac arrest, with death following in a
matter of minutes
Cyanide, in the form of pure liquid prussic acid (a historical
name for hydrogen cyanide), was a favored suicide agent of the
Third Reich. It was used to commit suicide by Erwin Rommel
(1944), after being accused of conspiring against Hitler; Adolf
Hitler's wife, Eva Braun (1945); and by Nazi leaders Joseph
Goebbels (1945), Heinrich Himmler (1945), possibly Martin
Bormann (1945), and Hermann Göring (1946). Adolf Hitler
himself bit a cyanide capsule while simultaneously firing his
pistol into his right temple (1945).
Poisons in Hamlet
1. Ear of Hamlet’s Father: henbane
It was historically used in combination with other plants, such as
mandrake, deadly nightshade, and datura as an anaesthetic potion, as
well as for its psychoactive properties in "magic brews." These
psychoactive properties include visual hallucinations and a sensation of
flight. Its usage was originally in continental Europe, Asia and the Arabic
world, though it did spread to England in the Middle Ages. The use of
Henbane by the ancient Greeks was documented by Pliny. The plant,
recorded as Herba Apollinaris, was used to yield oracles by the
priestesses of Apollo.
Henbane can be toxic, even fatal, to animals in low doses, and incidents
of poisoning people are also reported.
Hyoscyamine, scopolamine, and other tropane alkaloids have been
found in the foliage and seeds of the plant. Common effects of
henbane ingestion in humans include hallucinations, dilated pupils,
restlessness, and flushed skin. Less common symptoms such as
tachycardia, convulsions, vomiting, hypertension, hyperpyrexia and
ataxia have all been noted.
2. Sword and Drink Poisons for
Hamlet, Laertes and Gertrude:
Aconitum may appear almost immediately, usually not
later than one hour, and "with large doses death is almost
instantaneous." Death usually occurs within 2 to 6 hours in fatal
poisoning (20 to 40 mL of tincture may prove fatal). The initial signs
are gastrointestinal including nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. There
is followed by a sensation of burning, tingling, and numbness in the
mouth and face, and of burning in the abdomen. In severe
poisonings pronounced motor weakness occurs and cutaneous
sensations of tingling and numbness spread to the limbs.
Cardiovascular features include hypotension, bradycardia, sinus
tachycardia, and ventricular arrhythmias. Other features may
include sweating, dizziness, difficulty in breathing, headache, and
confusion. The main causes of death are ventricular arrhythmias and
asystole, paralysis of the heart or of the respiratory center. The only
post-mortem signs are those of asphyxia.
Aconitum or Wolfsbane
Snake venom consists of proteins, enzymes,
substances with a cytotoxic effect, neurotoxins
Phosphodiesterases are used to interfere with the
prey's cardiac system, mainly to lower the blood
Phospholipase A2 causes hemolysis by lysing the
phospholipid cell membranes of red blood cells.
Snake venom inhibits cholinesterase to make the
prey lose muscle control.
Hyaluronidase increases tissue permeability to
increase the rate that other enzymes are
absorbed into the prey's tissues.
Amino acid oxidases and proteases are used for
digestion. Amino acid oxidase also triggers some
other enzymes and is responsible for the yellow
color of the venom of some species.
Snake venom often contains ATPase, an enzyme
which catalyzes the hydrolysis of ATP to ADP and a
free phosphate ion, or to AMP and